If you’ve read anything online about general poker strategy—or anything in a book written about the subject—you’ve read that tight and aggressive play is the best approach to winning at the game. This means that you’re selective about which hands you play, but when you play them, you bet and raise with them rather than checking or calling with them.

Why is this so important?

What is it about betting and raising that makes it so much more effective than just checking and calling?

This post tries to answer that question once and for all.

There’s Only One Way to Win if You Just Call

If you call a bet in poker, there’s only one way to win the pot:

You must have the best hand at the showdown.

In fact, if you call a bet, it’s impossible to win unless you have the best hand.

The likelihood that you have the best hand in any given situation decreases when you have more players in the pot, too. When you’re checking and calling, you’ve done nothing to decrease the probability that you’ll face multiple hands at the showdown.

Sure, sometimes you’ll have the stone cold nuts, but you can’t succeed in poker by only checking and calling when you have the best hand at the table.

In fact, there are multiple things wrong with that approach.

But how many ways can you win if you bet or raise?

If you get called, you win if you have the best hand.


But if everyone else folds, you can win the pot without the best hand. This gives you additional incentive to bet and raise—you’re giving yourself another way to win.

This kind of thinking needs to be tempered with common sense, though. You can’t win at poker if you bet and raise indiscriminately with every hand you play.

I saw a player like that a couple of weekends ago at a cardroom in Oklahoma, though. He literally raised preflop on every single hand he had. He got lucky for a while and amassed a big chip stack.

In 90 minutes, though, all his money was gone, including what he’d sat down with.

When we talk about aggression in poker, remember that we’re talking about selective aggression. You’re only going to bet and raise with hands that stand a good chance to win the pot.

This means having starting hand requirements. It means getting away from hands that don’t develop well during the later betting rounds.

Bluffing and Semi-Bluffing

It almost sounds as if I think bluffing a lot is the way to go, but if you think that, you weren’t paying close attention. I suggested that you bet and raise aggressively when you have good cards.

Outright bluffing is usually a mistake, but the semi-bluff is an incredibly powerful move to add to your poker repertoire.

Here’s how a semi-bluff works:

You have a hand with potential. It’s probably not ahead of your opponents’ hands, but it could hit on a later betting round and make you the winner.

Examples of hands like this might be having 4 cards to a flush on the flop in a Texas holdem game, or 4 cards to an outside straight when there’s no possible flush draw on the flop.

You can sometimes bet and raise with these hands and drive out weak players and take their money.

And sometimes you’ll get called and hit your hand in a later betting round, winning the pot with the best hand at the showdown.

Bluffs and semi-bluffs work best when you’re dealing with one or 2 opponents. The more opponents you’re trying to bluff, the less likely you are to succeed at running all of them out of the pot.

If one player has a 50% chance of folding in the face of aggression, and so does the other player, you have about a 25% chance of getting them both to fold in the face of your naked aggression.

But if you have 4 players like that, the probability of getting them all to fold drops to 6% or so.

There’d have to be a lot of money in the pot to make that play profitable in the long run, and the only way lots of money gets into a pot is if someone has good cards.

When You Raise, You Get More Money into the Pot



Also, if you do have the best cards, you want to win as much money as possible with them. Sometimes you’ll have the best cards and not even realize it. You’ll be surprised at the junk some of your opponents are willing to play.

The goal in advantage gambling, including expert poker play, is to get your money into action when you have a mathematical edge. The more often you do this, the more likely you are to be profitable in the long run.

Some people have a bad attitude about this, too. They get frustrated when they bet and raise heavily and can’t get their opponents to fold.

This is the wrong attitude to take. You profit every time someone with a weaker hand calls your bets and raises, even if you lose on a later round. That’s because, like the casino, you’re playing for the long term, not the short run.

Folding Might Be Just as Important as Betting or Raising



The money you save by folding is worth just as much as the money you win when you’re betting or raising.

A dollar is a dollar is a dollar.

This is why they say you need to be tight AND aggressive. You need to be willing to fold preflop most of the time. That might mean 70% to 80% of the time.

But just because you have a great hand preflop doesn’t mean it’s always going to work out. You’re probably going to need to fold on the flop a lot, too—maybe even 50% of the time. You’ll take some more risks here than you might in later rounds, though, because the bet sizes are smaller preflop and on the flop.

When the bet sizes go up on the turn and the river, you have to tighten up further and make harder decisions. Of course, a lot of the time, if you’ve shown a lot of aggression both before the flop and on the flop, the other players will check it to you on the turn.

This, in effect, gives you a free card. And it’s the best possible free card, because it would have cost you the size of a big bet.

The idea is simple. Play selectively preflop. Then find a flop that fits your hand. If you think you’re likely to lose, fold it up.

But if you think your hand is a contender, play it strongly. Bet or raise.

When it comes to a flop in Texas holdem, fit or fold is the rule of thumb.

If a hand isn’t strong enough to raise with, it isn’t strong enough to call with, either.

Conclusion

Poker is a game where aggressive players dominate, and the reason for this is simple:

Players who are betting and raising are giving themselves multiple ways to win. They can win by having the best hand at the showdown, but a lot of time, they also win when the other players fold and they pick up a pot by default.

Here’s an exercise you might consider trying next time you play poker:

Count how many times you win a pot without having to go to the showdown during your next session. You might be surprised at how often you can win without a showdown just by betting and raising more often.

Poker’s easier than you think when you get tight and aggressive.

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