What if everything you thought you knew about pot control was wrong? This week, Adam Jones explains why “pot control” is inherently flawed as a poker strategy concept. Through a series of hand history reviews, he’ll show why attempts to keep the pot small through checking can be a big, exploitable leak, and what real profitable “pot control” would actually look like.
Adam Jones: What is up guys, this is “w34z3l” for Red Chip Poker. Topic of this training video is pot control. Just a spoiler alert here, this video is probably not going to be what you think it is. This is not going to be a video on why pot control is so great and how you could use it in a real game scenario. Quite the opposite, in fact. There’s a certain quote I like from the poker book Let There Be Range. Terrible book, by the way. I don’t recommend you read it, but I do feel that this quote in particular has stood the test of time in terms of how our understanding of poker theory has developed. The quote is as follows, “Sometimes I feel pot control is a concept high stakes players created so they can fry the bad players faster.”
In this video, we will talk about what is meant by the concept of pot control, the traditional definition of that concept. However, perhaps more importantly, we’re also going to talk about why you do no want to pot control in the vast majority of situations, and why this quote is actually somewhat accurate. However, there is a more modern version of pot control, which we will also underscore in this video. So, I do use pot control in my strategy. It’s just not the type of pot control you may be familiar with.
Okay, let’s start with the definition of pot control. What is pot control? The basic idea is this: keeping the size of the pot at one which makes sense for the type of hand we have. In other words, we have a stone cold nut, we like it when the pot grows pretty big. But if we have a mid strength made hand, we’d probably prefer it that the stacks don’t go in. So, pot control is especially a concept which was created for marginal or mid-strength holdings. The basic idea is that by checking, instead of betting, we can keep the size of the pot manageable. So the traditional approach to pot control emphasizes checking over betting when we hold a marginal or mid-strength holding.
But here is the first problem with this concept of pot control, and it’s this idea that we control the size of the pot by checking. Checking doesn’t control anything. This is not fixed limit holdem. Fixed limit holdem provides an example of where checking does effectively control the size of the pot. You think about how limit holdem works, if you check back the flop, then our opponent doesn’t have the ability to raise our bet, and we can effectively limit the amount of money he can put in by refusing to ever raise or bet ourselves.
We can just call against his mid bets on each street. We can effectively set a cap on the amount of money he can invest into the pot. We are directly controlling the size of the pot with our actions. No limit holdem does not work like this, because villain retains the ability to shove all in at any moment. So, we might think that we’re controlling the size of the pot by checking back the flop, but our opponent just has the ability to shove all in on any turn anyway. We’re not controlling anything. This idea of pot control is an illusion, or perhaps more accurately, a delusion.
On the flip side of the coin, by playing overly passively, attempting to pot control, you can actually end up doing that which we were trying to avoid in the first place. Remember we’re doing this because we’re trying to keep control over the pot, but by playing passively, ironically, that’s how we end up losing control over the pot. Overly passive play loses control. Also, it reinforces an erroneous idea regarding the game of poker. It leads players to believe that protection is way less important than it actually is. It’s as if we’re saying, “Okay, we don’t need to protect the equity here. The most important thing is controlling the size of the pot.” That’s absolutely not how poker works.
In the vast majority of situations, the most important thing is making sure our opponent doesn’t realize free equity unnecessarily. So perhaps we can now see a little bit of context for this quote we examined at the outset. This idea of pot control, it’s just going to result in us getting fried a lot faster than we actually need to. It’s bad poker, essentially.
Pot control is basically never a reason to do anything. As mentioned, there is a slightly more modern approach to pot control, but that approach involves using aggression to regulate the size of the pot and to keep control over the pot. We’ll talk about that a little bit later in the video. But I think the easiest and most unequivocal way of stating this is pot control is a bogus concept. Don’t do anything for pot control reasons.
We mentioned, however, that we are going to explain the concept. So let’s do that through this hand history example. So in this hand, we have ace seven of clubs, and we come in for a 2.4x up from the cutoff, big blind defends by cold calling, and the flop is ace, queen, three. We decide to fire a bet for value. By the way, this is one point in the hand that players may erroneously try and pot control. They might say, “Well, I just have a seven kicker, so let me check back, and keep the size of the pot small.” As mentioned, ironically, you might lose control of the pot if you do that, because it’s going to be difficult figuring out how often we should call down against the second barrel on the turn of river from our opponent. Especially if bad cards fall off on the turn of river.
Now, that doesn’t mean that checking is always wrong here. But if we decide to check, there’s usually going to be a reason besides pot control. For example, perhaps we know this player decides to probe at the turn, and follow up on the river hyper aggressively, in which case, checking is a pretty good play, because we’re setting a trap for our opponent. We’re going to call turn and river against his barrels, based on a tendency he has. In other words, we check back, because it’s the best exploitative option, not because we’re interested in pot control.
