Poker: Taking the Pot Size into Consideration

Note: If you do not have a firm grasp of the concept of "Expected Value" (or "Expectation"), read the Expected Value article first.

Along with the poker concepts of expected valueodds and position, the size of the pot should be, with some very rare exceptions, the number one factor to determine how you act. The size of the pot directly dictates your pot odds, and pot odds in turn are one of the most important factors in determining expected value, which brings you to the core of poker:making decisions with the highest expected value.

When it comes to pot size in poker the three most important points to remember are:

  • Don't bluff into a small pot

  • If the pot gets big, do everything you can to win it

  • Control the size of the pot to make others make mistakes

Let’s take a closer look at each of these points in turn.


Poker chips on a poker table.

Pot size is always a key consideration.


Don't Bluff Into a Small Pot

We’ll use limit Hold’em for this example, as it often makes the math simpler to follow.

Let's say you find yourself in a multi-way pot, before the flop. It's you, the big blind and two limpers. You have two high cards, but the flop doesn't pair either of them. Everybody checks to you. Do you bet?

It’s not advisable. With four people in the pot, the chances are good that someone has at least a pair. If you're willing to risk a bluff, this may be a good time to do it, but let's say you check to see if you'll have better luck on the turn.

The turn doesn't help you out, and everyone checks to you once more.

At this point, there are only 4.5 small bets in the pot. If you bet, you're hoping they'll all fold to your bluff. You're paying two small bets (one big bet) to win 4.5, but again you risk being called, or worse, check-raised.

This is not a winning move, because your potential gain is nowhere near big enough to cover the times when you're not ahead. Let's say there's a 20% chance you'll get away with your bluff and everyone folds (and 20% might be generous) – someone might even fold bottom pair. How big does the pot have to be for that to be profitable?

The EV-calculation of when you bet and miss gives us this:

Lose 2 small bets four times out of five:

-2 * 4/5 = -1.6

So to break even, the 1/5 times you win you will need:

Pot size (x) times 1 time out of five must be equal to (or larger than) 1.6.

x * 1/5 = +1.6 => (gives) x = 1.6/(1/5) = 8 small bets.

So if the chance is as big as 20% that ALL of your opponents will fold to your bet, the pot needs to be 8 small bets for it to be profitable. If you deem the chance to be smaller, which it in reality probably often is, the pot needs to be even bigger.

Note: this door swings both ways – if your opponents are aware of the pot size, they should of course be less inclined to fold to a bet into a big pot, as they're often getting decent odds to draw.

So, generally speaking: don't bluff into a small pot. For exactly the same reasons you should be a lot less inclined to "keep people honest" with a call if the pot is still small. Fold, even if you think your opponent is semi-bluffing.


Win The Big Pots

Seems obvious, doesn't it? Well, yes, it's nice to win big pots. But the key idea here is to maximize your chance of winning big pots. Let's look at some common scenarios where this comes into play.

Don't Fold On The River!

A common piece of advice to novice players is to "look for reasons to lay your hand down," or "find the fold." Good advice, no doubt, but add a big pinch of salt to that advice when the pot is big. With a big pot, you want to find an excuse to stay in, especially in limit Hold’em! Let’s look at another example from that game.

You're holding A-K, you've come all the way to the river with nothing but overcards, and the pot has reached the impressive size of 16 big bets (how you got to the river in a huge pot with nothing but overcards is not important for the sake of this example). The texture of the board is such that the flop offered a straight and a flush draw, but neither the turn or the river would have completed them. Your opponent has been betting the whole way, it's just the two of you left, and they again bet out on the river. Should you fold?

You have nothing. A measly pair of deuces has you beat. But with a pot this big – you're looking at 16 big bets that can be yours for the cost of 1 big bet – you have to be 94% certain that your opponent isn't just semi-bluffing. If you think you have a better winning chance than 6%, make the call.

Fire All Three Barrels

Conversely, if YOU are the one who's been semi-bluffing on both the flop and the turn, and you have a cold caller, the river is no place to holster your guns and lie down to die. Remember, your opponent might be drawing too, and chances are good their hand will beat yours unimproved. Of course, if you bet, they might also be folding the worst hand, in which case you've gained nothing. For this reason, be more inclined to make this third move for the pot if your high card is not an ace.

