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Controlling The Pot Size

by Bob Ciaffone |  Published: May 29, 2013


Bob CiaffoneIn the 21st Century, a poker concept talked about quite a bit is controlling the pot size. The idea is to play small pots when you have a mediocre hand and play big pots when you have a big hand. This sounds both logical and desirable. However, I am not sure how achievable it is.

I am reminded of a resolution that some of our founding fathers wanted to place in the Constitution that would limit the standing army of our country to 3,000 men. When it was introduced, George Washington, who was moderating over the constitutional convention and thus unable to play an active part in the debate himself, promptly scribbled a note to an aide that said, “Will someone please introduce a resolution that will limit the size of any invading army to 3,000 men.” The resolution was successfully squelched by Washington.

I think the resolution of having a 3,000 man army limit is a bit like a poker player resolving to never bet or call a bet larger than the pot size, as if he had complete control of the situation. The enemy does not always cooperate with your resolutions. So I would like to look at a few combat situations at the poker table and see where the saying “big pot, big hand” might apply and where it may just be wishful thinking.

Abiding by that saying’s logic mainly involves checking when no one has bet or just calling rather than raising when your hand is far above the minimum required by that action. Who you face and their betting style plays an important role in your decision. Aside from the human element, I think the two most important factors are whether there is a reasonable potential of facing a drawing hand and whether you are acting first or last.

Since you will be under-betting your hand, you would much prefer that there is no flush draw or likely straight draw possible on the board. Giving the opponent a free or cheap card when you are probably in front is a much less risky tactic on a rainbow board, especially when the cards are not close together in rank. The perfect flops are K-8-3, K-7-2, and Q-7-2, where a draw at a straight or flush is impossible. If the poker form is hold’em, there will not be an open-ended straight-draw whenever the board cards have a gap of three or more in rank. So there are flops such as K-9-2, Q-8-3, J-7-3, T-6-2, and so forth, where there is at least the safety of no possible open-ended straight-draw.
We will take a look at a couple of situations and for simplicity’s sake, assume you are heads-up. The general category of hand type for keeping the pot small is top pair with a good kicker.

In a $5-$10 blinds game (assume stacks of $1,000), you have raised the pot to $40 with KSpade Suit QSpade Suit on the button after someone limped in middle position. Only the limper calls. The flop comes QHeart Suit 8Spade Suit 3Club Suit, giving you top pair with a three-flush. Your opponent checks. With $95 in the pot, you bet $75 and the opponent calls. On the turn comes the 9Spade Suit. Although there is the possibility of a made straight now, this is quite a nice card, since you have a gutshot-nut straight possible with a jack and also a four-flush working. The opponent checks. What do you do?

If your opponent has top pair, you probably have the bigger kicker, since A-Q is the only top pair hand you lose to. If the opponent had that hand, he probably would have taken a different action either before the flop or on the flop. Plus you have a decent chance of improvement. It seems like a turn bet by you is automatic. But in my opinion, you should maintain pot control by checking it back. Here’s why.

(1) You almost certainly have a lot more cards that help you than help the opponent, who may have as few as three outs. He is most unlikely to draw out on the river.

(2) Although you have a very nice hand and attractive possibilities of improvement, a turn check-raise would be highly unwelcome. It is hard to imagine the opponent failing to have you beat at this point after a check-raise. The most likely outcome is your paying a huge hunk of your stack when you could have drawn for free, as you probably will be getting a price that is just barely enough to keep you in, considering the implied odds.

(3) You might be driving an opponent out of the pot that could have been milked for more money — perhaps a lot more if you improve to a straight or flush.

Suppose the river card is a red deuce, a total blank, and the opponent checks again. What should you do now? I do not think the opponent has you beat, or he would have bet the river. I would be tempted, against most opponents, to bet when they checked. The amount I would bet depends a lot on who I face. I might try to milk an ordinary player by betting a small amount. Against a good player with a suspicious mind, I might bet the full size of the pot. I remember a hand many years ago where I tried that tactic in a similar situation, and it worked like a charm.

In the preceding example, we saw the principle of pot control at its best. Let’s now illustrate the immense importance of position on the concept by keeping everything the same except switching the relative position of the players. Now you have the KSpade Suit QSpade Suit in late position. Everyone has folded to you so you open with a raise to $40. A call from one of the blinds would be a reasonable outcome, but what actually happens is the button calls and the blinds fold. The flop is as before, QHeart Suit 8Spade Suit 3Club Suit. You bet $75 on your top pair and the button calls. Now the 9Spade Suit turn card arrives, giving you the flush draw and gutshot-straight draw. Do you check or bet?

Especially in the modern style of poker, a check by you is likely to provoke a bet by your opponent. Despite my attractive goodies, I do not feel my hand should check-raise, as the stacks are deep enough to allow my opponent to come over the top. To me, that would be a complete breach of the pot control concept. So my choices are to check/call or bet out. It will be hard to get a good read on my opponent, so even if I am lucky enough to improve, I do not know whether I should try to let him run with the ball or simply bet for value. Even though a check here is a plausible move, I hate to turn over control of the betting to my opponent when I have a good hand. My usual choice would be to fire again on the turn.

The pot control concept can be applied to a number of situations, but it works more effectively when you have position on your opponent. George Washington thought so too. ♠

Bob Ciaffone’s new poker book, No-limit Holdem Poker, is now available. This is Bob’s fifth book on poker strategy. It can be ordered from Bob for $25 by emailing him at Free shipping in the lower 48 states to Card Player readers. All books autographed. Bob Ciaffone is available for poker lessons.