When figuring implied pot odds, expectation and potential are two very different things
Many people like to throw around the term "implied pot odds." The problem is that there is sometimes confusion with the definition. Implied pot odds should include the amount of bets you expect to win from your opponent. Some say, or at least act in such a way, that implied pot odds include the amount of bets you could win from your opponent. Expectation and potential are two very different things. To clarify and to ensure that you have the correct mindset when making strategic decisions, a much better term to use in your poker vocabulary is effective implied pot odds.
The effective implied pot odds is simply the relationship between the amount in the pot plus the amount that you expect to win from your opponent(s) should you hit your hand and the bets required to play the hand. This is similar to the definition of implied pot odds, but "effective" ensures that you are considering the amount you expect to win, and not the potential. Drawing to a long shot, betting, and then watching your opponent fold does not have a positive expectation if you based your decision on the expectation that you would win your opponent's entire stack.
For example, in the early rounds of the World Series of Poker main event, you start out with $10,000 in chips and $25-$50 blinds. If you face a $100 bet on the flop, you have the potential of winning $10,000, which would give you 100-1 implied pot odds. If you face a $1,000 bet, these implied pot odds are now 10-1. Many players make the mistake of making decisions based on the potential win rather than the average win they expect to make in the long term. The potential win is part of the equation, but you cannot make decisions expecting this to happen all the time.
Determining the effective implied pot odds in limit hold'em is much easier than it is in no-limit hold'em. Most of the time in limit hold'em, you can expect to win an additional one to five big bets after the flop, depending on the number of opponents in the hand and the strength of their hands.
In no-limit hold'em, the effective implied pot odds are not as clear. For example, even though a bet of $100 might represent 100-1 potential implied pot odds given your stack sizes, the effective implied pot odds are probably much less. Your opponent will often back down on the turn in no-limit. On the other hand, if he has top set, you will most likely win a large portion, if not all, of his stack. Your decision should be based on the average expectation, given all of the different scenarios that could play out with the range of hands you put your opponent on.
Determining your effective implied pot odds in no-limit is dependent on the type of opponent you are up against and the range of hands you put him on.
The effective implied pot odds in no-limit have a big impact on strategy when comparing no-limit to limit. In limit hold'em, you need a large pot to justify drawing to a gutshot straight. In no-limit, the pot does not need to be very large at the moment if you think there is a good chance you will get paid off handsomely should you hit your hand. This same concept can be applied to starting-hand strategy. Some players will play many hands in hope of hitting a big hand, since the implied pot odds are so great. On the other hand, you might not get paid off at all.
For example, with a flop of 9 6 4, you will not have very good effective implied pot odds if your opponent is sitting on a hand like the A Q, or even a hand like the 8 8. Even if your opponent has a large stack, he won't give you very much action, so your effective implied pot odds will not be very high. If your opponent has an overpair, you will likely get some action, but it still may be difficult to get his whole stack early in a tournament, depending on the opponent and the situation.
Determining your effective implied pot odds takes experience and a good understanding of your opponents. Weak opponents tend to play their hands too strongly. These players are willing to play overpairs very strongly without worrying about sets. They will push top pair with a weak kicker. Your effective implied pot odds are much higher against them than against stronger opponents, since you have a better chance of winning their entire stack if they have a decent hand.
A good example of this occurred at the 2004 World Series of Poker. We were at the second level and a weak player in middle position made a standard-size raise. The next player called and I reraised from the big blind with Q-Q. Both opponents called, and the flop came out K-Q-X. I bet a small amount and the next player made a significant-size raise. At this point, the pot was quite large, so I decided to move all in. My opponent called and turned over A-K. Even though this is not a drawing hand, it demonstrates how some players are willing to risk all of their chips with just mediocre hands. I'm not sure what this opponent thought he could beat, given all the strength I had shown up to that point, but he is the kind of opponent I wish I had at my table all the time. Against these types of opponents, you will often have very high effective implied pot odds.
Your effective implied pot odds are generally higher against weaker opponents than they are against strong opponents.
Strong opponents are always playing a game of survival. They might be willing to take a stab at the pot on a bluff or attempt to protect a strong hand, but they will bail out if it appears that it is likely that they are up against a very strong hand. They will sometimes bet in a fashion in which they hope to lose the minimum if their opponent has a very strong hand. Against these types of opponents, your effective implied pot odds will be less than they are against amateur players, who will sometimes get married to their hand.
One skill that separates expert players from the amateur player is that expert players do a better job of determining their effective implied pot odds in each particular situation. Occasionally, you will see an expert player make a call on a draw that on the surface seems crazy, but in reality, he was probably assessing his opponent and the situation and determined that there was a high likelihood of winning his opponent's entire stack if he hit his hand. In the same situation against a strong opponent, he is likely to fold his hand.
When you face a tough call on a draw, always think of your effective implied pot odds. Do not get trapped into looking at your opponent's entire stack; instead, concentrate on figuring out how much of your opponent's stack you think you could win, on average, if you hit your hand. It is not always what you could win, but what you expect to win.
This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
Matthew is the owner of Dimat Enterprises, “Publishing Today’s Best Poker Books”. The Math of Hold’em by Collin Moshman and Douglas Zare is available now at pokerbooks.InternetTexasHoldem.com.