Overbetting in Practice
Spending six weeks at our World Series of Poker house in Las Vegas was a lot of fun, and not just because of the fact that we had water polo nets and there seemed to always be a game of Chinese Poker that needed one more player. It also was an incredibly interesting immersion into good poker theory with some excellent thinkers of the game. Probably my favorite experience in that regard was watching a nosebleed HU cash player, who has logged many matches against durrrr, jungleman, and other heads up legends, play four tables of heads up cash online against another housemate. For 20 minutes, I sat on one side of the (actual) table, before getting up and seeing the action from the other side for a while. The match left a lot to talk about, but this article will focus on a specific example of overbetting: The out of position caller leading the turn for more than the size of the pot after the flop is checked through. This play is an example of how to identify good situations to overbet, both for equilibrium and exploitative reasons.
Let's take a drawy flop: QJ8 with a flush draw. What does your checking behind range on this texture look like? For most people, myself included, it includes air hands that decide to give up, ace high and king high hands that believe continuation betting has worse expectation, and marginal showdown value hands with pairs, like 8x or maybe Jx, One of the reasons you might decide to check behind a hand like J7 on this flop is that you can very comfortably call a normal sized turn lead on a blank. Instead, though, imagine that your opponent leads for 1.5x the size of the pot against your checking behind range on this flop, which very rarely has a big hand in it. Don’t you hate your life with J7? If you call one street, don’t you hate your life even more when you face a sizable bet again on the river?
Going back to the theoretical fundamentals, we find a perfect “what are you going to do about it?” basis for overbetting in this spot. The big blind has plenty of air, but also way more big hands than the small blind, which would have bet strong hands on the flop. The small blind is stuck with a bunch of marginal holdings that feel sick when having to deal with a large bet against a range with so many strong hands in it. It turns out that sickness is completely theoretically justified.
I always advise that if you are afraid of getting pushed around, either one of the following two things is going to be true:
1. Your opponent isn't bluffing you that often, so you shouldn't worry about getting pushed around so much, because it doesn't happen that often of the time.
2. Your opponent is bluffing you that often, so you get to just click call, obviously.
When you put it that way, this situation doesn't seem that scary from the button's perspective. However, the problem is that the big blind also has so many value hands in his range. QJ/Q8/J8/T9/combo draws/Qx in general are all too happy to get maximum value by overbetting into an opponent who is inclined to make hero calls. All of those value hands are what allows an overbet to be made with so many bluff hands without becoming exploitable.
OK, so what can the button do about this strategy? Well, one option is to start checking behind on the flop with big hands – overpairs, two pair, the straight, strong Qx, ace high flush draws, and all these types of holdings. However, this can lead to some horrific side-effects. On this board, there are many turn cards that kill action, often a disastrous result. It is also a very bad outcome when checking allows the big blind to realize his equity for free. To give up on a c-betting situation like this, the button has to know it is getting a ton of value on the turn by checking behind, but if the big blind is only overbetting the turn a third of the time or so, checking back flops is a big gamble to take for an induce that usually does not even work.
The key point here is that sometimes it is worth it to have unbalanced ranges, and this is one of those occasions from the button's perspective. It does not help enough to check behind big hands on this flop, even if the big blind is occasionally overbetting on the turn when this happens. The button can choose to try to balance the ranges, or choose to leave the checking behind range capped (or mostly capped), and either is a good result for the big blind. The only bad outcome for the big blind is if the small blind leaves his ranges capped and exploitable, but the big blind fails to follow through and attack. Too often, that is actually the default play.
This example can be used to illustrate both balanced and exploitative overbetting:
A balanced range:
On this flop and turn, a balanced overbetting range from out of position could be composed of the following:
Bluff: All weak flush draws/any gutshot/some Kx
This is a fairly value-oriented range, but even if our opponent were to fold every time, it means that we win the pot every time we have T7, every time we have K4, every time we have a baby flush draw, every time we have 96...it's a lot of hands that we get to win with because of how our overbet forces our opponent to fold his middle pair. And if he decides to hero call, well then great, we have plenty of stuff that benefits in a big way from a curious opponent. This strategy is extremely difficult to play against over time, even if our opponent is competent enough to see what is going on.
However, against most opponents you will face, as usual, you should not be trying to be unexploitable, you should be trying to be exploitative, which by definition is exploitable. That means using overbetting in an unbalanced way, taking advantage of their strategies and their frequencies. Against many opponents, it's correct to overbet with your weak flush draws/gutshots/Kx, because they would always fold middle pair against such a strong bet, and bet smaller with the nuts and other strong hands, because it gets max value against that same middle pair. Against others, who love to make big hero calls, it's correct to bet smaller with bluff hands just to fold out air, and bigger with value to take advantage of excessive curiosity. Whatever it is, wait until your opponent figures you out, and then if he does, you can always switch your frequencies up and remain a moving target, even exploiting your opponent's adjustments. The surprising truth is that most opponents will often fail to adjust for a long time.