My previous article showed that calling a preflop raise in a Vegas $1/$2 game can be an expensive leak, especially when we call out of position (OOP). Nevertheless, there will be times when this occurs. For example, suppose Mr. Vegas opens to 4 BBs from middle position and is called by two villains. We are in the big blind with a small pair, so we call based on our excellent set-mining odds.
Or suppose we find ourselves in the big blind with A♥J♥ and call a middle-position opener like the one described above. The flop comes J♦T♦3♣ and we are first to act. Should we lead out?
“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
Conventional wisdom is that we should almost never lead out, but should instead check to allow Mr. Opener a chance to C-bet with his entire range. If we bet into him instead, we are said to be “donk betting.” This sounds like a pejorative term, and it’s usually meant to be — weak players do it all the time.
Donk betting occurs when an out-of-position preflop caller leads out on the flop before the preflop raiser has a chance to make a continuation bet.
The idea is that we are better off checking, even when we hit the flop, since Mr. Opener will most likely C-bet, even when he misses. But our donk bet lets Mr. Raiser off the hook. It allows him to fold if he misses, and if he hits big he’s in an even better position to trap. Our donkey play helps our opponents make fewer mistakes, which is seldom a good strategy.
Donk Betting in Online Cash Games
This donk betting wisdom can be confirmed by studying some online NL100 stats, plotted in Figure 1. We can see that calling a preflop raise (CPFR) out of position (OOP) isn’t profitable, even if we never donk bet. And the more often we donk, the more money we lose.
In fact, donk betting a mere 6% of the time triples our loss. Yet that is well below the frequency with which we would expect to flop well. (Otherwise, why would we call in the first place?) We will flop a set about 12% of the time with a pocket pair, and we will pair our ace about 15% of the time with a hand like A♥J♥.
The lesson is clear:
We should never donk bet on the flop in an online cash game.
Live Action Donk Betting
We might expect the “never donk” advice should also apply to a low-stakes Vegas cash game such as $1/$2 or $2/$5. But there are key differences to consider before accepting this conclusion:
- Vegas games have live reads that are not present online that can override all other considerations
- More villains tend to see Vegas flops even though the preflop raises and pots are much larger
- Vegas players raise with a tighter range
- Vegas players are less willing to C-bet with air
- Vegas players call raises with a much wider range
We should always watch Mr. Raiser when the flop is revealed because his reaction may provide insight into how he feels about the flop.
Suppose we call a preflop raise from the big blind with J♦T♦ and see A♣9♥8♦ on the flop heads-up. Watching Mr. Raiser, we see he is clearly unhappy with this flop and we don’t think he’s acting. Perhaps he’s a conservative player who doesn’t like the ace. If we don’t think he will C-bet, we can donk into him, attempting to steal the pot with minimal risk.
Or suppose we call from the small blind with 5♦5♣ and three of us see the flop come A♣Q♥5♥. This time, we notice that both opponents seem interested. Check-calling puts off our decision until the turn, but risks a check-through. Check-raising looks very strong in a Vegas game and risks losing the weaker hands. But donk betting large (say ¾-pot) would get calls from weak aces and draws, and might get a raise from a big ace or A-Q.
Additionally, donking is less intimidating than a check-raise and allows a normal turn bet without sounding too many alarm bells.
Two-thirds of online raised flops are heads-up, and another quarter are three-way affairs. Family pots are very rare, comprising less than 10% of raised flops.
Since a heads-up, half-pot bluff only needs to succeed one-third of the time, online players C-bet at a high frequency; 75% of the time heads-up, and 65% of the time in three-way hands. Most of these are bluffs! So, it’s more profitable to check to Mr. Online Raiser than to donk bet into him.
But Vegas $1/$2 games are different; only 48% of raised flops are heads-up, and 20% are family pots. The bluffing math is much less favorable when Mr. Vegas-Raiser faces three opponents than when he has only one. Furthermore, the average Vegas preflop raise is much higher and, coupled with the larger number of callers, produces much larger pots on the flop. Therefore, his C-bet bluff will be larger while his chances for success will be smaller. Rational Vegas players adapt to this reality by C-bet bluffing much less often.
Suppose we have the same pocket fives as we did earlier, but the flop is four-handed and we have no tells. Mr. Raiser is unlikely to C-bet this flop unless he has hit it (we won’t often bluff). So, checking to him may well end up checking through and giving a free card to any player with a draw. Even if no one has the draw, the turn card could easily kill our action. Donk betting charges the draws that might have checked through. And if Mr. Vegas-Raiser has a C-bet-worthy hand, he will probably call anyway.
We generally shouldn’t bluff into a large field since the primary purpose of a bluff is to fold out all of the villains. But a donk bet semi-bluff can be a good option when one or two of the villains have already checked. Suppose we see a four-way Q♣8♥2♣ flop with J♣T♣ in the cutoff. Two players check, with the preflop raiser on the button. Vegas donkeys will often donk bet when they hit a flop, so their checks increase the likelihood that they have missed this flop. Our semi-bluff may fold out the button, providing us with position if one of the other players calls.
Flop texture is a key factor in our decision to donk bet, especially in a family pot. Suppose we call a preflop raise from the small blind with A♣2♣ and see the A♣K♥2♥ flop five-handed. We have flopped a strong hand, but the flop has flush and gut-shot straight draws.
With a five-way flop, the preflop raiser is unlikely to C-bet with air, and would likely call a donk bet with an ace, a king, or a draw. None of the villains are likely to bluff at this, and anyone who would have bet will likely call our bet. So, a donk bet for value may be our best play.
Conventional wisdom says to never donk bet on the flop. But this isn’t ideal in low-stakes cash games since we are less likely to see the preflop raiser automatically C-bet with air.
That said, it’s important not to lose sight of what Figure 1 teaches; donk betting is generally not our most profitable play. This is likely true even in a Vegas $1/$2 game. But in the right circumstances, a donk bet might be just the ticket.
Steve Selbrede is the author of six poker books — The Statistics of Poker, Beat the Donks, Donkey Poker Volume 1: Preflop, Donkey Poker Volume 2: Postflop, Donkey Poker Volume 3: Hand Reading and Tournament Poker for the Rest of Us.