Pot Control in Poker

Written by

Pot control is a key concept in big bet poker games like no limit holdem and pot limit Omaha. The term refers to the manipulation of the pot size so as to play smaller pots with mediocre hands. Typically if you raise pre-flop with a hand like AT and get one caller and the flop comes Ts7s5h with a flush draw, you’ll happily bet for value. If the turn comes and it’s for example a Jh, all of a sudden your hand doesn’t look nearly as pretty. Your opponent may have called you with JT or 89 before the flop which have now overtaken you, and he may also have a hand like JJ or QQ meaning you were behind all along. There’s also the possibility that he may have floated with the flop with a hand like KQ or AhQh, which has now picked up a backdoor flush draw and a backdoor straight draw. If your opponent is an aggressive player he might raise the turn with his strong draws as well as his made hands.

In this case there are very few significantly worse hands which will just call your bet on the turn. This fact, combined with the possibility that your opponent will bluff on the river if you check behind on the turn makes checking for pot control a viable option in this spot.

Pot Control in Position

When playing a hand in position, it’s much easier to manipulate the size of the pot to suit the strength of your hand. This is one of the reasons why playing in position is such an advantage. If you raise on the button to steal the blinds and get called by the big blind who is an aggressive player that check-raises a very wide range on the flop as good players do, then having the option to check-behind with your medium strength hands puts you in a very strong position.

For example if you raise with Qs7s and the flop comes Th7c4s, there isn’t much value in betting, and you run this risk of having to fold when your opponent check-raises, which he could be doing with all sorts of hands like straight draws, backdoor flush draws, and even bare over-cards. By checking behind you give you get the opportunity to see what your opponent does on the turn while keeping the pot very small, in accordance with your weak hand that has some showdown value. Furthermore you get the opportunity to hit another 7 or T on the turn, which makes your hands much stronger, or for another spade to roll off which gives you the added equity of flush draw; equity which you would not have realised had you been check-raised off your hand on the flop.

Pot Control Out of Position

For the same reasons that being in position makes pot control quite easy, being out of position makes it quite tough. In every poker hand, the last player to act is essentially the gatekeeper. He decided whether you see the turn card for the current bet amount or not. Imagine you raise in middle position with a hand like Ts9s and are called by the button and the flop comes 9dJsAd. Although you have a pair and some back door draws, it’s pretty clear that you don’t want to put a lot of money in with this hand on the flop. If you check here however to keep the pot small, you open the door for your opponent to bet the flop, turn and river as a bluff in a pot where you don’t have position and now no longer have the initiative.

We can calculate pretty easily the difference position makes when pot controlling. Imagine when we check back weak hands when we’re in position with the intention of calling down. Let’s say there are 6 big blinds in the pot on the flop and out opponent bets 4bb into 6bb on the turn and 10bb into 14 on the river. The final pot size will be 34 big blinds.

Now take the same scenario when we raise in middle position and he calls on the button. There are 7 big blinds in the pot and we check. He bets 5bb into 7bb on the flop 13bb into 17bb on the turn, and 30bb into 43bb on the river. The final pot size in this hand is 103bb. You can see that pot controlling when out of position ends up leading to a pot size that’s three times as big as if you were in position!

Capped Ranges and Exploiting Pot Control Lines

Once you recognise players who regularly use pot control lines, there are a few things you can do to exploit their tendencies. If you have noticed that every time a player raises pre-flop and checks back on the flop that he has a weak hand with some showdown value which he intends to call down with, or possibly bet the turn, you can counter this by working over-bets into your game. When a straightforward player checks back the flop, he is basically announcing to you that he has a hand that can’t take much heat. If you lead into him for 1.5-2 times the size of the pot on the turn you disrupt his plan to call you down as most of the time he won’t have a hand which is strong enough to call such a big bet.

You can extend this logic to the river. If your opponent bets on the flop and you call, then checks back the turn to keep the pot small, and bets the river when you check to him, this is a great spot to check raise. This assumes of course that the river doesn’t complete an obvious draw.

Pot control in Tournaments

Controlling the size of the pots which you play in tournament poker is vital. In freezeout tournaments or after the rebuy period has ended, you only have the chips in front of you to work with and its certainly in your interest to minimise variance and chip up by winning lots of small pots.

Daniel Negreanu pioneered this ‘small ball’ approach to poker many years ago, and the rest of the tournament poker community has since cottoned onto it. Nowadays in tournament poker it’s extremely common to see min-raises and min-re-raises on all streets, something that would have been frowned upon a few years back. Players are happy to make the small error of not getting maximum value with their hands pre-flop in exchange for playing smaller pots throughout the tournament and rarely putting all of their chips at risk.