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Pot Control and Pot Sizing

by Daragh Thomas |  Published: Feb 01, 2008

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This is the third column in a series covering all of the topics that I think are important while playing medium-stakes cash games. While concentrated mainly on sixhanded games, most of the content will be applicable to any game of no-limit hold'em. In this column, I will cover a very important post-flop concept, pot control.

The easiest way to explain pot control is to give an example. Here is a simple situation that will occur quite often whilst playing six-max. You raise from late position with A-10. A tight winner calls you from the blind. The flop comes down 10-5-2 rainbow. The TAG checks. You bet (you could check here sometimes, but betting is generally better) three-quarters of the pot. The TAG thinks and calls. Now, it's important to put the TAG on a range here. He is very likely to have a pair between jacks and sixes. Anything higher and he probably would have reraised preflop, and anything lower, he probably would just fold the flop. The fact that there is only one overcard makes it quite likely that he will call a bet here with a hand like 9-9 or 10-10, and although he is probably going to fold suited connectors before the flop, there is a small chance that he has an unpaired hand that contains a 10, like J-10, with which he will certainly call a bet on the flop.

The turn is a 7. The TAG checks. Now, you have a decision to make. The average TAG will fold to a bet here with a medium-strength hand. A bet here will convince him that his eights are no good. You have either a 10 or an overpair. You may even be bluffing, but the pot is getting unmanageably big and he doesn't want to face a big river bet, so he mucks it.

He obviously isn't going to fold a set, and probably will call with jacks or queens. The best way to think about this situation is to imagine that your opponent doesn't have a single hand, but a whole range of possible hands. So until the point of his bet, his hand doesn't really exist (just like Schrödinger's cat!). When you bet, you will tend to get him to fold hands that you beat, so by betting, you improve the quality of the hands you are facing in a range that beats you.

By checking, you make your hand look like a bluff, or at least a not very strong hand. So, on the river, the TAG will be very likely to call a bet with a hand you beat. Most opponents will either lead the river themselves or check-call another bet, hoping to induce a bluff. Crucially, they will bet with a set or overpair themselves (fearing your checking behind again). So, when you are beat, you keep the pot small and manageable, and also get to a showdown. You also may induce a bluff from your opponent, and make it very hard for him to bluff you successfully. If you bet the turn, a very sophisticated opponent may raise you with a weak hand, representing a set, but by checking, you take this play away from him.

Not all hands are as clear-cut as this one, and checking the turn does have some disadvantages. First of all, you make it more likely that you will get outdrawn. This shouldn't be a big consideration for you, however, for two main reasons. Firstly, the pot is small and your stack is big, so protecting your stack is more important. And secondly, there are no draws and your opponent's most likely hand is a pair, meaning he probably has two outs. The chance of getting another large bet from eights outweighs the slight loss of equity by giving him a chance to hit his two-outer for free. If the board was more draw-heavy, or the pot much bigger, betting would be better. Also, against bad opponents, you may wish to bet all three post-flop streets, as they will call you down with many worse hands. In fact, against the worst, very loose opponents, you can generally forget all about pot control and just bet every street if you think you have the best hand!

In almost any no-limit game, players who play big pots with big hands, and small pots with small hands, will be big winners. Many tight-aggressive players are marginal winners because they fail to build the pot when they have monsters, and overplay one-pair hands. Don't let this happen to you. So, if you flop a full house or a flush, don't be worried about your opponents folding. If they fold, they probably had nothing; worry about the times that they have a good second-best hand, and work out the best way to get their money into the pot … all of it! Also, don't make the mistake of thinking that you want to keep draws in, so you should check; draws will often call bets even though they are drawing dead. This is obviously a great situation to be in for you, and if they miss their draw, they probably won't call or bet, so your only chance to make money is on the flop and turn.

When you have a very good hand, like a set, a straight, or a flush, you should aim to build the pot as big as possible. The aim, if at all possible, should be to get all in by or on the river. The easiest way to do that is to copy how banks work. Get your customers to pay you in installments. Rather than try to force most of it in one go, get them to call deceptively small bets. A big mistake that most players make is that they don't realise when calling what looks like a small or medium-sized bet that they are committing themselves to the pot with a weak holding. It's only on the river that they realise the pot is now far too big to fold. Ideally, the pot should be a little bigger than the remaining money to go in. Knowing what numbers will achieve that goal is a crucial skill to learn.

Going back to hands in which we do not possess a strong holding, bear in mind that in situations in which you are unlikely to get three streets of value, you don't have to check the turn; you can check the flop and bet the turn and river. Each line has advantages and disadvantages, but one of your foremost concerns should be fooling your opponent. You want to maintain a healthy balance of playing your hand well to maximise value, and also to deceive your opponent as to the exact strength of your hand. The higher stakes you are playing, and the better the opponent, the more you need to mix up your lines.

The observant among you will notice that we have discussed only hands with which you are in position. That's because pot control is much harder when out of position. This is one of the many reasons that you don't want to play one-pair hands when out of position, and why you should adapt your preflop strategy to take that into account. Usually, when you check out of position on the turn in a raised heads-up pot, your opponent will bet if he has a good hand, or if he has nothing and thinks you may fold. So whilst checking may induce a bluff, it doesn't keep the pot that small. Except against very aggressive opponents, I usually find it better to keep betting myself, as this enables me to set my own price and maintain control of the pot to a certain extent.

Key Points:

1. Play big pots with big hands and small pots with small hands.
2. When in position, consider checking either the turn or the flop with marginal hands.
3. It's hard to play one-pair hands when out of position, so try to play only very good one-pair hands when not in position.