|Ever felt like your opponents
are playing like they can see what cards you've got? It
could be down to repeated betting patterns.
Lou Krieger examines how minor changes to
the way you play can plug leaks.
If you've never considered the implications of betting patterns, don't feel like you are all alone. Many other players are blind to them as well. They are a feature of most poker games - if you know how to identify them - and top notch poker players capitalise on the edge that they can provide. Information taken from betting patterns can serve a number of purposes, from tracking the playing styles of your adversaries to tracking down some of the areas of your own game that might need some improvement.
If you can combine betting patterns with physical tells exhibited by players at the table, alongside the information that the community cards throw up in hold'em and the cards that the players turn up at the showdown, you can consider yourself to be a very skillful, savvy player. But while it might appear to your opponents that you have some unerring, almost mystical sort of card sense, most of this magic act can be learned and improved upon through diligence, practice and repetition.
The most common pattern you'll find in a hold'em game is one your opponents do all the time. you probably do it yourself. It goes like this: call, bet, bet, check. That's simple, isn't it? You call the blinds before the flop, catch a hand you like - something like top pair with a good kicker - so you bet the flop and the turn too, but when you fail to improve to three-of-a-kind or two pair, you decide to check the river to save a bet just on the odd chance that you're beaten.
BET THE RIVER
Becoming aware of this most common of betting patterns allows you to pick up a small leak in your game. You're leaving money on the table. Can you see how?
When you have the best hand on the turn, most of the time the river card won't promote your opponent's hand to one that's better than yours. When the river does improve an opponent's hand, it's usually a case of a third suited card that portends a flush, or a sequenced card that has 'straight' written all over it.
If a third suited card jumps out of the deck on the river, feel free to check unless your opponent acts after you do. But if you have the luxury of acting last, go ahead and bet. You're likely to be safe, not sorry, if you do. The only time you will get into trouble acting on this assumption is when the river pairs your opponent's side card to give him two pair. But there are only three cards in the deck that will pair his kicker, and if he's willing to play second or third pair against your top pair you'll win much more money from him in the long run than you will ever lose on those rare occasions that he pairs his kicker with a miraculous catch on the river.
A player who is fortunate enough to catch his flush card on the river will usually bet when it's his turn to act. And if he had a bigger hand than yours before the river - suppose he flopped a set, or the top two pair - he'll do his check-raising on the flop or the turn, not the river. What's the message in this bottle? Most times you have the best hand on the turn, you'll have the best hand on the river too, and you ought to bet it. Okay, okay, so you'll run into some nasty situations when you bet and are called - or even raised - and lose the pot. Don't worry about it. It's no big deal in the grand scheme of things because you're far more likely to attract a crying call from a weaker hand than you are to induce a raise from someone holding a stronger one.
If you habitually check the river with a hand like top pair and a good kicker in a fixed-limit game, you leave money on the table and you are not doing much for your image either. But this is about as a fix as there is in anyone's poker game. Just bet the river. That's all there is to it. Change your betting pattern from call, bet, bet, check, to this one: call, bet, bet, bet. It'll do a world of good. See for yourself.
Suppose you're on the other side of this coin and don't think you have the best hand on the river. What should you do then? Well, the fact that you know your opponent is going to check all but the very strongest of his holdings gives you chance to either show down your hand in the hope that it might be a winner, or even bluff if he is capable of folding a hand that fits the call, bet, bet, check betting pattern.
That's not too shabby, is it? You can save a bet anytime you have a weak hand that you hope will win in a showdown. And you can take the entire pot on those occasions when you are savvy enough to recognise the kind of player who will release a marginal hand to a bet on the river, even when his hand is strong enough to beat yours.
BEWARE THE CHECK-RAISE
Here is another common pattern: call, check/call, check-raise, bet. This is the hallmark of a player with a good hand. Perhaps he's flopped a set or two pair, so he checks and calls a bet on the flop, then check-raises the turn in the hope of trapping one or more players for two bets in a fixed-limit game and who knows how much in a pit-limit or no-limit game.
Once he check-raises, he'll usually continue to drive the hand by betting the river. There's nothing unusual here. This is probably just about the most common betting pattern employed by players holding big hands. They quietly call the flop in hopes of getting in a check-raise on the turn; then they bet out on the river if their opponents were foolish enough to call and the river card appears to be benign.
Here's how an awareness of this betting pattern can help you. When someone checks and calls the flop, then check-raises the turn, you should credit this player with a big hand that's probably better than yours. While you might find some extraordinarily creative players who will check-raise bluff every now and then, it doesn't happen all that often in most games, and almost never in lower limit games.
If you are the target of a check/call, check-raise betting pattern, go ahead and throw your hand away unless you are holding a monster or a draw to a better hand than your opponent is likely to be holding.
Many players are reluctant to throw away a hand to a check-raise. As a result of their stubborn nature, they lose money on the turn and more money on the river. And they needn't do this. After all, most of the time a player is check-raised, his opponent has the better hand. And most of the time smart players see this betting pattern they throw their hands away.
If you fold in this situation, you will usually save a bet. And money saved spends just as well as money won. Even if you are a consistently winning player who averages one big bet in the pus column per hour, calling a check-raise when you strongly suspect you are beaten will require a few additional hours of play to recoup. When Kenny Rogers was singing, 'You gotta know when to fold'em', that was his message.
There are other betting patterns you need to be aware of too. If you see someone who bets or raises before the flop, only to fold when he gets a look at the community cards, you've got an opponent who is sufficiently disciplined enough to get rid of Big Slick when the flop is small and there's some action by other players before it is his turn to act.
Here's another pattern to look out for: bet, bet, check, and either check, bet, call or raise on the river. This is the pattern of a player who takes a free card when the circumstances suit him, and if he does this enough, you can mark him a s a tough, disciplined foe.
There is much more to be said about different betting patterns - much more, in fact. But for those of you who have not thought much about identifying and cataloguing betting patterns, this should serve as food for thought. If you are already scrutinising betting patterns whenever you play, this should reinforce some of your own ideas. Better still, you're on the road to becoming a winner for life.