How to Use the Continuation Bet

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The so-called “continuation bet,” or “C-bet” for short, has been touted as the most profitable bet in poker. It is most often applied in games of no-limit Texas Hold’em and has become so common that one is likely to see it occur once or more at just about every table in every tournament nowadays. It was popularized by WSOP Champion Dan Harrington, in his 2004 book, “Harrington on Hold’em - Expert Strategy for No Limit Tournaments, Vol. 1: Strategic Play.”

In brief, a continuation bet is an aggressive follow-up bet made immediately after the flop by a pre-flop raiser. It is often used as a form of bluff and may serve any of a number of purposes, from an attempt to claim the pot quickly when the flop is missed to gathering information about the relative strength of opponents when holding a marginal hand. It can also be used to build the pot when holding a strong hand.

A precondition to the true continuation bet is aggressive wagering pre-flop. Simply calling the blinds or seeing another raiser is not sufficient. The C-bet user must establish control of the hand by being the first to raise the pot. This is effectively telling the rest of the table that a strong hand is going into the flop. Most other players will fold when faced with an aggressive raise or else just call.

Taking control is especially advantageous when sitting “out of position.” Players seated on the button or just ahead of it may be expected to raise in an attempt to steal the pot pre-flop. But a wager placed “under the gun” after the blinds is risky and therefore unexpected. Players will assume the raise means a medium-to-big pocket pair or a big Ace.

Raises from intermediate positions are also seen as signs of strong hands, but they make it easier for opponents to call, so the raise should be on the order of four times the size of the big blind. The large bet pre-flop is successful only if it drives competition out prior to the continuation bet.

Once the lead has been established, and no re-raise is encountered, the precondition for the C-bet has been met. The best situation for the continuation bettor heading into the flop is to have only one or two opponents along for the ride. When as many as four players remain in, the chances of one of them holding a strong hand or making a pair rise exponentially. Specifically, the odds of unpaired hole cards pairing up on the flop are about 33%. If too many players call the raise pre-flop, the prospective C-bettor may wish to consider other plans.

With the set-up successfully in place, now it is time to make the actual continuation bet. Take as an example a $5/$10 table where a player in an early position holds an unsuited Ace-King. She raises $40, which causes everyone to fold except the button, who calls. When the flop shows J-7-3, an unsuited rainbow, the continuation bet should be made, at least 50% of the pot and up to 75%—in this case $50~$70. The aggressive bet says, “I have a pair of Jacks beat.” Unless the button gets lucky with a set of 7s or 3s, he must fold and the C-bet will have been successful.

But what if the flop came down A-7-3? The same wager would be made. Or if it came out J-7-3, all suited? Again, the same wager, making it look like the flop improved the hand. The button must have all of these options running through his mind, which is what makes the continuation bet so powerful. And it works best when playing against tight players. A strong hand appears to have become even stronger, and no one will risk staying in, even with a small pair.

The continuation bet can be made as a complete bluff, of course. It can be made when holding a small pair, too. It is not really about what two cards are held but about what others perceive the two cards to be—the “nuts.” The expectation is that those who call pre-flop will not improve their hands sufficiently to challenge any further, and no additional betting will be required.

However, if the continuation bet is called post-flop, a C-bettor cannot check on the turn. That would reveal the bluff. Upon reaching 4th Street there is little choice but to continue the ruse by betting heavily again. That’s why timing is so important, as is the set up, and continuations bets should not be overused.

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