Most people familiar with the modern state of poker will have heard the term “pot control” a million times. For those who haven’t heard of pot control, it’s essentially the idea of keeping the pot small with a hand that can’t stand a lot of action. A lot of small stakes players misapply the concept, and check back AK on a A35T board, afraid of being check-raised. Personally, I don’t like the term “pot control”, because to me, control implies the ability to make the pot either large or small—whatever size we decide is best for our hand. Therefore, because the definition of “pot control” is so ingrained in the parlance of poker discussion, I will be referring to the concept of controlling pot size as Pot Management.
Anytime we have a hand, there is a desired amount of value that we are trying to achieve. In any given spot we’re trying to obtain between 0 streets and 3+ streets of value (this implies as much value as possible, including stacks when appropriate. If we just want one bet on each street, that would be classified as 3 streets of value and not 3+ streets). However, that desired value changes from street to street. Therefore, we need to be aware of two different types of value:
- 1) Static Value: This refers to the amount of value that we want on any given action. Thus, preflop with AA, we want 3+ streets of value. If we have the nut flush postflop on an unpaired board, we want 3+ streets of value. If we have A2 on an AQJ board, we may decide we want 1 street of value on the flop, and then decide again that we want no more value on a 4 turn and a 9 river.
- 2) Dynamic Value: This refers to the way that desired value changes throughout the course of a hand. Let’s say that, in a deepstacked game, an opponent opens on the button and we 3-bet from the blinds with A♣A♠ (static value of 3+ streets). He 4-bets. We 5-bet, and he calls. So far, we’ve been doing our job, trying to get 3+ streets of value. The flop comes down K♥Q♥J♥. Suddenly our desired value has changed from 3+ streets to 0 streets. We will most likely need to check fold (depending on how much is behind). The ability to reevaluate value is one thing that separates good players from bad players and prevents us from becoming “married” to a weak hand. Learning how desired value changes during each street in a hand is a difficult skill. Often, when
we feel uncomfortable facing a raise, it’s because the raise forces us to commit to more value than is appropriate for our hand.* Often times, a raise turns our desired static value into a very different desired dynamic value. A good example would occur when we raise AA and get called by a passive-bad player. The flop is KQ9r, and we decide to stick with our 3+ streets of value plan. We bet the flop, he calls. The turn is a 3o, and we bet again. This time, he raises all-in. Suddenly, our desired value has changed dramatically because the bad player’s range has changed from very wide to very narrow. Against this new range, we want 0 streets of value. And yet, if we call, we’re forced into committing 3+ streets of value. Despite our static value plan of 3+ streets of value that we maintained preflop and on the flop, our new desired dynamic value lets us know that it’s time for a good fold.
Most of the time, however, that raise doesn’t come. We’re instead presented with the much more enjoyable question of trying to get the most money from our opponent’s bad calls. As discussed previously, our value bets should generally be larger rather than smaller. It wasn’t entirely explained, though, how to put ourselves in the position where our value bets will be most effective. Let’s assume 100bb stacks at 5/10 no-limit for the sake of easy numbers. We raise to $40 with Q♦Q♥, and we get one caller on the button. The pot is $95 now (counting the blinds). The flop is Q♣8♠7♠. We bet $80, he calls (so far so good). The pot is now $255. The turn is a 3♣. Now, let’s think about managing the pot size. We have $880 behind. If we bet $230, and he calls, the pot will be $715 and we will have $650 behind—perfect for a river shove. However, if we bet $170 on the turn instead of $230, the pot will be $595 with $710 behind—now we’re overbetting the pot, which is going to look a little bit scarier than if we had managed the pot correctly to have a pot sized bet or less by the river. Many players I see bet even less than $170 on the turn, and find themselves getting only about 50bb in value when they should be getting the full 100bb. I tell my small stakes students this all the time—double your bet size, double your win-rate.
I learned about pot management the hard way. Early in my high stakes career, I decided to take a shot at a 15/30 deepstacked game. Sitting with 6k, the other five players at the table covered me. I sat and folded junk hands for a while, until I picked up KK on the button. An extremely good player raised in mid position, and I reraised him for the first time in the session. He called. The flop came down 742r. He checked, and I decided to check for deception and to hopefully induce a bet on the turn (in retrospect, this probably should’ve been a bet, but if I had reason to believe that betting KK there was too thin then a check is okay). The turn was a Jo. He checked again, and now I decided to go for value, so I bet out. He check-raised quite large, but I didn’t realize the purpose of his check-raise size until I called it. As soon as I saw the chips go in the middle, I realized that the pot was now 4k, and that we had exactly 4k behind. I knew what was coming as soon as I saw the pot size—the opponent shoved all in, putting me in an impossibly difficult spot. I eventually decided to fold (which I still think was the correct play, though it’s incredibly close).** However, the lesson was important—if you’re thinking about how pot size changes, you can structure your bets on each street in order to maximize value by the river.
Most small stakes players struggle most with this concept. They don’t bet big enough on any street and then are left on the river with a pot that’s too small to get the stacks in. Fixing this problem will probably double your win-rate.
At this point, we’ve only discussed cases in which managing the pot means betting large and getting value. What about scenarios where we want to keep the pot small?
*This is a very strange chapter. The pot-management discussion is very valuable, but the value-streets content is difficult to grasp. In this chapter, I’m trying to describe part of “feel” poker in analytical terms. I debated removing that part of the chapter (or even removing the chapter in its entirety) due to its vagueness and confusing language. I decided to keep it in the book because value-street feelings can be a helpful guide for a beginning player in understanding how to keep getting value and avoid paying off to a raise. Advanced players, though, can probably disregard and move past this.
**That hand was butchered horribly. Bet flop. As played, call turn and call river. The odds of him having QQ there going for thin value against a J (or of him turning a hand into a bluff) should make it a no-brainer call as played, which as I’ve already mentioned, was terrible.