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The Hazards of Over Betting

by Sam Braids

I was in a live, ten-handed, $1-3 cash game at a local casino, when a woman joined who had just won a large amount of money playing the table game version of Texas Hold'em. Flush with cash from her big win, she decided to try Hold'em poker against other players rather than one-on-one against a house dealer with a fixed payout table. She bought in for the $300 table maximum and adopted a simple strategy -- she played every hand and announced "all in" each time the action came to her. She won a lot of pots and became excited each time the dealer pushed the $4 in chips from the blinds to her. She also burned through four buy-ins ($1200) in about 30 minutes and promptly left the game as it became clear that her strategy did not work.

If you have a rudimentary knowledge of No-Limit Texas Hold'em, it is easy to see why a strategy like this fails. Once it became apparent that she played any two random cards, anyone at the table holding a premium pair (AA, KK, QQ, JJ, TT) or Ace-face (AK, AQ, AJ) was more than happy to call her all-in bet. Analysis of these premium hands using the range analysis tool Poker Cruncher, shows that in terms of equity, they crush any two random cards by about 74% to 26%. In a ten-handed game, each orbit puts 10 x 10, or 100 two-card combinations in play. While these premium hands are only about 4% of the 100 starting card combinations dealt, that is 4 times per orbit on average that her all-in bet will be called, and she is losing her $300 stack on average 3 out of those 4 times. When she is not called, her massive over bet nets just $4. If she only has about $1200 to lose, that is a recipe for ruin in about 2 orbits -- roughly 30 minutes in a live cash game -- which is about the length of time she lasted.

While this woman's strategy is an extreme example, it does illustrate a hazard that many players don't consider when placing over bets, which is that large bets will only be called by better hands. Big over bets make decisions easy for opponents -- they are forced to play correctly.

Consider this line of play that I have observed many times. Hero looks down at pocket Aces and open raises for 8 big blinds. One Villain calls and the flop is relatively "dry" -- meaning not many draws available -- an example would be 9-Spades, 7-Clubs, 3-Diamonds. Villain checks and Hero moves all-in with 100 big blinds. Over the long run, Hero's line is a losing one for the same reason that the woman whose only play was to go all-in lost all her money: Hero will only be called when Villain's hand is crushing, and when it is, Hero's stack will be gone.

The math of this works as follows. Suppose Villain only calls an 8 big-blind raise when holding a pocket pair. For roughly 1 out of every 10 flops, Villain will flop a set. When that happens, Villain will have about 90% equity when calling Hero's all-in bet. It will cost Villain 80 big blinds to make 10 of these initial calls, but Villain wins 90% of 100 big blinds, or 90 big blinds on average when flopping a set. This is a positive return on investment at Hero's expense.

To profit with pocket Aces in this situation, Hero needs to choose bet sizes that will tempt Villain to call with weaker hands. In this situation, Hero actually wants calls from hands like A-Spades, 9-Spades, or A-Clubs, 7-Clubs. Yes, there will be times when a third 9 or third 7 hits, or Villain makes a runner-runner flush. But Hero will have much more equity than Villain when hands like this call, so on average Hero will realize a profit with smaller bet sizes.

Many players feel that they must bet "big" with premium cards in order to "protect" their hands. But the goal of poker isn't to win every time you are ahead, rather it is to induce your opponents to contribute money to the pot when they have less equity than you do. Large over bets often force opponents to fold second-best hands and therefore, act counter to this goal.

This is not to say that large over bets should never be made -- the tactic does have legitimate uses. Note, for example, that the math above changes for short stacks. Villain cannot profitably set-mine if Hero's stack is too short. If Hero only had 30 big blinds before the hand, getting the remaining 22 all-in with Aces after a dry flop is a legitimate play because the money is probably going all-in regardless of Villain's holdings.

But always think about the relative stack sizes and your goals before making a large over bet. Do not play like the woman at my table that day who only got called when she was crushed.