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Smokin' Poker - The ABC of 2NL

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Just about anyone who has watched any poker in the last fifteen years will be acquainted with the term “continuation bet”, and most also know that it is “standard” to make one when the opportunity arises, because it's hard to win at poker if you don't have the betting lead. Although continuation betting is quite a rudimentary play that you'll quickly learn to do without much thought, there are some important considerations to bear in mind before you blindly start c-betting all the time. Since this topic is quite complex, I'm breaking it into three sections, so you fully understand the concept. Today, I'll be adding some jargon to your poker lexicon, so you can talk like a pro even if you don't yet play like one! (Hey, it works for me! ) I'll explain the mathematical reasons for making continuation bets and also give you some general advice on how to judge whether to make the play. But, first, let's get to the point and define the term.

A continuation bet (c-bet) is one that is made as a follow-up to aggression on the previous street. Mostly we are concerned with a flop c-bet - the first bet made on the flop by the last player to raise pre-flop - but there can also be turn c-bets and river c-bets.

It doesn't matter if you bet the flop with complete air or the stone cold nuts. If you were the pre-flop raiser and you make the first bet on the flop, you are making a continuation bet.
An example:
Hero open-raises in MP with two cards and is called by villain in the BB with two cards. Villain checks the flop, and hero makes a bet. This is a continuation bet, because hero was the last (indeed only) pre-flop raiser. If villain now check-raises the flop, he seizes the initiative. If hero calls the raise, villain is likely to bet the turn. When villain leads on the turn, he is c-betting, since he was the last player to make a raise on the previous street.
If the action had been slightly different and the villain in the BB had led out on the flop, he'd be making a “donkbet”, which removes hero's opportunity to make a c-bet. Hero would have to raise if he wanted to regain the initiative. (Just for completeness, if the flop goes check-check, but hero bets the turn, he is making a “delayed c-bet”.)

Before I go further, I have another box-out with some poker terms which crop up in this article that you may not yet be familiar with.

Poker terminology

The reason c-betting has become popular is because (generally speaking) it is a play with a positive expectation. It is +EV. The main reason c-betting is profitable is that - most of the time - your opponent will miss the flop, so will fold. With two unpaired cards (AK-32) you'll only make a pair on the flop about 30% of the time. You'll often have some sort of draw - even if it's just two overcards or a gutshot – but, as Tom Dwan put it, “It's hard to make a pair in holdem”. A corollary of that statement is it's hard to call a c-bet when you have no pair and no draw. Since your opponent will usually have no pair or draw, c-betting into him will often result in you winning the pot immediately.
The positive EV of c-betting can be demonstrated with a couple of equations that a smart eleven year old could solve, but because I'm sure many of you find mathematics a little scary, I'll explain it in plain English, and then give you some numbers to memorize. For c-betting with total air, the EV calculation goes like this:
EV  = (How much you win * How often villain folds) - (How much you lose * How often villain calls or raises)
Using poker terminology, the equation would look like this:
EV = (Pot size * fold equity) - (Bet-size * (1 - fold equity))
To find a break-even point (where our EV is neutral) we set EV = 0, and then solve the equation to find out the fold equity required.
In algebraic form, (pot * FE) - (bet * (1 - FE)) = 0
Solving the equation, FE = bet / (pot + bet)
The fold equity required for you to break even with a bluff is equal to your bet-size divided by (pot size + bet-size).

To use a realistic example from 2NL, let's say you open for 6c in the SB and villain calls in the BB. That creates a pot of 12c. If you made a half-pot bluff, you would be betting 6c into 12c. The fold equity required would be 6/(12+6) = 6/18 = 1/3 = 0.33.
In plain English, if we make a half pot bluff, we will break even if villain folds one third of the time. If it's still not clear, then imagine making this 6c bet three times. If villain folds one third of the time, then you win the 12c pot the one time he folds, and lose 6c each of the two times he doesn't fold, meaning you end up even. If villain folds more often than one third of the time in the long run, you will make a profit.
If we choose to make larger bets when bluffing, we need villain to fold more often in order for the bluffs to be +EV, as listed in this cut-out-and-keep guide:

