Pot Control In Middle Stakes Hold’Em
Playing deep stacked no limit hold’em is less a precision game and more of an abstract art, with the flexibility of hundreds of blinds worth of play in your stack. You can be the hyper aggressive bully, the squeaky tight rock, or the sneaky small-ball player, and can shift from one style to the next before anyone can catch on. One thing that can be harnessed, at least to some extent, is the size of pots you play in comparison to the stack sizes you are facing at your table. With your stack, you have the luxury of making bets that can put the short stacks to difficult decisions. But when matched up against a similar deep stack, decisions in the hand based on pot sizing can drastically affect the outcome of the hand.
An example can be found from a local $2/$5 game that I was a part of. In this hand, we have Chris, a squeaky tight player who is considered to be a sound, fundamental player, and Clarence, a fairly tight player who likes to protect pots. The effective stacks were $600 at the start of the hand. Seven-handed, everyone folded to Chris, on the button, who opened the action for $15. Clarence, in the BB, looked down at two black aces. Given the stack sizes, what’s your play here?
I hate the flat. With stacks this deep, you want to protect your aces, and you have a tight player opening, meaning he may have one of the more premium hands that you want to play a big pot with preflop, like KK or QQ. I usually will make a standard raise here, something in the neighborhood of $45-$60. You’re decreasing variance by forcing your deep, tight opponent to play more straightfoward poker with you preflop, and by tightening his range against you, your post-flop decisions are easier. Remember; he has position on you from this point on. Make him pay for it. In this hand, however, Clarence chose to min-bet to $30. He was trying to be cute and build a small pot with his aces, but Chris can’t fold any hand he opened with for a min-bet, and he quickly flicked the $15 in the pot.
With $57 (less rake) in the pot, the flop was 2d 5d 10d. A player with black aces here has a real dilemma against a very tight player; he’s not likely to make any more money off of any hand that doesn’t contain at least one large (Q+) diamond in it! His situation has deteriorated quite a bit, so what’s the proper play here? Given Clarence’s action and the player he’s up against, I think a fair continuation bet of around $40 will defend us against hands like 8x8d or 9x9d without putting too much money in the pot if he does happen to have AdXd or KQd, two hands that are completely in our opponents range. Facing a $40 bet, our opponent is probably only calling with QQd+ or a flush, or top set (and he’s likely raising us with top set) and folding JJd or less, and maybe even hands like QQ no diamond. It keeps the pot under control and lets us reevaluate if he calls and we have to play the turn.
In this particular hand, however, Clarence chose to make a massive overbet of the pot, and fired $100 very quickly into the piot. Chris paused for about ten seconds before sliding a tower of red into the pot. Clarence has now put himself into a terribly awkward position by inflating a pot with a hand that has very little chance for improvement. Our incredibly tight opponent called our oversized bet into this pot with only a small amount of consideration. What’s his range here?
* Flopped flush: Fits the hand perfectly; AJd+ and KJd+ fit the hand. He may raise with the king high flush, to protect against the naked ace (Clarence’s hand could read for AxAd or AdKx) and he would certainly raise to protect with the QJd, so his flat looks very strongly of a flopped flush.
* Set of 10’s: Not as likely, but possible. He may be waiting to see if a diamond peels before protecting, but it’s not a good idea. Even a tight player could recognize the danger of this board, and would be inclined to make a good sized raise to protect their hand. However, the large initial bet Clarence made may actually hinder his ability to make a protective raise.
* JJ-KK with a diamond: Possible. I think our tight opponent may have the discipline to lay the JJ down, but I’m not so sure about QQ, and I don’t think you can lay KK with a diamond down on this type of flop for a bet, even as big as this is, given that Clarence’s range is bigger than simply AA. It’s clearly a calling hand, not a raising hand.
Those are about all of the hands that make sense to flat $100 with, and we’re crushed by two of the three, and only a favorite against the smaller pocket pairs, who still have a clean 11 outs to beat us. Our hand is pretty face up, but our opponents is now too, and the turn play in this now inflated pot is going to be hard to manuever. The turn was the 4 of clubs, giving us a board of 2d 5d 10d 4c. With $257 in the pot, and $550 left in each player’s stack, what are we going to do now? By inflating the pot to a point that we aren’t comfortable with, we’ve turned our hand into a bluff catcher and little else, and we’re up against a player that isn’t likely to be bluffing. I’m content to check and let our opponent tell us whether or not he has a big hand; a bet here is going to likely commit us to the hand.
In the actual hand, however, Clarence continued firing with a bet of $200, committing half of his stack to the hand with the bet. Clarence was intending to protect his “monster” hand with the big bet, but what can Chris call with on the turn now that he’s bet so much? He’s only getting called (or raised) by the set or the flush, and the range of hands that he beats will fold. The problem, however, is the range that beats him actually exceeds the range he beats! The inflated pot made him feel he had to protect his hand, and he made a bet in accordance with the size of the pot. Chris, after a thirty second tank, announced all-in for another $250, and Clarence quickly called, announcing himself as “pot-committed” as Chris happily turned over AQd for the nuts, having Clarence drawing completely dead.
Why did Clarence lose $600? Was this simply a bad beat, as he later lamented? Absolutely not! If Clarence makes it $50 preflop, Chris actually could’ve folded AQd (he’s tight enough to let hands of that caliber go to a 3-bet from another tight player) and we take the pot there. If not? Let’s look at the hand played with careful calculation after the $50 3-bet, if called.
On the flop, we’re continuation betting, but a number more like $60-$70, a number that defends against the bare diamond while keeping us non-committed to the hand. Chris would very likely just call, as he did in our example. The turn, with about $240 in the pot, allows us to check and evaluate, as even though a very similar amount of money is in the pot, the larger preflop raise isolated his range, and we can see that we’re clearly either ahead and vulnerable or drawing completely dead, so there’s little need to defend. Chris would fire a bet here, in the neighborhood of $100-$150. I think this is where we give Chris some respect and simply let it go here, but even if we call, we can fold if a diamond peels on the river, or if he shows us strength again (which he would) and instead of losing the full $600, we lose a number in the range of $120-150 most of the time. (or even win $17 a small amount of the time)
By controlling and manipulating pot sizes, you allow yourself the ability to price people in and out of pots, but you also give yourself that “escape hatch” to get out of a particularly nasty situation without being handcuffed to it yourself. Be cautious of your bet sizing throughout the hand, and you just might thank yourself when that “should’ve been a thousand dollar pot” that your opponent wins is actually only two hundred.