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Caution in Multiway Pots

by Ed Miller |  Published: Sep 28, 2016

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I’m doing a series of companion articles to my most recent book, The Course: Serious Hold ’Em Strategy For Smart Players. It’s a step-by-step guide to mastering the live no-limit hold’em games that you will find in most cardrooms around the world.

In one of the early chapters, I cover perhaps the most important skill a no-limit player can learn to survive and eventually thrive in live no-limit games—the ability to identify and fold out of losing post-flop situations.

In the book I focus on learning to read large turn and river bets for strength and to fold rather than pay off with second best hands. But it’s also important to be able to sense when multiway pots are getting away from you and to fold before losing more than you need to.

In multiway pots, hands that don’t have much chance to improve on the turn or river lose value relative to how they play against just one opponent. For example, a hand like Q-9 on a Q-J-7 flop can play okay in many situations against a single opponent. But the more players who want to continue in a situation like this, the worse the set of likely outcomes.

For example, say you’re playing $1-$2 no-limit with $300 stacks. Your opponents are not world-beaters, but they have experience playing and understand the basics of strategy. A player limps in, and then someone four off the button makes it $10 to go. A player calls, and you call on the button with QDiamond Suit 9Diamond Suit. The big blind calls, and the limper calls. There are five active players and $51 in the pot.

Your hand is not too bad in this preflop situation. With a nice, suited, somewhat-connected hand on the button in a multiway pot, things could go right for you in a number of different scenarios.

The flop comes QClub Suit JClub Suit 7Spade Suit, giving you top pair.

Without seeing any betting yet, this situation could be okay for you. With four opponents, you can be nearly certain that at least one of your opponents will have flopped something they want see one more card with. There are flush draws, straight draws, high cards, and so forth. Nearly every hand from A-K to 7-6 has a piece of this.

Your queen could be the best hand. And even if it’s not, you could luck into a situation where you end up heads-up against a better hand, but you can bluff your way out. For instance, say you end up against someone with AHeart Suit ADiamond Suit, but the turn and river come 10-9 or two clubs. You have the option to turn your hand into a bluff and perhaps turn a loser into a winner.

But that’s just the situation before you see any betting. Once you see how your opponents react to the flop, the outlook could change.

So say it checks to the preflop raiser, and he bets $30 into the $51 pot. The next player calls. You’ve now got two people who have announced significant interest in the pot (including the preflop raiser, who may not have bet a hand like A-K into four opponents). You could still have the best hand, but the chance has gone down considerably versus what it was before there was any betting.

Beyond that, there are two players behind you, either of whom could also have something they like. They checked, but the checks don’t necessarily signify weakness since these players have merely followed the convention of checking to the preflop raiser.

There are two ways to think about the situation. The one that gets people into trouble is they think something along the lines of, “I have top pair. I need to stay in this hand until it’s clear I’m beaten.”

The better way to think about this (and every) situation is, “What are my chances from this point to win the pot? What has to go right in order to win? What could go wrong? How soon will I be able to identify the likely good outcomes from the bad?”

Specifically, you never have any obligation to your cards. They’re just pieces of plastic. They don’t care if one of them happens to match another on the felt. They won’t be disappointed in you if you give up on them. Flopping top pair is not an obligation to see the turn. Sometimes, even with top pair, the situation is sufficiently unlikely to turn in your favor that you’re better off just giving way immediately.

In this particular hand, I would fold immediately at some tables, and call once at others. The conditions that would make me want to call are:

A preflop raiser who is likely to bet this flop liberally, even into multiple opponents. I’d need to think he could be betting a hand like A-J or 10-9 or maybe even A-K.

A generally passive table dynamic. I’d want my opponents to tend to go limp on the turn and river with weak and marginal hands, while continuing the betting only with increasingly stronger sets of hands. This is important because the turn betting will give me quality information about my prospects.

If these two conditions come together, I like calling. These conditions maximize the chance that the turn ends up getting checked to you, giving you the choice of either trying to see a showdown with what might be the best hand or starting to turn your hand into a bluff (depending on which card comes and the exact details of the turn action).

If other conditions hold, however, then I’d probably just fold. Say the preflop raiser is more cautious with flop bets into many players. In that case, there’s a strong chance he can beat your queen with a weak kicker. You’re likely a serious underdog to both have the preflop raiser beaten and to fade the turn and river cards your other opponents may be drawing to. (And any of them of course could also have a hand like a set and have you drawing nearly dead.) To top it off, you’ll likely be facing a nice-sized turn bet as well.

Or if the table plays more on the aggressive side, I’d probably also fold. The problem with an aggressive table here is that you will not get information quickly about whether your hand is still a go or not. You’ll be calling bets to the end and praying at showdown. With multiple opponents and a dangerous board, this is not a profitable scenario for you. Hanging on tight in aggressive multiway pots holding marginal hands isn’t how you get the money.

Final Thoughts

“Flopping something” doesn’t mean you have to shovel money into the pot. Some situations give you enough window to end up victorious that you should keep going. Other situations have you a big underdog hoping to get lucky. A key skill to surviving $1-$2 is learning to tell the difference between the two. There’s no shame in dumping a marginal hand early when multiway pots start to brew. Getting bluffed early is a better mistake to make than hanging on to the bitter end. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.