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March 2nd, 2010
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Poker Lesson: Keeping the Pot Small
Author: Jennifer Harman
Poker is a game of decisions. Some decisions are very easy to make, while others will keep you awake all night if you choose poorly. In my experience, the larger the pot size, the harder the decision you’ll be faced with.
On the other hand, the smaller the pot is, the easier the decision. Which is why, especially in tournament play, you want to keep the pot small when you’re holding a marginal hand. You don’t want to be facing a decision for all of your chips in a situation where all you’ve got is something like top pair with a medium-strength kicker. You want to avoid that scenario as much as possible. It’s better to keep the pot small by checking and calling rather than building a huge pot, even if you do hold an advantage in that hand.
Let me give you an example from a hand I played at a World Series of Poker event last year. We were still fairly early in the tournament, and I was in the cut-off (the seat before the button) holding K-J. The action folded around to me, I put in a raise and was called by the button. Both blinds folded, and we were heads-up going to the flop.
The flop came J-9-3 with two diamonds. Yes, I had top pair with a strong kicker, but with straight and flush draws on the board I was in no mood to go crazy with my hand. So I checked, and the button bet about two-thirds of the pot.
A check could also tempt my opponent to bluff in this spot, especially if he put me on something like A-K or A-Q. With a bluff or a drawing hand being the button’s most likely holding, I made the call.
The turn was a harmless 5, not a diamond, and very unlikely to help out the button in any way. Once again, I decided to control the size of the pot and keep it small by checking. If I’d bet and the button had a monster draw, there’s a good chance he’d come over the top of my bet to try and push me off the pot. I liked my hand there, just not enough to go broke with it.
After I checked, the button put in another bet, which I called. The river was a non-diamond 2, meaning that neither the flush draw or the straight draw got there. Confident that I had the best hand at this point, I still decided to check the river.
Why? Well, there was a small chance the button had made a set or two pair somewhere along the way, and it’s better to check-call in that spot rather than face a tough decision for a lot of chips if he raises. Also, if he did have nothing but air, checking might induce a bluff on the river.
As it turned out, the button checked behind me and I took down the pot with my K-J. I didn’t win a big pot with that hand, but I also didn’t lose a huge pot. The decisions I faced on each street were made much easier by the fact that I kept the pot small
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