The EV of bluffing

Those of you with trackers might already be seeing what I'm getting at here. The numbers for fold equity are correlated with the “fold to c-bet” stat in your HUD. You've probably noticed that most of your opponents (and you yourself) are folding to c-bets between 45% and 65% of the time. This is why c-betting is instantly profitable. I'm often betting between 50% and 65% of pot when I'm c-betting with a weak hand. If you bet 60% of pot, you only need villain to fold 37.5% of the time for the bet to be immediately profitable, but most opponents are folding much more often than that!
So the math says it's profitable to bet about 60% of pot if your opponent is folding more often than 37.5% of the time, but this doesn't necessarily mean we should c-bet 100% of flops, like Barry Greenstein does. Although it is +EV to bet every flop when villains are folding so often, you will maximise your profit by being more selective, as a number of factors will alter the success rate of your c-bets. In the long run, villains might fold to c-bets half the time or more, but flops are not created equal and neither are situations. In some circumstances, you have a great deal of fold equity, so bluffing is a good idea. With others, you have very little fold equity, so bluffing is a very bad idea. To some extent - and especially at 2NL where there are so many loose/bad calling stations - it's usually a mistake to c-bet with air if you have more than one opponent, primarily because it's much more likely that one of the villains will have a hand that connects with the board.

A common question on poker forums is “How often should I be c-betting?” and I'm afraid there is no short answer. For full ring 2NL games, taking between 50% and 75% of your c-betting opportunities will be most profitable, but the figure will depend on how loose/tight you are pre-flop, and how many calling stations are on your tables. If you're on the nitty side, then your c-bet rate should be at the high end, because you're seeing the flop with a stronger range than average, so will genuinely be betting for value more often. For someone playing a TAG style with a VPIP/PFR of something like 15/10, a c-bet figure of around 65% is probably optimal. Anything much higher will mean you win more pots, but not necessarily more money. Anything much lower is too passive. There are plenty of calling stations at 2NL, but in some spots it's virtually criminal to not c-bet, because you DO have fold equity, and you don't want fish to suck out for free.

Choosing good spots to c-bet is more complex than you might think. Part of the reason for this is that it depends on how well your hand connects with the flop. Way back in part three of this series, I spelled out the two main reasons to make a bet:
1. For value, when you expect to get called by worse hands and draws, and would like to go to showdown with a hand that is likely to be best.
2. As a bluff, to fold out better hands, because your hand will rarely be good at showdown.

A third kind of bet comes up very often in c-betting situations, and it doesn't have a snappy name like “value-bet” or “bluff”, as far as I know. It is a bet made when you might have the best hand, but you aren't hoping for a call, because your hand's showdown equity is unclear. The purpose of this bet is to fold out hands that may currently be second best, but have good equity against your hand. In many c-betting spots, you want villain to give up all his equity in the pot, so that you can collect the dead money immediately. Perhaps I could trademark the term “dead money grab” or “equity snatcher” to describe this type of bet.

At 2NL, I think you should generally always make a c-bet for value if you flop top pair or better. This is a value-bet, because you expect to get called by worse. At higher stakes, deception is more important (which is why you might see Johnny Chan on 'HSP' check two streets with TPTK on a wet board) but at 2NL, slowplaying misses value and puts you into tricky spots on later streets. Indeed, in discussion with Roland GTX and from looking at some of my hand histories, it seems to be +EV to c-bet the flop if you're lucky enough to flop a full house or even quads, primarily because villains will never put you on those hands if you come out firing. I would also recommend you nearly always c-bet if you flop a strong draw (8 outs or more) as a semi-bluff, in order to start building a pot for when you turn or river the nuts. (If you're semi-bluffing, it's obviously also a good result if you win the pot immediately without needing to hit your draw). A weaker draw like the six outs that two overcards give you is usually fine to c-bet too. In some cases, a gutshot draw (4 outs) might be good enough to bet.

