If you play live no-limit hold’em, then your games are absolutely rife with bet-sizing tells. If you know what to look for, your opponents will tell you in pot after pot what hands they have by how much they bet.
Or, at least, your opponents will tell you exactly how they feel about their hands by how much they bet, and you can often then deduce what they have.
I recently played the following hand in a $2-$5 game in Las Vegas. I had a $1,000 stack. A nitty regular player opened from under the gun for $20 with a $1,000 stack. Another nitty player directly to my right called. This player had about $350 behind.
I was next to act, three off the button, with Q-Q. I called. I dislike reraising in this scenario for a few reasons. First, both opponents in the hand are certified nits, and it’s unlikely they would call my reraise with worse hands except perhaps J-J or A-K.
Second, when it’s close, I like to avoid raising early in a hand, because the longer I draw hands out, the more information I can gather to make good decisions.
Third, there are still five unknown hands behind me. There’s about a one percent chance each player has either A-A or K-K, making about a five percent chance in total that one of the two hands I’m most afraid of is lurking behind me. While five percent is not a large chance, when the decision is already close, it helps to swing me toward the cautious play.
I called. The small blind also called, so we saw a flop four ways with $85 in the pot.
The flop came 9-4-3 with a flush draw. The small blind checked, the preflop raiser checked, and the nit bet $60.
Here’s the first bet-sizing tell. A $60 flop bet into an $85 pot is a big bet from a nit. This player is not likely testing the waters with a draw or a marginal made hand. He thinks he’s likely to have the best hand. He may have a set or he may have an overpair. He likely doesn’t have a nine, two pair, or any draw. It’s possible he’s got a very strong draw like the A-K flush draw or perhaps the A-5 or A-2 flush draw.
He’s also not expecting to get called. With a bet this large on a board this dry, he likely expects simply to pick up the pot. He will be on alert if anyone calls him.
I called. Again, I see this as a marginal raising situation. I’m ahead of some hands he can have, but I’m behind others. He’s a nit and he may fold a hand like T-T or J-J to a raise, while of course he won’t be folding a set. If I raise and get called, it’s not at all clear that I’ll be the favorite to win the pot.
Therefore, I called. Calling also allows me to gather yet another round of information before I have to commit my stack.
The two players behind me folded. The pot is now $205, and my lone opponent has about $270 behind.
The turn is an offsuit 7, so the board is 9-4-3-7. My opponent bets $65.
And here is the payoff for my patience. This bet carries with it a lot of information. Most poker players are ruled by their emotions. The plays they make are not determined by cold, rational analysis. Instead, they are determined by how they feel about the hand and about the situation.
Nits—players who play tight and are loathe to put much money at risk without a lock—are generally ruled by fear. They fear losing pots. They fear getting outplayed (at least when being outplayed means getting money in bad). They react to this fear in two ways.
If they feel they very likely have the best hand at the moment, but they fear getting drawn out on, they make particularly large bets. These bets are designed to “end the hand” and “win a small pot, not lose a big pot.” (While many people tell me that they prefer to win a small pot than lose a big one, my preference is to win big pots.)
If, instead, they’re afraid that they don’t have the best hand or that they’ve already been drawn out on, they check or make small, probing bets.
So this betting sequence—$60 on the flop and then $65 on the turn—is quite telling. The $60 flop bet is large enough that it falls under the, “I’m good, now please don’t draw out on me,” umbrella of thought.
But the $65 turn bet when the pot is $205 and my opponent has only $270 total says, “Please don’t let me be behind.” Since he would not expect the turn 7 to have beaten him, he must have one of the weakest hands in his flop betting range.
I put him on either J-J or T-T. With a set or even A-A, I would have expected more like a $150 bet.
Given my read that I was now likely to be ahead, I decided to raise all-in. I thought about calling again, hoping to confuse my opponent and get the rest of his money on the river. As it turns out, just calling may have worked out better, as he folded J-J face-up.
I rely on these bet-sizing tells so much that if my opponent had bet $150 or $180 or $270 on the turn, I would have folded my Q-Q. He simply wouldn’t be that bold with any hand I’m ahead of. I would expect to see a set.
I cannot overstate how much information there is in your opponents’ bet sizes. This information is particularly abundant on the turn and river when the pots and bets get big and emotions run high.
When in doubt, I drag it out. I flat-call early in hands and allow my opponents to tell me how they’re feeling with their turn and river bets. I then use this information to make accurate decisions.
Most no-limit players hate playing the turn and river. They like to end hands early to avoid the uncertainty that comes with seeing a troublesome-looking card. But for me, there’s actually less uncertainty on the turn and river than there is on the flop. On the flop, it’s harder to spot tells, and there’s less information to go on. Later in the hand, people really tell you how they feel, and you can then sometimes play nearly perfectly.
If you are a hater of the turn and river, here’s my advice. Watch your games. Watch hands you’re not in. Watch other people play the turn and river. Count the pot, and look at bet sizes. You’ll see clear patterns. Add in a little dose of psychology, and you’ll begin to see things much more clearly.
[This article appeared originally in Card Player vol. 25 no. 13]