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Big Hand, Big Pot; Small Hand, Small Pot
This is a simple lesson: When you flop a big hand, you want to create a big pot. Conversely, if you have a weak hand, then you want a small pot.
Many people make the mistake of building large pots with one-pair hands, only to eventually fold when the pot begins to get big.
As an alternate strategy, I'll show you how to keep the pots small when you have a weakish hand and how to build big pots with your big hands, so you can avoid hands like the one in the following example:
Game is $1/$2 No-Limit and effective stacks are $200. You're dealt A♠ K♦ on the button. The two players in the blinds are solid TAGs. It's folded to you and you raise to $8. Small blind calls, big blind folds.
The flop comes down K♥ 3♠ 5♣. Your opponent checks and you bet $15; your opponent calls. The turn comes 6♦. Your opponent checks and you bet $35. Your opponent calls.
The river comes 6♠. Your opponent bets $100 into you.
This hand is ugly. You have a strong hand and your opponent is showing massive strength on the river. Both folding and calling are bad here.
This is a tough spot because the pot is now very large and your hand, while strong, is not the kind of monster that would make you confident about getting all-in here. If you had practiced pot control, your river decision would have been much easier.
Big Hand, Big Pot
When you flop a big hand, you want to win your opponent's stack.
"Big hand," however, isn't easily defined. It could be a set or a straight or two pair or even top pair. I define a big hand as a hand that you're willing to play for stacks against a certain opponent.
This is a sliding scale. Against one loose player it may be correct to play a big pot with one pair. Against another, tighter opponent it may be a huge mistake. The only way to tell is to observe the table rigorously and know your opponents.
Your stack is a tool. You use it to win the other person's chips. You cannot win their stack without putting yours on the line. You can, however, decide when you put your stack on the line.
So you should only risk your stack if you have a big hand. You should seldom find yourself in a big pot having to fold. Maintain control of the pot size - meaning if that pot is big, then it's your fault, and you'd better have a big hand.
Otherwise you need to look back and see how this big pot was created. Did you initially have a big hand and the situation has changed? Or had you been slowly building a big pot all along with a hand you weren't committed to?
Rather than building pots with all sorts of hands and then folding when the action gets too big, plan your hands. Know from the beginning how much action you can take with your hand, and if it's not a big-pot hand, then take a different line.
Small Hand, Small Pot
Now that we've defined a big hand, pinpointing a small hand is easy: it's a hand you don't want to play a big pot with.
As a general rule you should avoid playing for stacks with one pair type hands. If you are called you're normally behind. So when you have a hand like top pair you should exercise pot control.
Remember you are in charge of the hands you play. You build big pots when you have big hands and when you have smaller hands, you actively control the size of the pot so you're not put to a tough decision.
If you're always in control of the pots you're in, it makes it extremely difficult for your opponent to win your stack. This is why many players can employ a loose-aggressive strategy successfully.
They may appear to be playing crazy but that's only when the pots are small. If they play a big pot, you can rest assured they have a big hand.
Pot control can and should be used when you have a hand that isn't good enough to play for stacks. This hand could be second pair, it could be top pair; it could even be an overpair. It all depends on who you're playing against.
Let's look at an example of keeping the pot small by checking the turn:
Game is $1/$2 No-Limit; effective stacks are $200. The players in the blinds are both solid TAGs. It's folded to you on the button with K♣ Q♦. You raise to $6; the SB folds, the BB calls.
The board comes Q♥ 3♦ 7♣. Your opponent checks and you bet $9; he calls. The turn is the 3♠. Your opponent checks and you check behind.
This is a very good use of pot control. Your hand - top pair, good kicker - is strong. Nonetheless, it's not a big hand, meaning you wouldn't be willing to play for stacks against your TAG opponent. You know this player is not going to call down three streets with a hand you beat.
Let's say for example he did flop a set here. If he check-raises the turn you may have to lay down the best hand or fold with money invested. So you can check behind now on the turn to keep the pot small in case you are behind.
If he now decides to bet the river, the pot will be small enough you can justify a call. You'll be able to see a showdown for what it would have cost you to bet the turn! Checking the turn may also cause him to bet or call with a worse hand on the river, so it's a win-win situation.
When Shouldn't You Use Pot Control?
Pot control should only be used when the board is dry. I would never advise you to not protect your hand. So if your hand is vulnerable to draws you must continue your aggression. You do not want to allow draws to get in cheap!
An example that shows why it's crucial to be know when your hand is vulnerable to draws:
Game is $1/$2 No-Limit; effective stacks are $200. You raise to $6 from middle position with A♦ K♦. Everyone folds to the big blind, who comes along for the ride. The flop comes K♠ 6♠ 7♣.
Your opponent checks and you bet $10. Your opponent calls. The turn is the 2♦ and your opponent checks again. This time you bet $25.
This board is far too wet to allow a free card here. There are a quite a few draws in his range and the river could bring a number of less-than-stellar cards. So bet now to protect your hand. It is rarely advisable to give free cards when your hand is vulnerable.
Pot control, like most poker tactics, is not a gambit you can use all the time. It is situation-dependent. If you know your opponent is going to call three streets with hands you beat, then by all means value bet relentlessly.
By now it should be evident that pot control should be used when your hand isn't strong enough against a given opponent to play for a big pot. You are control of the pots you play.
So save your big pots for big hands and when your hand isn't big, play to protect your chips.
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