Convention is a surprisingly common theme in poker, in that we tend to behave in a certain way because it’s what the vast majority of players do. For example, when the player on the Button throws in a pre-flop raise, those still involved in the hand once the Flop appears very often follow the convention that sees us check, one after the other, in deference to the pre-flop aggressor, who – again according to convention – tends to make an almost automatic continuation bet. This scenario is played out time and again, and it’s unusual to see players going against the grain.
However, there’s plenty of room in poker for us to think for ourselves! And one area in which we might consider side-stepping convention is bet sizing – specifically when it comes to pre-flop betting. This is an aspect of the game that is especially influenced by convention, and essentially to the point where we’re almost told how much to bet in specific situations.
For example, the universal recommendation in a Cash game is to raise three times the Big Blind, plus an additional Big Blind for each limper. So, in a game with Blinds of $0.10/$0.20 we tend to see everyone and his dog putting in a raise of $0.60 as standard, but a total bet of $1 in the event of there being two limpers ($0.20 extra per limper).
Convention in tournaments has followed the same lines, although there has been a slight modification over recent years. Again, sizing pre-flop betting at 3xBB + 1BB for each limper has been the norm for a long time and at all levels, from new players to experienced veterans. However, a tweak has seen a shift to what appears to be a new standard raise of 2.5xBB + 1BB, with the thinking being that the extra half a BB is not necessary.
This is all well and good, and these bet sizes do indeed make a lot of sense and the prevailing logic is arguably as close to optimal as we might get. But an interesting question is why should we stick to these conventions so rigidly? The numbers are not set in stone like the fixed fundamentals such as Aces being roughly 80% favorites against Kings, or the definitive odds of a flush draw hitting by the River. Instead, these are mere guidelines, recommendations that, while they’re well-founded and adhered to by countless top players around the globe, are general, ‘accepted’ standards nevertheless.
Another well-known poker ‘rule’ is that the game is incredibly situational. We could play out a hand, then move the Dealer button one place to the left and deal everyone exactly the same cards, but the shift in position changes the dynamic so significantly that the hand will not at all play out the same way, not least because, for example, the Small Blind from the previous hand is now on the Button.
With this in mind, because every new hand is essentially unique, because different games, tournaments, formats, stages of tournaments and so on all present us with quite contrasting conditions, there’s absolutely no need to so religiously stick to these very generalized and even rigid conventions.
Once we have come to this realization we’re free to bet however big (or small) we like, depending on the circumstances and on what we’re trying to achieve. This doesn’t mean actively flouting bet-sizing convention for the sake of it, but applying flexible thinking to the specific task in front of us. For example, if there’s an out and out calling station at the table, we should be making a special effort to isolate them, and the only way to do this might well be by putting in much bigger bets than usual. We tend not to do this when holding a big hand because we don’t want to scare everyone off, but some calling stations will still come along for the ride regardless. The timing and frequency of such bets can also serve to confuse the opposition and help set the stage for luring opponents into a pot when later we have a monster. Taking this a step further, we can entertain the possibility of 3-betting by a higher multiple than the standard 3-4 times the size of the open raise. Again – these numbers are mere ‘default’ guides and not set in stone, but many players have become so used to them that they’re unsettled when we deviate from what has been established as the norm.
Rather than follow the crowd by blindly using the same ‘standard’ bet sizes as everyone else, we should be constantly on the lookout for those spots where this or that factor points to trying a different approach. Every hand is different, so every hand deserves our utmost flexibility in our thinking and in the way in which we look to exploit elements of situations that we have a better opportunity to take advantage of by imaginative bet-sizing. Don’t go with the flow…