By default, in the majority of games, this should be a pretty straight-forward c-bet, despite the fact that our kick is somewhat weak, and our hand is clearly not worth three streets of value, and the reason for that is simply protection. You’ll see there are some gut shots out there, there are some flush draws. There’s some queen X holdings, which could improve to two pair trips. We should be absolutely be betting this flop.
Host: Turn comes the king of hearts. Board is queen of diamonds, three of spades, ace of spades, king of hearts. We have the ace seven of clubs still, top pair, seven kicker.
Adam Jones: The turn is another situation where even if players had bet the flop, they might decide now to check back the turn. The reason, for pot control. But as mentioned, that’s not a very good reason to do anything in this game. If we do decide to check back, there might be some other reason. For example, perhaps our opponent pro-bets the river too much. So, we can check back here on the turn and call any river bet from our opponent. Betting here is very reasonable as well, because we’ll want to extract value from king X holdings, queen X holdings, flush draws, so we can bet the turn with the intention of checking back the river. This might be the best line, by default.
However, if we have a specific read on our opponent, we know he’s going to pro-bet the river too much, we could check back, and we could call a river bet from our opponent. But we’re doing this for pot control reasons. Hopefully, that’s very, very clear by now. Pot control is a bogus concept. It might appear like we’re pot controlling, we’re actually just checking back the turn, because this player likes to pro bet the river too aggressively.
Let’s talk about this idea of modern pot control, which is essentially using aggression to manage the size of the pot, and keep control over the action. So, one thing we could do is when we’re playing aggressively, if we want to keep the pot small, then simply use smaller sizings. We don’t need to sacrifice our aggression in order to control the size of the pot. Because as mentioned, this is an illusion, anyway. Very often, if we use small sizings, we’re going to keep the size of the pot smaller, on average. We’ll see some examples of this, shortly.
Also, by being aggressive rather than passive, by retaining the initiative, it’s a lot easier to keep control over the pot. Now, this is somewhat exploitative in the sense that initiative, in itself, does not confer any mathematical value. But the way that the average player mistakenly responds to lack of initiative does help us to generate some bonuses in the expectation department. I think the best way to illustrate this is by using an example that many poker players are familiar with.
Perhaps we have heard of the idea of setting our own price for a draw. So, the idea is this. Perhaps, we’re out of position on the flop. We have something like a draw. It may be a weak draw. We want to see the turn card, and one way we can do that is just by making a very small bet out to position on the flop. The reason we do that, is because if we check, our opponent makes a very large bet against us, then it would be very expensive to see if we hit our draw on the turn. Whereas, if we make a small bet ourselves, perhaps we’ll get to see whether we hit our draw for a cheaper price.
Now, when you really analyze it, all of this reasoning is flawed, because the way our opponent should respond to a small bet, is just raising more aggressively. In fact, we’re probably more likely against a decent player to get to see the turn card more cheaply if we check. But because our opponent responds badly to that aggression, because he has a tendency to just call against a small bet, rather than increase his raising frequency, as he should, our retention of initiative is translating directly into expectation for us, not because that’s theoretically how poker works, but because our opponent doesn’t know how to respond to our aggression properly.
That’s just a general principle that overrides the way humans play poker. It’s a lot easier to be aggressive in the game of poker than it is to defend against aggression from our opponents. So, it’s a concept that we can use, assuming that the average player is going to make mistakes to increase our expectation. That’s why you put retention of initiative, and then in brackets, somewhat exploitative, because the truth is, if you look at the maths, having the initiative confers no special advantage to either player.
Now, if any of this is vague or difficult to follow, that’s exactly why we’re gonna have a look at some examples right now. Watch how we make use of these two principles to make decisions at the table. So, you’re going to see how we use small sizings to regulate the size of the pot. Also going to see how we retain the initiative throughout the hand. So, here, in this hand, we’re gonna flop a marginal made hand on the flop, and we’re going to employ pot control with small sizings and retention of initiative. I don’t really know if this should fall under the category of pot control. I guess you could call it Weasel control if you want to. So, we open raise ace eight of hearts from the cut off, button decides to cold call.
Host: The flop comes ace of clubs, ten of clubs, six of spades.
Adam Jones: We flop a pair of aces with an eight kicker. Now, checking could be considered on this flop. Betting’s probably superior in this situation, because our holding is quite vulnerable. You can see that there are a number of gut shots out there. There’s gut shots between the ace and ten. There’s gut shots between the six and ten as well. There are flush draws as well as 10 X holdings. It’s probably a good idea to bet at this point, but what we’re not going to do is we’re not going to bomb it because our hand’s vulnerable. That’s a common mistake players make. They’re like wow, look at all these draws out here. I’m gonna bet pot size.
