One of your first goals at the poker table should be to ensure that your opponents never know what you have.
Even after the hand is over, it’s generally better to keep the cards face down unless you have to show them. But during the hand you should also always do your best to keep your cards a mystery. This may seem obvious, but there are situations where many players intentionally try to “announce” their hand to their opponents with their bets.
This occurs most commonly when a player believes he has the best hand but knows it could easily be outdrawn. In such situations you may be tempted to make a big bet or raise “to let them know you have it.”
I often see this before the flop with strong hands that don’t always flop well, such as , , and sometimes even or . After the flop, players will sometimes overbet the pot with top pair or an overpair when there are draws on the board.
Here’s the thing: when you have a strong hand, your goal isn’t simply to win the pot. Hands as strong as or an overpair don't come around often. You need to make the most of them, and there’s no reward without a little risk.
When you have a strong hand, you should want your opponents to call you with worse hands. Even draws are welcome, as long as they aren't getting the right price — and you usually don’t need to bet anywhere near the size of the pot to deny them the right price.
Your opponents are gambling, and although it may not feel that way, they will lose more often than not, so you want more money to go into the pot. If you announce that you have a strong hand with a big bet, you let them off cheaply and miss out on a lot of value.
What I’m suggesting isn’t the same as slow playing, though slow playing big hands is sometimes correct. It’s just an argument for playing in a way that doesn’t make your hand obvious.
Think about other hands you could have in the same situation, and try to keep the size of your bet (as well as your other mannerisms such as body language and timing) in accordance with how you would play those hands. For example, in a $1/$2 no-limit hold’em game if you would raise to $10 preflop with a medium pair or a suited connector, then you should also raise to $10 when you have or or even .
An uncommonly large raise reveals more information than you may realize. If your opponents know that you would raise to $15 or $20 with or , then not only do they know when you have those hands, but they also know when you don’t have them. They will know that you don’t have such a strong hand when you raise to $10, and savvy opponents know to attack in situations where you’ve marked your hand as weak.
It’s true that playing this way will sometimes put you in some tricky situations. Sometimes — more than you’d like — there will be an on the flop when you have . Sometimes you’ll still have the best hand, sometimes you won’t, and sometimes you’ll have the best hand but fold to a bet. It happens. A big hand is just the first step towards winning a big pot. It isn’t a guarantee that you will win a big pot, nor even win the pot at all.
Sometimes a more normal raise will actually help you avoid losing a big pot. One of the downsides of making a huge bet with a hand that’s probably best but not the nuts is that if an opponent doesn’t fold, you probably just put in a bunch of money against a hand that has you in very bad shape. It won’t happen often, but when it does it’s an expensive mistake to make.
The other consolation is that forcing yourself to navigate tricky situations will make you a better poker player. Ultimately, you will come to see tricky situations as an opportunity. After all, anyone can win a small pot with a big pair by making a huge raise. It’s the trickier situations in poker that separate the winners from the losers, and getting experience in these situations will put you on the path to becoming a winner.