Let the days be gone where you semi-bluff on the flop and the turn, but chicken out and check the river only to find you're beaten by nothing but overcards. Remember: you don't need to win this every time to make it profitable – just once in a while (calculate the expected value to work out just how often).

Isolate The Potential Bluffer

Let's look at the same A-K scenario as above, where you're holding only two high cards to the board, facing aggression, but you suspect that the aggressor is on a draw. Let's rewind it to the turn, when you have people left to speak behind you. Be more inclined to raise here!

The players yet to speak behind you are much less likely to call two big bets on the turn if they're holding just a pair. You might even get the original bettor to fold. Raising always gives you more ways to win the pot, and when the pot is big, you want to use every weapon in your arsenal.

The idea here is that you suspect the players behind you have decent but not great hands, but that the player to your right who bet might be bluffing. Therefore, raising may isolate you with the one hand at the table you can beat.


Control The Size of The Pot

This is a line of play that is fairly rare at the lower limits, but that shouldn't stop you from employing it when it's correct. The idea is to be the person at the table who decides which odds the other players get, in order to encourage or discourage draws, depending on the strength of your own hand. It's also a play that's highly dependent on position – you more or less need to be in last position to make proper use of it.

Here are two common scenarios where this can prove useful:

Making Your Move On The Turn

It’s another limit Hold’em game and this time you hold pocket aces, raising two limpers pre-flop from last position. The big blind and both limpers come along to see the flop, which does not pair you, but does present a flush draw. It's checked to you – do you bet?

At this particular point, there are 8.5 small bets in the pot. If you bet, anyone with a flush draw will get 9.5 to 1 pot odds for a 4 to 1 draw, and they'd be correct to call. If you check, of course, you're giving a free card and they might just hit their draw without paying a penny for it. But you're gaining some edges if you do check:

  • Without risking more of your money, you get to find out if the turn brings a possible flush

  • If no scare card falls, you will likely induce a bet from a worse hand (like a top pair, but you have the aces), or even a bluff. If no flush card hits the turn, it’s time to raise!

  • Someone who DOES have a flush draw will often take the route of semi-bluffing the turn, and you can make them pay too much to see the last card.

As always, remember to make your decisions consciously – don't act on a hunch. If you bet this flop, ask yourself why. As long as you can believe your own reasons for why you bet, it's correct, but betting or raising with a legitimate hand is usually done to get a better hand to fold or a worse hand to call.

Clearly, a better hand than yours will not fold this flop, while worse hands – that aren't getting proper odds to continue – won't call it. The only thing you gain from betting the flop is making the pot bigger the times you win it (which is a good reason, but not always good enough).

Poker is a situational game, so any reads you have on your opponents might sway your decision here. Either way, checking is not a play that you should immediately discard just because you believe your hand to be the best.

Giving Dead Draws Odds To Continue

It’s a similar situation to the one above, but instead of having an overpair to the board you flopped a full house. There are good reasons to bet, here. As above, if you bet the flop any flush draw would still get the proper odds to call (not knowing that they're drawing dead). A case could be made for slow-playing this flop, hoping that someone else picks up a hand on the turn that they're willing to bet into you with, but with the pot already at 8.5 small bets, chances are good they'll be willing to see the turn card with many hands.

Also, by betting with a hand that's not afraid of cards to come, you're increasing the pot size before the turn, perhaps making a draw think that they should continue to the river even when the turn misses them and you bet out again.

Betting in a situation like this is a play that the most novice of all players would make, of course – you don't need to be an expert to bet with the nuts – but realizing all the nuanced benefits to a play is important.

There's another thing to be said about betting a monster hand in last position on the flop, instead of slow playing: players are a lot more likely to believe you're just trying to use your positional advantage to steal (some players would probably be more wary of your hand if you checked than if you bet). Slow-playing and trapping is so common at the lower limits, that honestly representing your hand is often the most deceptive play of all.


Pot Size, Pot Size, Pot Size!

The next time you find yourself wondering if you should call or fold (a decision that's usually made many times per hour, especially when playing at online poker sites where the hands come thick and fast), have a look at the pot size and let it help you make the right decision.

Improve your game further by checking out even more poker strategies and guides or bring it back to basics with the poker rules for other poker variants.