Are You (Pot) Committed? What Exactly Is Commitment Anyways?

No Limit Texas Holdem, Poker Concepts

December 8, 2008

Poker books, TV shows and forums love to talk about being “committed” to a hand. However, I’ve come to a realization over time while reading and watching all this stuff: no one can agree on what it means to be “committed”.  Everyone’s talking about it, but they’re talking about at least three different things and using the same word for them.  The result is rampant confusion, and an unhealthy dose of misinformation for any player trying to make sense of the concept.

Under normal circumstances, I try not to invent my own poker terminology on CardSharp.  It’s just too confusing for people who find the articles via search engines and haven’t read the preceding ones.  I’d like to remain as accessible as possible to the poker playing public.  But in this case I’m going to make an exception.  The concept of commitment is simply too important, and the existing terminology too screwed up, to continue without addressing the issue.

Why Commitment Matters

Before we go on, it’s important to understand why the concept of commitment is important.  A large part of the NL material on this site thus far has essentially been cautious in nature.  I’ve spent several articles telling you how not to go broke with good one pair hands, for example.  Being appropriately cautious is a big part of successful NL play, and I chose to address that aspect of NL play first because in my experience it’s the place where most beginning and intermediate players get into real trouble.  But poker is a two part equation – you need to minimize your outflow AND maximize your inflow.

Commitment, when understood and applied correctly, is the most powerful tool for getting money into your stack.  Every player is familiar with this situation: you hold a good hand, but not the nuts.  If you bet it aggressively, you will either win a lot of extra money if you’re best, or lose a lot of money if you’re not.   So do you push hard, or proceed cautiously?  It’s often a tough decision, but a very profitable one if made correctly.  Committing to a hand when you’re best and your opponent pays off is very rewarding – this is how you win your opponent’s whole stack.

A Rigorous Definition of Commitment

Now we need to understand what it means to be committed to a hand. This is going to get somewhat theoretical, but bear with me because I think you’ll find the end result worthwhile.

I first want to convince you that commitment revolves around four factors:

  1. How much money is in the pot
  2. How deep the effective stacks (ie. the smaller of you and your opponent’s stacks) are
  3. How strong a hand you hold
  4. How strong a hand you think your opponent holds

Obviously if you currently have more than one opponent in the hand then modify 2. and 4. to reflect your opponents as a group.

Now, we need to spend a little bit of time discussing factors 1) and 2).  Imagine a situation in a $1/2 NL holdem with roughly $200 stacks where for some bizarre reason the house has added $1 million to the starting pot.  Correct play in this situation should be obvious – unless you had perfect evidence that you were 100% dead, you could never fold and would have to play the hand to its conclusion no matter how ugly your cards.  Even a 0.1% chance of winning the hand would be worth at least 5 times the maximum you could lose by playing out the hand (your $200 stack).  Obviously, this is an extreme example, but it illustrates three points:

  • Money in the pot causes commitment
  • The money in the pot is measured relative to your stack size, not the blind size.  Once the $1 million went into the pot, the only thing that mattered was how that $1 million compared to $200, not to $2.
  • Big remaining stacks prevent commitment and small remaining stacks cause it.  If the stacks had instead been $1 million deep, you’d be committed with most hands, but could potentially fold your worst hands.

It should be fairly obvious the polarity of factors 3) and 4) – the more likely you think it is you are good (ie. the stronger your hand is and the weaker theirs is likely to be) the more willing you are to commit.

Now that we’ve determined the factors that affect commitment, we need a definition of commitment that takes them into account.  This is where the trouble starts, because there are a number of possible definitions.  In fact, I’m going to present three definitions of increasing strength which I’ll call “weak” commitment, “moderate” commitment, and “strong” commitment.  I believe the failure to distinguish between these three distinct states is the root problem with previous discussions of the topic.

As I will define them, the three states of commitment are a progressive – if you’re strongly committed, it’s implied that you’re also moderately and weekly committed.

I should also mention that the concept of commitment only really applies when it’s your turn to act.  What you think about the hands at other times is largely irrelevant – regardless of your beliefs you can’t do anything about them.

Weak Commitment & The Genie’s Dilemma

Imagine your poker table was infested with a malicious genie.  Every so often, when it’s your turn to act, he pulls a nasty trick.  He pops up out of the table, flips your hand face up for your opponents to see, and gives you an dilemma: you can either move all in (regardless of the action in front of you) or muck your hand.  Thanks to the magical powers of the genie, no other actions are possible. If, based on everything you know about the hand up to this point, you think your best play would be to move in, you are (at least) weakly committed to the hand.  If you would muck, you are not committed.

Now hopefully your table is not really infested with a genie.  But the genie’s question is one that you can ask yourself every time it’s your turn to act.  You can of course skip the “flip your cards over” part and just imagine your opponents know what they are. It turns out the genie’s dilemma is actually quite insightful – it takes into account all the factors involved in commitment.  If there’s no money in the pot, you’ll never move in with anything short of the immortal nuts since you will only get calls from better hands (since hypothetically your hand is face up).  If there’s a ton of money in the pot, you won’t want to muck and lose your shot at it so you’ll push even with weak hands.  And of course the stronger your hand is and the weaker your opponent’s hand appears to be the more eager you will be to push.  An example is in order:

You’re playing $1/2 NL Holdem and have a fairly short stack – $140.  Under the gun your raise to $8 with AsKd.  Two opponents call behind – one stereotypical low stakes player in middle position, and the resident rock on the button.  The blinds fold.  The flop is Ks 7s 4s.  You’ve flopped top pair, top kicker, and a flush draw with 9 near-nut outs.  Bingo.

