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Ignore Pot Control, Focus On Maximizing Equity

by Greg Raymer |  Published: Apr 06, 2022

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Greg Raymer Please let me encourage you to reach out to me with article ideas and questions for future columns. You can tweet to me at @FossilMan, or send me a message at info@fossilmanpoker.com.

Pot control refers to the concept of playing in a manner that avoids creating larger pots, and thus avoids large risks to your stack.

More specifically, players exercising pot control will pass up on opportunities where they feel they are a small favorite if they bet or raise, and instead choose to check or call, because doing so will ensure they do not lose a large amount of chips.

You should be making the decision that is the most profitable regardless of the amount of risk that accompanies it. And, if it is early enough in a tournament, the equity of each choice when analyzed by chip count is essentially identical to the equity of each choice when analyzed by money value (that is, there are no ICM (Independent Chip Model) considerations).

Later in a tournament, there are times a player believes they are exercising pot control when they are actually using ICM. That is, betting or raising would maximize their chip count, but to maximize money value (because of ICM considerations), the player should just check or call instead.

Distilling this down, the entire concept of pot control is either a mistake, or at least a misdescription of what is really happening. You shouldn’t be worried about minimizing risk, but only with maximizing value, so there is no good reason to exercise pot control.

If it is late enough in the tournament that there are ICM considerations, you should try to make the decision that maximizes money value. The fact that such a decision might also avoid risk is irrelevant. In summary, you should probably just entirely ignore the concept of pot control altogether.

Having said that, there are many situations where players will make a decision driven by pot control, and be both right and wrong. They are making the right decision, but are wrong about the reason why.

Often the correct reason is not pot control, but the concept of “way ahead or way behind.” There will be many situations where there is a significant chance you have the best hand on the flop or turn. And if you do have the best hand, you will be a large favorite to win. But if you are wrong, and do not have the best hand, then it is your opponent who is a large favorite now.

Here is a very straightforward example. You are holding KSpade Suit QDiamond Suit and the flop is ADiamond Suit KClub Suit 7Heart Suit.

If you have the best hand right now, then your opponent is way behind. In fact, being behind they have at most five outs given the lack of draws on this flop. This means you are at least a 4:1 favorite. However, if you happen to be behind, you have at most five outs, and are at least a 4:1 underdog.

If your opponent checks to you, should you bet? The answer to that is complicated, but often a player who checks here may say it was for “pot control” reasons. But even if their check was correct, pot control was not the correct reason. A better reason is the concept of way ahead or way behind (and there are many other good reasons as well).

If you bet here with the best hand, and the opponent folds, you have gained very little. But if you bet here when behind, you are putting more chips into a pot you are unlikely to win. Therefore, it might be more profitable to check, as the risk of giving a free card is minimal.

Also, by checking behind, you might convince them they are ahead, and get them to pay you off on future betting rounds. You also might motivate them to bluff since you “showed weakness.” Therefore, because you are either way ahead or way behind, you chose to play passively on this round. By doing so you will, on average, lose a smaller pot when you lose, and sometimes win a larger pot when you win.

What about if you were holding ASpade Suit 2Spade Suit on a flop of ADiamond Suit 10Heart Suit 8Diamond Suit? Would this be a good hand to check behind? Again, it might be correct to check behind, but not because of the way ahead/way behind concept.

On this flop, even if you are currently ahead, your opponent might be holding a hand that is drawing to as many as 15 outs. They could have so many outs that they are actually the favorite, even though currently behind. If you check behind, you could be giving a very dangerous free draw. Here, the concept of way ahead/way behind does not apply.

Contrarily, there are two major drawbacks to checking when you are way ahead or way behind. First, you might have lost value. Maybe this opponent would have called you down if you bet all three streets. By checking the flop, you might have missed some value. Also, you might have gotten called if you had bet the flop, but the turn card scared them into folding.

Second, by taking the “weak” line of checking back the flop, you are somewhat forced to call down your opponent if they bet on future rounds. As we discussed, one advantage of checking the flop was inducing your opponent to bluff, or mistakenly value-bet, on later streets. Well, if part of the reason you checked was to induce bluffs, it would be pretty silly to fold when your opponent makes them.

The key lesson here is to ignore the concept of pot control. Instead, focus on maximizing equity regardless of risk. Learn more about this concept in chapter 20 of my book, Fossilman’s Winning Tournament Strategies.

Have fun, and play smart! ♠

Greg Raymer is the 2004 World Series of Poker main event champion, winner of numerous major titles, and has more than $7 million in earnings. He is the author of FossilMan’s Winning Tournament Strategies, available from D&B Publishing, Amazon, and other retailers. He is sponsored by Blue Shark Optics, YouStake, and ShareMyPair. To contact Greg please tweet @FossilMan or visit his website.