Pot control in tournaments and cash games

‘Pot control’ is a term that’s bandied about a lot these days, but what exactly does it mean, and more importantly, how can it help you win?

A really experienced poker player once told us: ‘One of the biggest things that separates good players from bad players is that they’re so good at controlling the pot.’ Good players decide when they want to play a big pot and when they don’t. This is the skill of pot control and you need to practise it in your game, whether you play cash or tournaments.

When people use the term they generally mean not playing a big pot with a ‘marginal hand’. But knowing when you have a marginal hand and when you should allow your opponents to have free cards, is tough. When you make efforts to control the size of the pot you take the risk of missing value – knowing when this is the right thing to do is a difficult thing to master.

Why pot control?

The theory behind pot control is simple. You want to play a big pot when you have a big hand and a small one when you have a marginal hand. Of course, life isn’t that perfect – the problem is knowing how big your hand is compared to your opponent’s likely holdings so you can decide whether to value-bet or exercise pot control.

Let’s look at a simple example of pot control. Let’s say you hold A-J♠ in the cutoff. You’ve raised preflop and your opponent in the big blind has called. The flop comes a friendly A-9♣-4♠. You make your continuation bet and the villain calls. The turn brings the 5♣. You could bet here to try to get value from hands like worse Aces, draws or pocket pairs that get over-curious. However, there are two problems with this. First, if you get check-raised life really sucks – it’s going to be extremely difficult to know if your opponent is drawing, bluffing, or has you crushed. Second, by reopening the betting you’ve put yourself in a position where you’re playing a big pot with a marginal hand – the opposite of what you want.

Instead you could opt to take a pot control line and check behind on the turn. This offers several benefits. Most obviously, you guard against the minor catastrophe of being check-raised. However, it isn’t just a defensive move, as it also disguises the strength of your hand and potentially induces bluffs on the river. Your opponent may decide to bluff a missed draw on the river, or if a scare card hits he may decide to turn a hand like a small pocket pair into a bluff.

It’s true that if the river completes draws with a card like the 6♣ you may have a tricky decision on the river and will have to rely on your reads if your opponent bets. If your opponent is at all aggressive or bluffy, and it’s a close decision, you should lean towards calling as you have under-represented the strength of your hand.

If your opponent checks again on the river it allows you to bet again and gain value from hands like small pocket pairs and 9-x, as you’ve made your hand look weak. So what looks like a line that might reduce the value you get in the hand, can in fact be a way to maximise it.

When to take control

Your job as a good deep-stack poker player is to decide when you should be betting for value and when you should be controlling the size of the pot.

There are two key components to making this decision – your opponent’s hand range and his tendencies as a player. Of course putting players on a range of hands is a key skill in any form of poker – if you’re not doing this already start working it into your game as soon as possible.

Let’s go back to the earlier hand. When you bet a flop like A-9♣-4♠ and your opponent calls it should be possible to put him on a range of hands. For a typical predictable opponent this might include worse Aces, slow-played sets and two pair hands, pocket pairs and good nines. Depending on the turn card you should have a good idea of how this affects that range and how that will alter your play.

The second crucial element is understanding how your opponent plays. In simple terms if he’s a passive player, or a player who seldom folds, you will be value-betting more often. If, however, he’s an aggressive opponent who makes big check-raises with made hands and semi-bluffs, you may want to exercise more pot control. Depending on your opponent and the game you’re in you will also have to factor in your image at the table. The looser your opponent deems you to be, the more you can value-bet; the tighter or more straightforward he thinks you are, the more benefit you may get from a pot-control line.

These decisions aren’t always easy – a good additional question to ask yourself is ‘How many streets of value can I get out of this hand against this player?’ If you feel that against most of his range you won’t get both turn and river bets called, it often makes sense to check the turn for pot control but also to get some extra value from induced bluffs and situations where the villain has misread the strength of your hand.

Out of position

The main example so far has looked at controlling the pot when in position. It is far more common and far easier to dictate the size of the pot when you’re the player in position – another reason why this is such a vital part of good no-limit poker. However, it is possible to influence the pot out of position. The two obvious techniques are blocking bets and check-calling plays.

Blocking bets – where you make a smallish bet out of position – can be made when you have a drawing hand and want to dictate the price you pay on this street, the aim being to stop your opponent making a big bet that prices you out. You can also make a blocking bet when you have a marginal hand that you think is often good but you don’t want to face a big decision if you check and your opponent bets big. You can also go into check-call mode on one or more streets with marginal hands. This has the benefit of not allowing your opponent to raise and build a big pot and also of sometimes inducing bluffs.

The problem with both blocking bets and check-calling is that they are essentially defensive lines. If your opponents are competent and aggressive they will usually attack you and use their position against you, making your life difficult by raising your blocking bets and barrelling several streets when you check-call. As such, there are limits on how much you can control the pot when out of position.

Stack depth

Controlling the size of the pot becomes more important as the stacks increase, as there are likely to be decisions on every street and fewer and fewer situations where you’re committed to the pot. Therefore pot control is more important in cash games and at the beginning of tournaments when you have more room to manoeuvre. Later in tournaments there are a lot of situations when any time you play a pot you’re going to be fully committed or folding either before or on the flop.

However, there are some occasions where pot control is an option even with shorter stacks. Let’s say you’re playing a hand where you and your opponent have 25-30 big blinds each. You’ve open-raised with a hand like A-10 offsuit and your opponent has defended in the big blind. The flop comes 8-8-3. If you make a continuation bet here you’re giving your opponent a great chance to check-raise shove his remaining 20-25 or so big blinds and put you to an extremely tough decision as to whether your Ace-high is best or not. In spots like this, even though the stacks are short, it may be best to check behind to control the pot, planning to either make a delayed continuation bet, induce a smaller bluff from your villain, or hopefully improve.

Dangers

We’ve talked about the benefits of pot control, but there are also great dangers associated with playing this way. The main problem is that when you use pot control in a situation where your opponent would have called with a worse hand you miss out on some value. If you play too passively and regularly miss value in this way it’s very hard to play winning poker.

For example, there is a trend at the moment in high stakes tournament poker to check back a lot of flops rather than continuation-betting. This has some benefits for deception but it probably goes too far, with the result that players now sometimes miss out on value.

Remember, when we talk about controlling the pot with marginal hands it’s all relative to your opponents’ hands and the situation – after all, if you have your opponent out-kicked by one rank but he’d still call all-in then you definitely want that outcome. More contextually, if you’re in a hand with a calling station and flop top pair/good kicker and he flops top pair/worse kicker, you may be missing value by not betting all streets.

It’s hard to generalise about when you should go for maximum value and when you should control the pot. A good knowledge of opponents’ ranges and their tendencies will make your decisions easier, but if you’re in a marginal situation your default move should be to bet. Pot control is a useful skill, but getting value is the priority. After all, leaving value on the table is one of the biggest blunders a player can make.


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