Why I Hate Pot (Odds, That Is)

When I first started playing poker way back in the late 1970s with a group of friends from high school, the concepts of pot odds and fold equity were to poker what clean campaigns were to politics – they just didn’t exist. As the candidates for President show us almost daily, clean campaigns still don’t exist in politics, but these “advanced concepts” are all the rage now in poker. Many pros believe that you can’t succeed in poker unless you are some sort of a Stephen Hawking protégé.

I’m not going to try to explain what these concepts are. Cardschat has some excellent articles in their strategy section on understanding pot odds, poker equity and expected value, among others. Check them out if you would like to learn more about those advanced theories.

What I’m here to tell you is that you can be successful in poker without understanding fully or adhering strictly to these concepts. In fact, you probably already have a general concept of these strategies even if you have never read a book or an article about them. A lot of it is just putting numbers to common sense.

CardsChat has some excellent tips and charts for understanding the concept of pot odds, but relying too heavily on any one concept when making poker decisions can be risky. Many factors should go into each decision made during a poker game.

That’s Some Bad Dope

Let’s take pot odds, for example. Pot odds are basically calculating how many chips you contribute to a pot compared to your expectation of winning the pot. You generally use this concept when you believe you are behind in a hand after the flop, but you have the expectation of catching up by the river. In other words, you are looking at drawing hands (such as flushes, straights or even trying to complete a set with a pocket pair).

Let’s say you have a suited pocket and two more of the suit land on the flop. Now you’ve got two chances to hit the final card you need for a flush. Statistically speaking, you’ve got roughly a 25% chance to make your flush by the river.

According to pot odds, then if the cost for you to call is less than 25% of the pot, you should call because, the theory goes, in the long run, you will win more than you lose. If your opponent makes a big bet and it’s going to cost you, say, 50 percent of the pot to call, then you should fold.

One problem with pot odds is that it doesn’t take into account your accumulated bets; it just looks at each round of betting in isolation. Let’s say you get a suited pocket with an ace and a low kicker while you are on the button. The BB is 800. By the time it gets to you, one player has raised to 2,000 and another has called. You decide to flat. Both blinds fold, leaving a pot of 8,000 pre-flop. (400 SB + 800 BB + 100 antes x8 + 3 bets of 2,000).

The flop contains two more of your suit, giving you a flush draw. Your opponent bets 2,000 and the second player folds. According to pot odds, you should call because 2,000 chips of the total of 12,000 are only about 17 percent and you have roughly a 25 percent chance of hitting the flush on the turn or river. Over the long run, this play will work out to your favor.

Now let’s say the turn is a brick and your opponent increases the bet to 4,000, making the total pot 16,000. It’s 4,000 chips to you to call, which would be 20 percent of the total pot. Your chance to now hit the flush on the river is roughly 20 percent, so your pot odds are still basically even, right? If you just look at that bet in isolation, then yes, maybe you can justify a call there. But looking at the cumulative bets, calling the 4,000 bet will mean you will have put 8,000 chips into a 20,000 pot (40 percent of the total pot) and you are now down to a 20 percent chance of winning. I don’t think those are good odds.

Another consideration of what pot odds leaves out is the percentage of your stack vs. the amount you have to bet. In the above scenario, if you are fairly deep stacked (let’s say you had 120,000 chips when that hand started), then you can afford to spend 4,000 or even 8,000 chips chasing a nut flush.

In that scenario, pot odds doesn’t even enter my thinking. Instead, I’m more concerned with how big my opponent’s stack is and what is the likelihood that he may put in a huge bet on the turn if my flush doesn’t come through. In other words, do I really have two chances to make the flush, or will my opponent bet so aggressively after the turn that I will likely fold, leaving me just one shot to hit the flush?

If you started that hand with only 40,000 chips, you would spend one-fifth of your stack chasing a flush, a move that will only pay off about one-fourth of the time. In those situations, when the blinds are getting large and the bubble is getting near, I am going to look for something a little more certain than a 25 percent chance.

This “new math” of pot odds, reverse implied pot odds, implied odds, etc., has its place in poker, but should not be the only factor taken into consideration when making your decision. Poker is a complex game already. Making it even more so may not always be the proper path to take.

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