Sometimes you will make a pair (or you began with a pocket pair) but its rank is lower than top pair. How you deal with this situation will depend on the strength of the hand relative to the board and opponent's range, and your likely showdown value (SDV). I would generally treat bottom pair or a pocket underpair as “air” and turn it into a bluff. With 33 on AJ7, for example, you have almost no showdown value, as pocket threes has just 2 outs to improve and is unlikely to be the best hand when all five cards are on the table. I would usually c-bet in this situation, and be happy if villain folds. It's a great result if your bet with 33 causes a hand like 66 to fold, and betting here would be a true bluff (folding out better). Sometimes, you'll find out that you were “bluffing with the best hand” because villain tells you he folded 98s. This highlights the point I mentioned above. Although the two main reasons to bet are for value or as a bluff, in many c-bet spots, the aim of your bet is to fold out hands that have equity against you, in order that you collect the dead money. So on AJ7, 33 might be literally be beating 98s, but if this hand goes to showdown, 98 will spike a pair or the gutshot and win the pot 47% of the time. If your bet gets villain to give up on a pot he would win almost half the time if you checked it down, it's clearly a +EV bet.
A similar situation arises when you have a hand like AQ on K72 and villain has JTs. You have the best hand (and are a big favourite to win, with 73% equity), but you're not consciously making a value bet. You don't really want villain to call. Your c-bet is an attempt to get him to give up his 27% of equity and give you 100% of the pot. If villain will give up 27% of showdown equity for one bet, that's a great result. So remember this: Sometimes you're c-betting for value, sometimes as a bluff, and sometimes to collect dead money.

Since, betting the flop for value when you connect with it strongly (top pair/decent draw) is very straightforward, most of the rest of of this c-betting mini-series is concerned with what to do when your hand strength on the flop is less clear.
I'm going to give you a check-list to run through whenever you are considering making a c-bet bluff, and then give more detail on these factors where necessary.

C-bet inclinations

Working through the checklist above, see if the situation you are in has more plus points or negatives, and go from there. The reason why c-betting when heads up has a higher success rate than c-betting in multiway pots should be obvious. In a heads up pot, your c-bet bluff only requires one player to fold. In a multiway pot, it's more likely that someone has something that can peel off a card.
C-bets are more successful when in position than OOP partly because some players routinely donk into you if they connect with the flop. If a frequent donker checks to you, it's likely he has nothing, so will be folding to a bet. Being in position is also beneficial if your c-bet is called, because you can pot-control on later streets. One of the problems with being out of position is that some villains will routinely call one bet and “float” you, hoping that you'll give up on the turn, allowing them to steal the pot with a bet in position. While you shouldn't abandon c-bets entirely when out of position, you should assess the situation carefully, weigh up the other factors, and choose a plan that is likely to lead to greater success. Sometimes, instead of betting, you can check-call (or-check fold) and other times, you'll get a free card and can go for a delayed c-bet, or just give up and lose the minimum.
With marginal hands with SDV, I'm usually checking behind in position (and check-calling when OOP). With a hand like middle pair, I don't want to bet on multiple streets. I want to get to showdown cheaply. By checking, I'm not necessarily giving up. Indeed, skipping a bet on the flop can lead to getting one or two streets of value on later streets, because villain is encouraged to bluff at the pot because of my passivity, or he'll look me up lighter when I value-bet thinly on the turn/river.
The trickiest part of assessing a c-bet's likely success is evaluating the board texture, and estimating how it connects with perceived ranges. That subject requires an article all of its own, and I'll be posting it in about a week.
After that, I'll provide some typical situations and hand/board combinations, give the reasons why I would or wouldn't c-bet, and also reveal which bet-size I would choose.

While you wait for the next articles, I recommend viewing TheLangolier's archived video on c-betting.

Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome as usual. Please post in my blog thread on the forum. Till the next time, keep looking for plus EV spots and start c-betting like a boss!

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