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The Last Bet

Understanding Initiative in Poker

It's a term that comes up a lot in articles and books about poker, but it's surprising how poorly defined "initiative" is. In fact, a new player may not have any idea what's meant by it when it comes to poker and so we're going to help break it down. Simply put, "initiative" is given to the player who's shown the most aggression during any given round of betting in a poker game. By taking the initiative, you're betting in a way that says that you have the strongest hand at the table. When you have the initiative, the other players are reacting to your play.

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To help you understand initiative, we’re going to review a few different scenarios, increasing the number of players involved with each one.

Player A bets and Player B calls:
Player A holds the initiative.

Player A checks, Player B bets, Player A then check-raises and B calls in response:
Player A holds the initiative – they’ve placed the final bet that defines the hand.

Player A bets, Player B calls, Player C raises, Player A calls and Player B calls:
Player C has the initiative. Their raise defined how the other players reacted.

While the core concept of the initiative can be fairly easy to understand, many new players become so invested in the idea of taking it that they actually run afoul of poor betting choices. The easiest (and most common) time to take the initiative is during preflop betting. Almost every preflop betting stage has a raiser who is followed by a caller or two before the flop goes down. However, it's important to note that you can take the initiative during any betting round and you'll actually see the hand's initiative move back and forth between multiple players based on the cards they're holding and the choices they make.

By taking the initiative, you're being aggressive and that aggression forces other players to make tough decisions. Continuation bets are effective because of initiative, especially when you're playing in medium-to-high stakes games where position becomes almost as important as the cards you're holding. A lot of players make the mistake of thinking that the first player to bet after the button controls how the hand plays out. In fact, it's the first player to act with initiative and aggression who will dominate play.

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Good poker players balance the need for initiative at any given time with the fact that they must deceive their opponents to some extent while playing. In some cases, it can be advantageous to bet hard and fast early on — when you're wanting to winnow down the field so your opponents are less likely to be able to take on the pair of aces you have, for example. Other times, you may want to let others take the initiative while you work to build your flush draw into something that can win.

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