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The Number of Contending Players

by Bob Ciaffone |  Published: Jun 25, 2014


Bob CiaffoneThe number of players that contest a pot has a great influence on your poker decisions. Many more hands become playable when a high-volume pot of contenders is under way. However, I see many incorrect decisions to play a hand that should not be played no matter how many players are staying for the flop. So we will talk about good and bad reasons for entering a pot that has nearly all of the players staying for the first betting round.

The first thing to look for in any situation when you consider playing a longshot must be how deep the money is. You want to win a bunch of chips when you do hit the flop, to compensate you for all the times you wind up with a hand that has a zero chance to win. So you want to have a goodly number of chips before backing a longshot. Also, take a look at the preflop raiser’s stack size, as he will often be the one you are involved with in the postflop betting.

An often-heard player comment as a volume pot develops is, “I have to get involved; look at the pot odds I am getting.” Many poker players have a warped view of “pot odds.” They look at only half the picture; the large amount than can be won, especially if there is a relatively cheap entrance fee. They conveniently forget about the downside, which is the much larger number of opponents they need to beat.

About nine or ten years ago, the Cherokee Casino in Tulsa did a promotion where they came around every hour and dropped a hundred-dollar bill into the pot in its no-limit games before the cards were dealt. This dead money truly gave every player in the game very attractive pot odds. However, even after receiving these deliciously favorable pot odds from the added house money, the players soon found out that not any two cards were playable. Those people with the stronger hands bombarded the pot with chips trying to drive out the weaker hands. The “any two cards” players often were unable to see the flop cheaply, if at all.

Not every pot was raised (though the majority of pots got popped at least once). In the rare unraised pot, the player in small blind (SB) would hardly ever fold. But that player seldom showed a profit, because he suffered so much in the postflop betting rounds by holding a weak hand when out of position. I keep telling people that the true worth of your hand is a combination of its actual hand value plus your position, and no-limit hold’em is a game of implied odds, but some SB bargain-hunters have a hard time resisting a deal that offers a cheap fee for playing.

I think the most dangerous hands to play in volume pots are the ones that build non-nut holdings. The wider the gap between your cards, the more likely you will be building a non-nut straight. A 10-6 (three-gapper) has only one way to make a straight (flop 9-8-7) and it will not be the nuts. A 10-7 (two-gapper) can make a straight with a flop of 9-8-6 or J-9-8, but only the first-mentioned flop is the nuts. A 10-8 (one-gapper) can make a straight with Q-J-9, J-9-7, or 9-7-6, but only the last two of the three possibilities are the nuts. Cards touching in rank such as 10-9 make a straight with K-Q-J, Q-J-8, J-8-7, and 8-7-6, with the last three possibilities being the nuts. Personally, when playing the straight-making connectors, I might play the no-gap and one–gap hands. But I muck the two-gap and three-gap hands, even when I could have gotten in cheaply and with good position.

Non-nut flushes can certainly win some pots, but can also lose some biggies. Trashy looking holdings where you have two cards on suit that have your highest card too low to hardly ever make a nut-flush are especially risky holdings in volume pots. When your highest card in such a hand is coupled with a card too low in rank to build a nut straight, or no possible straight at all, you have the makings of a hand that is vulnerable to losing all of your chips. The straight-making hands are somewhat more attractive when suited, but I still follow the cavity-count mentioned in the previous paragraph, even when my straight cards are suited. Remember that the next time you have a Q-8 suited and a family-size pot is developing. Being suited here is like putting the proverbial lipstick on a pig.

Many big pots feature hands where the player who loses all his chips could hardly avoid a demise once the flop has arrived. The list of traps is familiar. A player flops two pair and loses to a set. Both players flop a straight, and the one with the second nuts correctly feels that he needs to commit all his money. Two players make a flush, and the one with a lower flush gets doubled through. On many of these hands, the catastrophe was easily avoidable by not staying for the flop. You reap what you sow.

My friend Bill Foster, the person who had motivated me to discuss this subject, points out that the caliber of the opposition is also a factor. If the game is a cheapie such as $1-$2 blinds, you have a better chance of doubling up if the opponents can be doubled through when holding an A-K that makes only one pair after the flop. Be more willing to enter a volume pot against these kind of players.

Always a factor in your poker decisions is your own ability. The chances are greater that a big pot will develop when a large number of players stay for the flop. If you play a crapper with bad position, you are imitating the weak players, when even a strong player may mishandle a testing situation like that.

Your image also is a consideration. If people see you are willing to bluff, they are much more likely to try to run you down with a good one-pair holding. But you can also go the other way, looking like a tight player who is reluctant to bluff, as some of your starting hands will evolve into having a good draw on the flop, where a fold to your wager would be appreciated. I have a tight image, but this helps me have a better success rate when I push a draw strongly. Whatever your image is (and it may vary), you can exploit it in some way.

As can be seen from our discussion, even though more hands can be played in a volume pot, it is by no means the case that nearly any two cards should be played if the pot is unraised. You need to be a discriminating player regardless of how many people contend the pot. Above all, avoid building too many non-nut straights and flushes. ♠

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.