Poker aristocracy Barry Greenstein talks through the theory behind small pot poker: “A lot of current players try to keep the pot small with the theory that they’re going to play better than their opponents after the flop”

Barry Greenstein on the pros and cons of small pot poker… And why big pot poker can be a more effective strategy

The player

Over the past 15 years Barry Greenstein has become one of the best tournament and cash game players in the world. Two WSOP bracelets and two WPT titles have helped him accumulate more than $5m in tournament winnings, a large chunk of which he has donated to charity. Although he famously lost a $180,000 pot against Sam Farha when his Aces were cracked by Kings in the first season of High Stakes Poker, Greenstein is a fearsome cash game player who is one of the central figures of the Big Game in Vegas. Greenstein is sponsored by

What is ‘small pot poker’?

Small pot poker is all about keeping the pot small so that at the end of the hand your entire chip stack isn’t going to be in the middle. If you make big raises and you and another player both have big hands then all your chips may end up in the centre. Personally, though, I only play small pot poker when I think that my opponents aren’t going to play well after the flop.

How do you keep the pot small?

By raising less initially. Pots go up geometrically because very typically someone raises three times the big blind and then the next guy raises three or four times what he did. Your bets after the flop are usually a percentage of the pot – half to two-thirds is very typical at each stage. If you start off raising and re-raising a lot, because it’s a geometrical progression the greater the chance all the chips will go in the middle. Some players don’t re-raise with their big hands, they just call to see a flop and keep the pot small. This way they can make a profit without risking all their chips on one hand.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of playing small pot and big pot poker?

A lot of current players try to keep the pot small with the theory that they’re going to play better than their opponents after the flop. It’s funny how many players think that they’re better than everyone else they’re playing against though. It isn’t always that way. I play against a lot of these guys [who play small pot poker]. Alan Goehring, Daniel Negreanu and Erik Lindgren won’t make raises that make you fold before the flop.

Rather than raising the typical three or four times the big blind they might only raise twice the big blind. And if they get raised often they won’t re-raise. If someone brings in for three times the big blind I’ll often raise three to four times what they brought in for to protect my hand.

I’m afraid of someone flopping a small set against me in a tournament. It’s difficult to get away from an over-pair or Ace- King on a K-4-5 flop if someone has a set. Those are hands that you can get nailed on so I don’t mind taking down pots before the flop. Guys that play small pot poker try to build up their chip stacks by playing a lot of flops, so what I do to combat that tactic is take the pot away from them by making large re-raises with a wide variety of hands and muscle them around.

How do you go about building a big pot when you have a big hand?

All my decisionmaking in poker comes from trying to put my opponent on a hand. My first thought is, ‘Does he have a really strong hand? Is he going all the way on this hand?’ When I think that’s true and I’ve got the best hand I’ll make sure that I’m betting enough to build a big pot. I don’t want to milk them small. Instead of just betting a third of the pot I might bet the whole pot because I’ve evaluated that they’ll call whatever I bet at that point.

Some players are more likely to call small bets because they want to see what you’ve got. You don’t want to over-bet those players. But for others you can make a pot-sized bet and stampede your opponent into a call if you’ve lured them into thinking that you’re trying to buy the pot.

Do you try to keep the pot small when you’re drawing to the nut flush?

No, I normally play Ace-high flush draws very fast in a tournament because my feeling is that this is my chance to get a lot of chips. I don’t want to sit around and just make a small profit or even a small loss. A lot of times in those situations when your flush card hits you don’t get paid off and if it doesn’t you can’t call the next bet. My theory on tournaments is to play these hands in a go-for-itall way, especially if I have more chips than my opponent. I hope he bets into me, or that I bet and get raised, as I’ll often move in and get it over with. It doesn’t scare me if they call as it’s my chance to win a really big pot and then I’m off to the races. And if they don’t call then I’m glad to pick up the pot and move on.

How do you build a big pot when you flop a strong hand such as a set of Jacks?

I play these hands differently depending on whether I have a lot more chips than my opponent or not. If I’ve got my opponent well covered then I’ll often give free cards. If he check-raises me on the flop, even if there’s a flush draw or the possibility of a gutshot, I’ll often just call and do so in a way that makes it look as if I’m drawing. I’ve made a lot of money on sets by getting people to make me pay for a flush draw that I didn’t have. Sometimes they’ve even had nothing and been trying to bluff me off my supposed draw. You can lose the opportunity of winning a big pot when you’ve got a set and the other guy doesn’t really have much by being afraid of the draws that are out there.

Tournament highlights

19/6/05, 36th World Series of Poker, 2005, Las Vegas $1,500 Pot-limit Omaha; 1st, $128,505

7/5/04 35th World Series of Poker, 2004, Las Vegas $5,000 No-limit Deuce to Seven Draw; 1st, $296,200

26/1/04 WPT – World Poker Open; Horseshoe Casino & Hotel, Tunica $10,000 No-limit Hold’em Main Event; 1st, $1,278,370

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