Does Pot Control Still Work In Poker?

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Pot control is the act of keeping the size of the pot smaller and more manageable. Typically, players exercise pot control by checking behind on flops and turns with semi-strong hands to avoid making the pot too large. And while this makes sense on the surface, it can actually create a whole host of problems in your strategy.

So either push play or keep reading, and find out if pot control is still useful in today’s games.

This conversation stems from a question sent in by Andy who asks:

I have a question about controlling the pot. I’m new to poker. I’ve only been playing for about two months and I’ve been reading tips for beginners on the internet to help improve my game. 

One tip was to maintain control of the pot as this will make it easier to win as I have the betting lead. I’m having trouble understanding how the betting lead helps you win. I understand that pot control means you decide how much goes in. But, won’t you still lose to someone who has the nuts?

Andy

There are a few things that kind of come to mind here. First and foremost is why the betting lead is beneficial in the first place. 

How Does The Betting Lead Help You?

So within any poker hand, both preflop and postflop, there’s always one person who is the aggressor. They have the betting lead and they’re the one driving the action right this moment. Of course, this can switch from street to street.

Being in position with the betting lead allows you to control if money does, or does not, go in the pot on this street.

Someone could be the aggressor preflop and they c-bet the flop and their opponent check-raises. Now all of a sudden the roles are reversed, the person who check-raises is now the aggressor as they go into the turn. But the thing about the betting lead, or being the aggressor in a hand, is that you decide how much money goes in. 

So if you’re in position and your opponent checks to you, you have the betting lead at that moment. You could decide to apply pressure and you decide how much pressure you want to apply in terms of bet size, or you could check and go on to the next street. You control that option and your opponent is playing off their heels and has to respond to your aggression or threat of aggression. 

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If we have a big edge we want to be the ones that are driving action, rather than being the ones that are facing it and having to decide what we want to do. When we have control we decide when we want to take free cards and when we want to apply pressure. Especially with edge differential in our favor that can be profitable. 

This is why you want to start by putting yourself in the aggressive driver’s seat. Rather than being the passive person who’s getting pressured and having to decide from there what you want to do. That’s a much trickier proposition than being the one who’s driving the action yourself.

The Wrong Way to Use Pot Control

Now the second thing that jumps off your question is pot control. And pot control is a related concept to the betting lead, but it’s a bigger concept that’s oftentimes misapplied and misunderstood.  A lot of players are going to cite pot control to justify nitty play. 

These are the same players that will only build big pots when they have a monster or nuttish hands. But they’re never going to build a medium to big pot when they have a single pair or they have a bluff. So they make it very obvious and they focus on pot control, unless they have the nuts in which case they try to pot expand, and these people are very easy to read. 

When the only reason a player uses pot control is because their opponent might have a stronger hand, chances are the person doesn’t fully understand pot control. I’ve been there and I’ve had to do the work to get away from this kind of thought process. It’s not uncommon to find videos that I did back in 2012 – 2014 where there’s way too much pot control, especially by today’s standards.

Don’t Focus Too Much on Winning or Losing the Hand

The third thing that jumps off your question Andy is yes, sometimes they are going to have the nuts and you are going to end up paying them off. And that’s true whether you bluff into them and they happen to wake up at the top of their range, or if you value town yourself into their nuts, it happens. 

In a PRO video on Red Chip Poker, Doug Hull sat behind a fishy player and got them to explain their reasoning for each play they made. One of the biggest takeaways was that unstudied players focused on winning and losing hands. Their main focus is “am I winning a lot of hands or am I losing a lot of hands?

Contrast that to good players who are focused on maximizing their wins and minimizing their losses. Good players focus on making sure they’re making the best decisions at all possible inflection points. 

Case in point, imagine for a moment that you have top pair and deduce that your opponent can have the nuts. What would you do? Would you apply pot control or value bet? 

The truth is that this is a very incomplete example. If the villain has one nut combo, and 99 second best combos that they would love to give your bet action with then you should be value betting here. But if the villain has one nut combo and zero second-best combos that would give your bet action, then pot control would be far better.

So don’t fall into the trap of only focusing on hands that beat you. If you do this you’re going to overuse pot control and you’re going to end up missing tons of value with your non-nut hands. So you have to think about their entire range, the density of the hands that beat you compared to the rest of the hands, and make decisions from there. 

And to be honest, this is a trap that most tight (TAG) players end up falling for. They focus too much on the idea their opponent could have a hand that beats them. So they live in the fear part of things and then end up pot controlling way too much and miss tons of value bets and their winrates tank because of it. 

Sure they don’t lose a lot of big pots, but they lose so many small to medium ones, that their win rate, can’t recover. But the good news is you can avoid this pitfall if you focus on making +EV decisions and not making decisions out of fear that you could lose a hand.

You’re Going to Lose Hands… LOTS of Hands

This is not the way we want to think about poker. We’re going to lose hands it’s baked into the equation. Say it with me. “I’m not going to win every single hand. I am going to lose some hands.”

This is something that most people for whatever reason don’t understand. You’re going to lose a lot of pots, some that you played well and some of you played poorly. 

You’re going to lose a lot of pots and you’re going to win a lot of pots too. What you need to focus on is maximizing those winning pots while still winning some small pots. Focus on making +EV decisions not decisions out of fear because you could end up losing the pot.

You’re going to lose the pot sometimes whether or not you make the right or wrong decision. So focus on the +EV stuff, not could I lose here. 

If you’re interested in seeing an example of this, check out a series I did where I hand read a player throughout an entire hand. I went for max value on every street, even when my opponent had some stronger hands in the range.

And take your time watching this if you’re newer to hand reading and thinking in ranges. This skill set is crucial and any improvements will have a positive effect on your game as a whole.

Conclusion

This should get you pointed in the right direction when it comes to some of these bigger picture concepts. A lot of advice on the internet directed towards new or beginner players are on the tighter side and it gets you started on the right foot. It’s not necessarily the end all be all place that you want to be. 

So understand these concepts and understand when they don’t apply. And when these concepts miss on too much value be focused on +EV decisions, not “could I lose this pot?”.

SplitSuit

My name is James "SplitSuit" Sweeney and I'm a poker player, coach, and author. I've released 500+ videos, coached 500+ players, and co-founded the training site Red Chip Poker. Contact me if you need any help improving your poker game!

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