That’s a very bad thing to do, because we will very quickly lose control of the pot. Pot is going to become unmanageably large on the later streets. Of course, as we mentioned, control is to an extent an illusion anyway, because this player could shove all-in at any moment, but we don’t mind, at all, if on average, this ends up being a smaller pot than some of the others that we play. Checking is not a very effective form of pot control here either, in the sense that although it might keep the pot smaller, on average, we risk giving free cards, so we’re not protecting our equity share in this pot, and also, we end up playing a guessing game what we just checked calling down.
So, betting actually keeps more effective control over the pot than checking can. We set our own price for how much we want to go in the middle. We guarantee to protect our equity share against any live cards our opponent has. We may even generate some fold equity in this point as well. He probably won’t raise as much as he’s supposed to against this small bet, and hence, the size of the pot is going to be smaller on average. So, you can see here, we gain much better control over the pot by betting than we do by checking.
Host: The turn comes king of clubs. The board is ace of clubs, 10 of clubs, six of spades, king of clubs. We hold ace eight of hearts.
Adam Jones: The turn card makes things even worse for us, in the sense that it degrades the strength of our hand. We don’t like the fact that some two pairs got there. Some gut shots got there. Some flush draws got there. So, our hand is worth even less, but we can use exactly the same principles. Checking potentially loses control over the pot here. It gives our opponent free equity. It allows him to see a free card for things like king queen, ten jack, queen ten, these types of holdings. Perhaps, he has pocket nines with a club, because he floats a flop wide. We do not want to let him realize 20% equity for free going from turn to river.
But of course, we don’t want the pot to grow too big either. So, put all of these concepts together making a very small bet here keeps better control over the pot than checking does. That’s exactly what we do. We go for the small bet.
Speaker 2: River is the 10 of hearts, pairing the board which reads ace of clubs, 10 of clubs, six of spades, king of clubs, 10 of hearts. We hold ace eight of hearts.
Adam Jones: On the river, we decide it’s a little bit too thin now to bet again for value. So, our plan is to check/fold. Opponent checks back, he has ace jack. So, we chop, because we both have aces and 10s with a king kicker. He did have us beat on the flop and turn with a better kicker, but really not a big deal. We’re going to lose some money anyway when we both flop and ace. But as you can see, we really lost the minimum in this hand as a result of our small bet sizings, whereas, if we’d bombed it on flop and turn, we would’ve lost a lot more potentially if that 10 hadn’t come and essentially counter-fitted our opponent’s kicker.
Pocket queens is our second example. We open raise from MP to 2.8 big blinds. Button decides to defend.
Host: Flop comes jack of diamonds, jack of spades, four of diamonds, we hold queens with the queen of diamonds.
Adam Jones: When we look at this flop texture, it’s not the kind of texture where we want the stacks to go in, because unfortunately, our opponent could have flopped trip jacks. So, getting 116 big blinds here, on the flop, all-in, could easily end up being a mistake. Having said that, I don’t think we necessarily want to give free cards here. Our opponent could have things like ace X holdings, maybe some king X holdings, even have some diamond draws. I wouldn’t say our hand is overly vulnerable in this spot, and I think check calling is reasonable as a result. This is one spot where equity protection is not super important, but there are certainly some merits to betting here, but we want to regulate the size of the pot, which we’re going to do with the smallest bet. Similar thing had happened on the turn.
Host: Turn comes the nine of clubs. Board reads jack, jack, four, nine with two diamonds. There’s 11.8 big blinds in the pot, and hero with queens. That’s 4.4 big blinds. Gets called by Villain. The river comes the queen of clubs, giving us top boat.
Adam Jones: On the river, we obviously flop the nuts, and at this point, the best play in a vacuum is usually to bet quite big, because we have a very strong, made hand. So, usually, you should be coming out with an 18 big blind bet. Something like that, if you play lower limit games. You should really bomb it on this river. You have pretty much the stone cold nuts, at this point in time. Our opponent could even have some worse boats, potentially, that he’s played very badly, of course, on the early streets, and he’s going to call a very large bet here.
Okay. So, the river play is not too important. It doesn’t really have any bearing on the topic. Hopefully, you can see what happened on the early streets, why we’re using these small sizings, and why it might be better than checking, although, it’s pretty close, I would say, make a small bet and checking in this hand history example, whereas I think in the previous hand, I think betting and using the small sizing is a lot better than checking.
I think key to this whole discussion is understanding the importance of protecting and not allowing our opponents to get free equity, and that’s one of the big problems with the pot control concept, is it allows our opponent to realize equity for free when we don’t have a valued reason for allowing them to do that. Sometimes, there are valued reasons, but pot control is never one of them. Okay. Thanks very much. This was “w34z3l” for Red Chip Poker.