Then you remember the genie’s dilemma – are you committed to this hand? Good question.  A little math might help.  As a general rule, for every opponent that plays against you, there’s about a 5-6% chance that they outflopped top pair, top kicker UNLESS they’re  most likely set farming in which case it’s more like 10-12%.  The actual board cards alter these percentages somewhat, but they’re a good starting point to consider the situation.  So you’re probably beat somewhere on the order of 15-18% of the time here if you credit the rock with a preflop pair less than aces.

If you do have the best hand (and best draw) no one can call in the genie’s dilemma situation once you flip it over.  Even a straight flush draw isn’t getting sufficient odds. So if you’re best and push, you get exactly the $27 in the pot.  If you’re not best and push, there will be at least $291 in the pot after you get called in one place, and you’ll have at least a 20% chance of drawing out, but most of the time more like 30% if your opponent doesn’t have a set.  We’ll say 25% on average.  So you expectation out of that pot if you’re beat and get called will be about $72.  Since you’ve got $132 in your stack right now, that equates to a net loss in terms of expectation of $60 if you push and get called by a better hand.

Now we can compute your expectation if you push: Expectation = (0.82 *  $27) + (0.18 * -$60) = +$11.34.  This is pessimistic, since we’ve credited the rock with a hand better than he may have.  If you fold, your expectation is zero.  So you tell the genie you push – it’s the better of your two options.  In other words, you’re weakly committed to this hand.

I should mention that I owe the basic idea for the genie’s dilemma to Dave Sklansky and his S-C number concept described in NL Holdem: Theory and Practice.  His formulation is solely pre-flop and assumes opponents hold random hands and of course lacks the stylish genie.  But it’s basically the same thing and he deserves substantial credit.

Moderate Commitment

There’s a problem with the type of commitment described by the genie’s dilemma – it’s not very solid at all.  By the basic dictionary definition, being “committed”  means that you’re “dedicated to some course of action” – that means that you won’t change your mind.  But the genie’s dilemma is fickle in that regard.  Because in real life, even if you’re weakly committed, that doesn’t mean that you automatically push your stack in.  You could do so and expect to do better than mucking, but in reality other options are available and it’s quite likely you will make some bet less than all in.  Because there’s then more action yet to come, it’s possible that action will come back to you later in the hand, and your answer to the genie’s dilemma will no longer be to push – you’re no longer committed. That’s a problem.  An extension of the above example will clarify:

Now that you’ve determined you’re at least weakly committed, you set about playing out the hand and you’re of course not restricted to pushing or folding.  So you bet out $16, hoping to value bet a weaker made hand or dead draw (or some combination like QsKc).  Then something funny happens:  your first opponent raises to $40 total and the rock on the button re-raises enough to put you all in ($132 total).  You have $116 behind and the pot is now $215.  Once again the action’s on you, and it’s time to think about commitment again.  For sake of simplicity we’ll assume that this is a reliably crusty rock – this bet can only be a made flush, and a high one at that.  So you’ve got seven outs assuming the other villain has no spades.  But he probably has at least one if not two, so you may have a few as five outs.  The chance of a runner-runner full house around your pair of kings is negligible.  No matter which way you look at it, you’re beat and don’t quite have the odds to draw (unless the other player calls behind AND has no spades, which is unlikely).  You tell the genie you muck and move on to the next hand.

So now we see why it’s called “weak” commitment – in the examples above, you used to be committed to the pot, but subsequent action “uncommitted” you.

Medium commitment is defined in a stronger way:

If you are weakly committed to a hand, and no action your opponent could possibly take on this betting round could change your mind, you are moderately committed to the hand.

The obvious example of moderate commitment is when you hold the nuts. Nothing your opponents can possibly do on this round of betting will convince you they have a better hand.  But moderate commitment also occurs in situations where you hold less than the nuts – situations where your opponents’ bets simply won’t conclusively represent a hand better than what you hold.

Strong Commitment

Now, it turns out there’s still a way that you can move from being committed to not committed even when you are already moderately committed: a very bad card can fall on a subsequent street.  I’m not going to bother constructing another example, but it should be fairly obvious how this can happen.  This leads to the definition of strong commitment:

If you are moderately committed to a hand, and no card(s) that could come off the deck or action your opponents could take on future streets will change your mind, then you are strongly committed to the hand.

Final Words

At this point, in a very long-winded way, I’ve finally cleared up the definition issue.  When you read or hear someone talking about commitment, it’s almost always one of these three things.  You may just have to do a little detective work to figure out which one.

Of course, I didn’t drag you through a 2300 word article just for the fun of it.  The reason I made a distinction between different types of commitment is that they have substantially different effects on the way you should play your hand.  A lot of mistakes stem from confusing one form of commitment for another.  The next articles will clarify.

This article is part of Project Cash Game No Limit Holdem - You can find more great strategy articles there.
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2 Responses to “Are You (Pot) Committed? What Exactly Is Commitment Anyways?”

  1. jUzAm Says:

    Hello Wayne !

    Just to say these series of articles are so excellent that I managed to translate them in French on my message board (roughly an equivalent in French of 2+2) :

    Thank you for all this amazing stuff you write and Happy & EV+ New Year 2009

  2. Wayne Vinson Says:

    Cool. Hope your readers enjoy them.

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