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Keeping control

Poker seems a simple game when you’re holding top-set on an innocuous looking board, but it’s how well you fare with your medium-strength holdings that ultimately determines your profit in the long run. This month, Gambling’s Duncan Wilkie looks at how pot control can help make your marginal hands more manageable

A simple, but nevertheless golden rule of playing No Limit Texas Hold’em is that you should only become embroiled in big pots when you are holding a big hand. On the flip-side of this tenet, however, the reverse is obviously true – and if you are frequently getting yourself involved in over-inflated pots with one-pair type holdings, you could be making a serious dent in your long-term profits.

While any two-bit pub poker player can, with a reasonable degree of competence, get decent value from their hand when they are holding the effective nuts, it’s their decision-making when playing less-than-premium holdings post-flop that frequently gets them into trouble. The most common reason for this is that they fail to control the size of the pot and enable the opposition to put them to tricky decisions later on.

In this month’s strategy article, I’ll be looking at the finer points of pot control and how employing it correctly can make your difficult decisions far more manageable. In the following examples, we’ll run the rule over two scenarios and consider whether employing a defensive, controlled approach is viable in each, as well as explaining the various factors and logical considerations that should underpin such a decision.

Example 1: Keeping it Small with Top Pair

In this example, let’s suppose that you’re playing in a small stakes cash game with the blinds fixed 0.25p/0.50p and everyone at the table has sat down with £50. A solid, aggressive player to your right opens for £2 and you decide to flat-call with king-queen off-suit on the button. Both blinds fold and the flop comes out 7h-Kd-4s, handing you top pair, but before you know it your opponent slides out a bet of £3.

Suspecting a continuation bet, you elect to again flat-call and see what your opponent does on the turn. Fourth street brings the 9c and your opponent now decides to check the action over to you. This is where things get interesting. Based on your opponent’s play up until this point, it looks fairly likely that you have the best hand – however, that does not necessarily mean that you should always bet here.

The pot has now risen to almost £11 and both you and your opponent are playing a further £45 behind. Making a standard bet here would cost you around £7, and while that wager may well win you the pot, let’s take a closer look at what the actual ramifications of making such a play would be. At this point, before betting you have to consider what you are hoping to achieve and how to proceed if things go wrong.

Here, your opponent has bet pre-flop and followed up his aggression with a further bet on the flop. As you know, this does not necessarily mean that they have a hand and their check on the turn would certainly seem to support this assumption. However, if your opponent does hold nothing, they will simply fold on the turn and you will only win the £11 already in the middle. By playing top pair this way you might also fold out hands that you want to stay around like small-medium pairs, A-7 or >K-Q.

Conversely, if you bet and are called or – worse yet – raised, you will be forced to play an inflated pot with just one-pair. In either scenario, if your opponent bets the river and you are still holding top-pair, you will be hard-pushed to fold and will likely pay-off the hands like A-A, A-K, 7-7 and 4-4 that had you beat from the start. Of course, betting the turn also means that there will be more money in the pot by the river, so inevitably you will be faced with a bigger bet – and a bigger decision – on fifth street.

Checking your top pair, on the other hand, allows you to keep the pot at a manageable size, meaning that you can comfortably call a bet on the river (likely to be in the region of £6-£11) without overly harming your stack or value bet if your opponent checks to you. This way, you save money when you are behind, but also disguise the strength of your hand and encourage weaker hands to bet the river, winning you one more street of value when you have the best hand.

Example 2: Making Opponents Pay to Play

For a situation where keeping the pot small is probably more detrimental to your chances of winning than it is beneficial, imagine the following scenario occurs in the same small stakes cash game. This time the player to your right opens for £2 and you decide to flat call with king-ten off-suit. Both blinds fold and the flop comes out 3s-9s-10c to give you top pair, but once again your opponent leads out for £3.

Using the same logic as in the first example, you again decide to flat-call and re-assess matters on the turn, which brings the 4c. True to form, your opponent slows down by checking the turn and you are again faced with the same familiar decision – bet or check behind? Once again, play up until this point strongly suggests that you have the best hand, but this time the situation is considerably more precarious.

Here, the board is such that if you check behind there is literally over half of the deck that you do not want to see on the river. If any spade, club, ace, queen, jack, eight or king come down you will be extremely hard-pushed to call a bet on the river – with the three remaining kings being particularly bad cards as although they improve your hand to top two-pair, they could also complete an opponent’s straight of flush draw.

When you couple this with the fact that your check on the turn will likely indicate weakness to your opponent, they will almost certainly fire a bet on any scary-looking river whether they have made their hand or not. This is a disastrous turn of events for you as not only do you sometimes call with the worse hand, but you are also forced to lay down the best hand to a substantial river bet a lot of the time as well.

As such, in this particular scenario betting the turn is a far superior play for several reasons. Firstly, it allows you to protect your hand from random over-cards and enables you to offer your opponent incorrect odds to chase their draws. Secondly, with your opponent’s lead on the flop being no real indicator of their hand strength, betting the turn will enable you to gain a lot more information about where you stand and allow you to adjust your strategy accordingly. The final advantage is that a bet here will often win the pot, saving you a potentially difficult decision on the river.

Hopefully, having considered the two scenarios above and the differing factors which dictate whether controlling the size of the pot is appropriate, you’ll be able save yourself some money – and a few major headaches – further along the line. You never know, it might just make you a couple of extra quid every now and then too.
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