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Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: A Pot Odds Primer

Miller Explains HOW And WHEN To Use Pot Odds

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Ed MillerPot odds are a concept nearly all regular poker players are familiar with. Despite the wide familiarity, however, many players misapply the concept. I wanted to write a primer on how to use—and how not to use—the concept of pot odds in no-limit hold’em cash games.

The Basics

Just so we’re on the same page, pot odds are the odds the pot lays you after someone else has bet. So, if there is $100 in the pot before the betting round, and an opponent bets $100, then you are laid $200-to-$100 to call the bet, or you have 2-to-1 pot odds.

If the opponent had bet $50 instead, then you would be laid $150-to-$50 or 3-to-1 odds.

Pot Odds With No Further Betting

The simplest use case for pot odds is when there’s no further betting after the call. This happens either on the river or when the bet is all-in. When there’s no further betting, using pot odds to make decisions is relatively straightforward. You should call the bet if you think your chances to win the pot are greater than the odds you are being laid.

So say it’s a $100 pot and someone bets $50 on the river. You are being laid 3-to-1 pot odds, which implies a break-even winning chance of one-in-four or 25 percent. (To figure out this break-even percentage, you can read the 3-to-1 odds as “I can lose three times for every one time I win,” which obviously implies that you win one out of four times.)

If it’s the river, you’re often trying to decide if your opponent is bluffing often enough to justify calling given the pot odds. If your opponent is all-in before the river, you’re trying to decide if you have equity that is greater than the break-even winning chance.

Most people who know about and apply pot odds use it correctly in these cases.

Pot Odds With Further Betting

People begin to misapply the concept of pot odds when the bet isn’t final. If there’s money behind and at least one betting round to go, the pot odds concept becomes considerably more complex to apply.

Here’s a situation where people regularly misapply the concept. Say you’re playing $2-$5 with $1,000 stacks. A player open-raises to $20, and two players call. You call on the button with 7Diamond Suit 5Diamond Suit. The blinds fold, and it’s four players to the flop in an $87 pot.

The flop comes QHeart Suit 8Club Suit 4Club Suit. The preflop raiser bets $40, and the two intervening players fold. The action is on you.

Here’s how some people analyze this situation. “I have a gutshot, which is four outs. There are forty-seven unseen cards, so my chance to hit the gutshot is 4 out of 47 or about 8.5 percent. The pot is laying $127-to-$40 odds, or a little better than 3-to-1. Since the break-even calling percentage is much greater than the chance of making the hand, I should fold.”

This analysis is total nonsense. The first reason it’s nonsense is that it ignores implied odds.

Implied Odds

Implied odds are an estimate of the odds you expect to get on your bet, including future action. Let’s say you call the bet and catch the 6Spade Suit to make your straight. And let’s say because you are exceedingly fortunate, your opponent happens to have Q-Q for a set of queens. Your opponent bets the turn, you raise, he shoves, and you get most of that $1,000 in as a big favorite.

So on the flop you were calling $40 to win not just the $127 in the pot, but also for the (somewhat small, but still significant) chance to hit your hand and win much more.

Most people at least consider implied odds when they consider pot odds on early streets, though because it’s an exercise in estimation, some players are more accurate than others.

But if implied odds were the only reason that the original analysis was flawed, the gutshot fold would still probably be correct. It’s a pretty big longshot to both hit your gutshot and to have your opponent pay you off big.

There is a much more glaring flaw with the analysis I detailed above. The analysis completely ignores Plan A.

Plan A

In most poker hands, unless you happen to have a very strong hand, Plan A is pretty much always the same. Plan A is that you try to get your opponents to give up without a showdown. To fold. To let you have the pot.

That’s usually Plan A. When there’s more action to come, Plan A is in play.

There is an implicit assumption in the analysis above. It’s in this sentence, “Since the break-even calling percentage is much greater than the chance of making the hand, I should fold.”

The assumption is that making the hand and winning the hand are the same thing. Make your hand, and you win. Usually that will be true. Don’t make your hand, and you lose. That one is definitely not true.

If you call the flop, your opponent could choose to give up on the turn by check-folding a hand like A-10. Not only could your opponent do this, but most players will do this a very significant percentage of the time.

So if you call the flop, that’s Plan A. You are hoping your opponent checks the turn (or otherwise shows weakness) so you can bet and take the pot.

Plan B is to spike your gutshot.

Putting It Together

Pot odds can be used in a fairly straightforward way to evaluate decisions made when there will be no further action. If your chance to win exceeds the break-even chance determined by the odds, you should call. Otherwise, you should fold.

However, it’s tricky to extend this analysis to bets made when there’s money behind and future betting. That’s because of two very significant effects. First, implied odds can make it correct to call as a big longshot. If you stand to win a whole lot on future betting rounds if you happen to hit your hand, then it’s not so important exactly how much is in the pot at the moment of your call.

But many players tend to be overly optimistic about their implied odds, assuming that every time they hit their hands their opponents will just hand over their stacks. In today’s game, it can be difficult to separate opponents from their stacks, even if you’ve made the nuts.

But that’s where the second effect comes in. Your opponents can give up. They will give up sometimes when you hit your hand, but they’ll also give up plenty when you miss. Often it will be worth calling a flop bet at 3-to-1 odds just for the chance your opponents will give up on the next round—nevermind that you have a draw that can hit something.

It’s much safer to think about all the ways you can win the hand rather than to focus just on your draw and outs. If you do that, you can use pot odds to help you make the right decisions. ♠

Ed’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.