Betting out to control pot size by Kelly Kim

Intuitively, it would seem that checking and calling is the best way to keep a pot small when you’re uncertain as to whether or not you have the best hand. And often, that’s the case. But believe it or not, betting out can sometimes allow you to get to the showdown cheaper than checking. If your goal is to control the size of the pot, sometimes voluntarily putting chips in will actually keep the pot smaller than passively putting chips in only after your opponent does.

Here’s an example from a hand that I played during this year’s World Series of Poker Main Event that will illustrate this tactic. The blinds were 12,000/24,000 and I opened for 60,000 on the button. Usually when you open for 2 1/2 big blinds like that, especially on the button, it portrays some strength. In this case, I only had Q-J of hearts. The small blind called and the big blind folded.

The flop came A-10-rag; he checked, I bet 65,000 and he called. The turn card was a Queen – making me second pair – and he checked. This was the key moment in the hand. I decided to bet 100,000. I did this for pot control: I didn’t want to call a bet of 150,000 or 200,000 on the river, so I made a smaller bet at that point expecting it to freeze him on the river with most hands.

Let’s say my opponent had A-3. My small bet on the turn made it look like I had a strong hand and was milking him, wanting him to call. There was no way he could bet on the river with an Ace and no kicker; he was just as happy as I was to see a free showdown at that point.

It’s also important to note our stack sizes. I started the hand with about 600,000 in chips and he was deep, with about 1.5 million. By betting 100,000 on the turn, meaning I had committed more than one-third of my stack, he couldn’t try a bluff raise because it was too likely that I was pot-committed. On top of this, I had established a tight image and he had to respect the likelihood that I had a real hand. If he had come over the top, I would have found out that I was beat for a relatively cheap price.

The main goal of the turn bet was to get me to the showdown for 100,000 instead of a larger amount. If I’d checked there, with about 280,000 in the pot, he could very well have had Ace-baby, and my check would have told him that I didn’t have an Ace. He then could have easily bet about 150,000-200,000 on the river to extract value from me. He was looking for an amount that I might have paid off with a Queen or what looked like a bluff. If he had Ace-baby and opted for the 200,000-chip bet, I would have saved 100,000 by betting out on the turn.

Obviously, he could have thrown a wrinkle into the plan by moving all in on the river. Again, this is a situation where you have to incorporate image, and I’d been playing real tight to that point – he was just as scared of me as I was of him.

What if I did have him beat with the Queen? Let’s say he had J-10 or K-10; he would have been priced in to call, and I wanted him to – I needed to pick up the extra 100,000 for my stack. I was willing to take the risk of seeing the river because he only had five or six outs.

Against other players who are capable of seeing the river card and just moving in, I might have tried a different strategy, like playing real small ball and checking the turn while being prepared to pay off 175,000 on the river. But against this guy, I knew for sure he was going to check the river unless he made trips or a straight.

As it turned out, I never saw his hand. He checked the river, I checked behind. He was disgusted when I showed him the Queen, so it was obvious that he had a 10 and I turned him. But he couldn’t have just had a 10. For him to have called with a 10 on the turn he needed to have a straight card there – he either had to be holding J-10 or K-10. And that was exactly the hand I wanted to be up against on the turn.

This situation was very circumstantial because it was based on stack size and image, which are very important in live tournaments. Because of the size of my chip stack, I was playing really tight and couldn’t afford to get out of line. I couldn’t see many flops. I played with this opponent for a while to set up this play, and I knew it was the perfect situation for it. I wanted to get to a showdown because I thought queens could have been the best hand, but didn’t want to pay 200,000 in the end to find out.

Kelly Kim