Pot Control Revisited Part One

No Limit Texas Holdem

February 3, 2009

Since I wrote them, I’ve gotten a lot of mail about the articles on set farming, the payoff rule, and the two articles on pot control.  Most of that mail has been very positive, but I want to provide a little bit of extra detail and a slightly different perspective on the subject and clear up a few points of confusion that I’ve seen.  If you haven’t read those four articles yet, I’d suggest you start there.

Commitment vs. Pot Control

Given all this discussion of pot control, and potentially folding overpair type hands, you might wonder if I’m providing you with very weak advice.  After all, its relatively rare in holdem to make a hand bigger than top pair, so if your opponents are willing to bet without any hand strength they can easily, on the surface at least, represent a hand that beats you almost all the time.

The answer to this dilemma lies in the concept of commitment.  As a general principle, commitment (whether weak, moderate, or strong) is incompatible with, and indeed is the antithesis of, pot control.  When you’re committed, pot control goes out the window.  This is especially true when moderately or strongly committed – sometimes pot control still makes sense when weakly committed.  Now, if you think back to the commitment articles, you’ll remember that one of the easy ways to get moderately or strongly committed is to have your opponent put a bunch of money in the pot when they don’t necessarily hold much of a hand.  In other words, bets that are likely opponent bluffs tend to commit you because they increase the money in the pot without making you put your opponent on a significantly stronger hand.  This makes it much more likely that you’d choose to move in if given the genie’s dillemma.

In other words, if your opponents are bluffing far too frequently or overbetting weak made hands, and it’s usually not to hard to spot when this is the case, then commitment trumps pot control and you’re glad to get your money in.

Picking A Street To Skip

As previously discussed, when you implement pot control you typically want to keep the amount of money you put in the pot down to about 1/3 of your stack.  Let’s assume for a moment that you’re in position.  Now the only way to keep the pot as small as you’d like is to have bets go in on only 2 of the 3 postflop streets of play.  This means you’re going to need to skip a street.  Picking which street to skip is somewhat of a balancing act.

Choosing to skip the flop is the most likely to succeed in terms of taking advantage of your opponents’ tendency to slow play monsters.  Especially at the lower limits most players won’t lead out when they flop a set (or straight).  And most of them will pick up the betting lead on the turn if you check behind.  This line provides perhaps the best pot control.  However, there are some substantial downsides to it.  Allowing the turn card to hit for free radically increases the complexity of the board and the number of outstanding hands that might beat one pair.  And since you didn’t charge your opponent anything to draw at those hands, it’s often very difficult to puzzle out what he might hold – he could have anything that fits his preflop line.  This confusion tends to work very much against a one pair hand and is the biggest downside to skipping the flop.

Skipping the turn is a little worse from the perspective of pot control – every once in a while you’ll see an opponent who flopped a set check-call the flop and then lead out on the turn.  But more frequently they go for a check-raise on the turn.  If they do so then checking behind on the turn is effective pot control.  Checking the turn also tends to leave the situation less confused than checking the flop – you get extra information out of your opponent’s flop call, so it’s easier to figure out where you stand for the river betting.

Skipping the river is the least effective from a pot control perspective because it’s quite likely your opponent already check-raised the turn and got most of the money in.  The river is typically too late.

When in doubt, skip betting the turn.

Pot Control Must Work When Your Opponent Has A Monster

I haven’t really stated this explicitly before, but it’s very important.  Any pot control scheme you choose must work even when your opponent flops a monster.  A scheme that keeps the size of the pot down when you’re ahead, but allows it to balloon up when you’re behind is completely counterproductive.  This is the reason why it’s effectively impossible to implement pot control out of position.  Sure, you can pick some street and check.  But unless your opponent is totally spineless he’s not going to let a street of betting be checked around when he holds a set.  So checking out of position is one of those forms of pot control that only works when you opponent is weak.  It’s totally ineffective.   Similarly, making undersized bets doesn’t work even if you are in position – eventually your opponent will (check)-raise you and pot control goes out the window.  So when evaluating possible pot control schemes, remember to ask “Will this work if villain holds a set?”

Continued in the next article.

This article is part of Project Cash Game No Limit Holdem - You can find more great strategy articles there.
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