The value of probe betting
Poker beginners live in a sea of uncertainty. They know what cards they have, but that’s about it. They don’t know what to expect opponents to have. They don’t know how to interpret betting. Every pot is a guessing game.
This perpetual uncertainty can translate into quick losses. If you don’t know that a big river bet usually means an opponent can beat your top pair, you’re going to give away a few stacks before you figure it out.
When new players learn how expensive it can be to call down with second-best hands, they’ve reached a common player-development milestone. They remember the times they flopped a pair and called all the way down only to be shown trips or a flush, and they try desperately to avoid a repeat. So every time they flop a marginal pair, they endeavor to “find out where they’re at” in the hand.
The most common way players try to do this is with probe bets. These bets are designed to accomplish two things: First, they try to disrupt the normal check-betcall rhythm of betting. Second, they ask a specific question: “I have a hand; do you?” By disrupting the action and asking a question, probe bettors hope to get useful answers that can save them lots of money if they’re beaten.
Here’s an example from a $2-$5 gameat the Aria in Las Vegas.
An amateur tourist limped in, and I raised to $20 from three off the button with Q♦ J♦ . A local amateur called from the big blind, and the tourist called. There was $62 in the pot, and we had $1,000 stacks.
The flop came K♥ 7♦ 5♣ . Both players checked, and I bet $30. The big blind called, and the tourist folded.
The turn was the 6 ♣ , and the big blind bet $40 into a pot of $122. Thiswas a classic probe bet. The big blind had a marginal pair — perhaps 10-10 or K-3— and wanted to find out cheaply if I had a better hand like K-Q or A-A.
Acouple of factors ledme to identify the bet as a probe. First, it came out of turn, after a check-and-call on the flop. Such bets aren’t always probes, but most players with strong hands seek to disguise them by preserving the natural flow of the betting. Second, it was a small bet. My flop bet was a small one itself, but my opponent bet a mere one-third of the pot. Probe bettors are trying to save money when they’re beaten, and so they tend to choose small bet sizes. I would have interpreted the bet differently if it had been a big one like $100. A big bet would likely indicate a hand two pair or better, and the purpose would be to prevent me from drawing cheaply. A small bet is more likely a probe.
When I see a probe bet, my strategy is simple. I tell them what they want to hear: “You’re beaten.”
I raised my opponent’s $40 bet to $180. “K-3 is no good,” my raise said. I actually had queen-high, but that’s irrelevant.
The probe bettor folded, satisfied to have gotten the answer hewas looking for.