Pot-Size Manipulation by Gavin Smith

One of the key skills that winning big-bet players bring to the table is the ability to manipulate the size of the pot. They manage to play big pots when they have big hands, and keep the pot smaller when their holdings are more modest. If you think carefully about your betting throughout a hand, you can set yourself up to play a pot that’s appropriate for the strength of your hand. 

For starters, let’s look at a hand that gets a lot of players in trouble – a big pocket pair. Generally, with any one pair, you should be looking to play a medium-sized pot. Of course, you’re happy enough to get all of your money in pre-flop with Aces, but beyond that, you should try to avoid playing huge pots with any one pair. Here’s an example of how you might manage the size of the pot while holding Aces.

Say that you raise pre-flop with pocket Aces and you’re called by the big blind. The flop comes down J-6-3 rainbow, and the blind checks to you. You bet three-quarters of the pot and the big blind calls.

At this point, you can assume your opponent has some kind of hand. Maybe he has a pocket pair or he hit top pair on the flop. The other possibility is that he hit a set on the flop and you’re in very bad shape. Given these likely hands, I think that checking behind your opponent if he checks to you on the turn is the best play. You avoid the possibility of losing a monster if you’re check-raised by a set. And if he does have a pair, you’re not giving away a whole lot of value by giving the free card. He may have two or five outs, which makes him a pretty big dog.

When you check the turn, you do so with the plan of calling a reasonable bet on the river. And if he checks to you on the river, you can put in a small value bet. At that point, your hand would be pretty well disguised, so he is likely to pay you off if he has anything at all.

So in this case, keeping the pot small will get you pretty good value when you’re ahead and help you avoid disaster when you’re behind.

Now let’s look at another type of hand that players commonly misplay – a flopped monster. Say you’re in the big blind in a No-Limit cash game. There are four limpers, including the small blind, and you check your option with A-T. The flop is huge for you – A-A-T. You have what is almost certain to be the best hand at showdown. Many players choose to check in this spot, fearing that a bet a will kill their action. And it very well might – it’s possible that everyone will just fold. But this is a situation where you want to give yourself the chance to win a big pot. You want someone to put in a lot of money on the turn and river while drawing dead, and that will only be possible if you start building a pot on the flop. In this situation, you’ve just got to hope that someone is holding the case Ace or decides to draw to a gutshot. So bet two-thirds of the pot on the flop and hope for the best.

Slow-playing might get you a few chips when you catch someone stabbing. But that would win you a tiny pot, and with this hand, you’re hoping to get a good portion of someone’s stack. You can only do that by betting and building a pot.

In the course of a hand think about what you can do to keep the pot appropriate to the strength of your hand. A timely check or a thoughtful bet can aid you in getting the most out of your hands.

Gavin Smith