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  • October 1, 2020

Poker strategy: the protection bet

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One of the most basic factors in poker is the protection of your own hand. You often bet or raise with the intention of giving bad odds to a hand that could have a lot of outs against you, thus forcing your opponent to make an incorrect call or to give up – these bets are called protection bets.
Betting for protection has a negative reputation in the poker community. The concept of betting for protection is when you bet a hand likely to have the best hand, but unlikely to get worse hands to call. An example is A2 on a K52 board; it’s tough for an opponent to continue with a worse hand, but your hand is vulnerable to any card greater than a deuce on the turn. You get some value from better hands because you will improve to the best hand a decent amount of the time, but this bet is mostly to get your opponent to fold hands that have overcards to your pair of twos.A protection bet is a bet (or a raise) that tries to protect your hand against weaker hands which could have some potential outs against you: if you didn’t bet, your opponent can see the next card way too easily.
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Example
You are playing a 6-handed $.50/$1 NLHE game with $100 stacks. You open to $3.50 with A [diamond] K [spade] in middle position, and both blinds call. Your read is that they both play too loosely and are generally weak players who don’t put a lot of thought into their game.
The flop comes Q [club] 8 [spade] 4 [diamond]. Your opponents check. Do you bet?
I would argue that you should, even though hands worse than yours are unlikely to call, and better hands are unlikely to fold. Admittedly, there is some chance that 22 or 33 will fold, and some chance that JT or T9 will call, but that is just icing on the cake. The real reason to bet is that you will probably take it down often enough to show an immediate profit, whereas no obvious good will come from checking.
Players who are too loose pre-flop and too straight-forward post-flop are the best targets for a continuation bet. They simply give up too easily when they miss the flop, which happens often give the wide, weak ranges with which they call pre-flop. If each of these players folds approximately 2/3 of his range to a flop bet, then betting will win the pot immediately about 45% of the time. A bet of 2/3 pot needs to win 40% of the time to break-even, so such a bet would show a profit even ignoring the equity that AK has when called.
 
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This establishes that betting is profitable. The only question, then, is whether checking would be even more profitable. Although we cannot be as precise in predicting what will happen on future streets, we can consider a few important factors:
Implied Odds. Could one of your opponents who would have folded to a flop bet turn a second-best hand that will result in you winning a big pot? In this case, the most likely scenario would be if one of your opponents holds something like AJ and turns an A. In this scenario, you would likely win two bets that you would not have won had you bet the flop. With both of you holding an A, though, there are only two left in the deck, so this is not a particularly likely scenario.
There is also some risk of reverse implied odds. When an opponent holds KQ, turning a K costs you two bets. This is an even more unlikely scenario, but it does somewhat mitigate the above.
Bluff-Catching. In addition to turning a second best hand, your opponent might be induced to put money into the pot with a hand worse than yours as a bluff. In this case, that is rather likely, as the turn could present several draws that an opponent might bet.
The problem is that your hand won’t generally be strong enough to call a turn bet. Thus, this is actually a bad thing for you and a reason to bet the flop. Against trickier and more aggressive opponents, betting the flop might also open you up to a (check-raise) bluff that you couldn’t call, but that is probably not a concern against these particular players.
Bluffing. Will the turn present bluffing opportunities for you that weren’t present on the flop? It’s not likely. The best scare cards would be an A or K, but these would likely give you the best hand anyway. Plus, checking the flop makes it much harder to represent a strong hand.
Even if better hands won’t fold the flop, betting can help you to set up a multi-barrel bluff. Thus, to the extent that bluffing will be profitable on the turn or river, this is a reason to bet the flop, not to check it.
Sucking Out. Although you will often have the best hand on the flop, it is extremely vulnerable not just to draws but to almost any card that pairs either opponent. 6 [club] 5 [club], for instance, has more than 40% equity against you and would be making a Fundamental Theorem of Poker mistake by folding the flop. That is, folding would not be the correct play with 6 [club] 5 [club] if your opponent could see that you held just AK. In short, you gain a lot of equity by betting the flop even if only worse hands fold.
There is also the chance that you could yourself suck out against a hand like 87 when you check the flop. Most likely 87 will just call if you bet the flop, though, so while the bet would cost you something, you’d still have the opportunity to suck out on a later street.
On balance, it doesn’t look like you have much if anything to gain by checking the flop. We know that betting is profitable, and in the absence of a compelling reason to do something else, you should go ahead and take the sure thing.
While most of your bets in no-limt hold ‘em should still be clearly classifiable as either bluffs or value bets, there are definitely situations where betting for protection makes sense. They key is to understand what you are trying to protect against and why. It isn’t just about locking up your equity in the pot, although that can be valuable. It’s about protecting yourself from bad turn and river situations where your opponents’ hands can improve but yours cannot or where you are liable to get bluffed.
Just because the fish do it doesn’t make it fishy. As with anything in poker, you need a well thought-out plan. With the right plan, though, you can and should add betting for protection to your repertoire.
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