Defend yourself

Minor adjustments in your pot-limit play can make the game more worthwhile – providing you protect your hands

In terms of apparent profitability, pot-limit hold’em tends to come second to its richer, more glamorous no-limit cousin, but when it’s played properly, it can still yield good results. No-limit offers the ability to maximise the value of a particular hand, as you have the ability to place a substantial bet and get called, even though you may have passed on several betting opportunities in the hand and have slow-played so far. In pot-limit, however, with the obvious cap in the amount you can bet, it’s not always possible to extract the same value from the hand. If you’re conscious of this difference between the variants and are prepared to address it, you can ensure a winning session. Here, we’ll explore two specific aspects: how to gain maximum value and how to protect a strong hand.


Let’s follow one particular hand as it develops. We’ll look at three possible scenarios of the same hand. The hand will initially be slow-played in no-limit. The same hand will then be played the exact same way in pot-limit. Then we’ll see how you should change your play in pot-limit.

In all three cases, you’re in mid-position with a large chip stack. The blinds are $100/$200. You’ve maintained a good table presence and have shown good hands at a showdown. You find yourself with A-A pre-flop. You decide you’re going to slow-play this hand and trap with it.


EXAMPLE 1: You call the big blind. The button calls as well and the big blind checks. Three players to the flop. The flop reveals Ac-2d-9h, a perfect flop for you. The big blind checks and you decide to check behind him. The button checks as well and you go to the turn. The turn is a Ks. The big blind checks, as do you, and the button puts out a bet of $500 (just less than the pot). The big blind folds, you call. The river is a 7s. You put out a $3,000 bet and there’s a pause in the action. Your opponent won’t be able to put you on the Ace as you limped pre-flop and checked the Ace on the flop and the turn. But you did call the bet on the turn and it’s very possible that the King may have helped you. A hand such as K-10 makes sense, as you hit second pair and are drawing to a straight, even a Q-J or Q-10 may have made that call as well. Your opponent is playing K-Q and assumes he has the best hand, but he errs on the side of caution and simply calls. You take down a nice $7,600 pot.


EXAMPLE 2: As in Example 1, everything is the same up to river, but this time instead of being able to put in a bet of $3,000, the maximum bet you can make is $1,100. Your opponent is playing K-Q and simply calls the bet. You take down a $3,800 pot, which is half as big as you would have got had you been playing no-limit.


EXAMPLE 3: You put out a minimum raise of twice the big blind, $400. The button calls and the big blind folds. Two players to the flop. The flop reveals Ac-2d-9h. You check, as does the button behind you, and we go to the turn. The turn is a Ks. You check again and the button puts out a bet of $900 (just less than the pot). You call the bet. The river is a 7s. You put out $2,800, the maximum bet you can. Your opponent is playing K-Q and simply calls the bet. You take down a $8,400 pot.

CONCLUSION: When you chose to play the hand in pot-limit the exact same way you had played it in no-limit, you took on the exact same risk in playing the hand, but the size of the pot was cut in half. In poker, you won’t flop a set of Aces so often that you can actually afford to take a 50% haircut in the value of the pot when the hand does hold up.

In the third example, by making some minor changes to your play, you had a far better outcome. Not only did we increase the total pot by 15% above the pot in Example 1, but you also increased our chances of winning the pot by isolating one player and playing the remainder of the hand heads-up. By posting a minimum raise, you changed the entire structure of the hand. First, with a raise and a call ahead of him, the big blind folded. In the other two previous examples, the big blind was permitted to continue on and see the flop. On the turn, when the button put out a pot-sized bet, he was forced to commit more chips to give the same perceived pot odds as in Examples 1 and 2, simply because you placed out a small bet. Then, on the river, your pot-sized bet was large enough to secure a substantial win from this hand.


With the unlimited betting potential provided by no-limit, protecting your hand is pretty easy as long as you have the chips. In pot-limit, the best you can hope for is to leave your opponent with 2/1 pot odds in any situation. Sometimes this is sufficient. However, there are many variables you need to consider besides just their starting hand. We’ll take a look at a specific hand example to clearly distinguish the difference in the two variants.

You’re in mid-position and have a good table presence. You have a good chip stack and have seven of the nine players covered. There are two novice, aggressive players at your table – one on the button and the other on the big blind. The blinds are $100-$200. You’re dealt Ac-Kc.


EXAMPLE 1: In no-limit, the action is folded down to you and you place a raise of about four times the big blind, $800. The action gets folded around to the button, who calls, as does the big blind. The flop reveals Ah- 10h-9d. You’ve flopped top pair-top kicker. Not a bad flop for you, but a dangerous one. The two most aggressive players at the table have called pre-flop and their lack of experience makes them dangerous. With the skill set of these two players taken into consideration, it’s very likely that at least one is on a draw, perhaps both. If the other isn’t on a draw, it’s highly likely that he’s on a weaker Ace. If they’re drawing open-ended to the straight or drawing to the flush, they most likely have seven to nine outs to look forward to, so they need about 4/1 pot odds to proceed.

The big blind bet out a minimum bet of $200, which appears to be a feeler bet to see where he stands in the hand. At this point, being sandwiched between the big blind and the button, I would place out a bet of about 1.5 times the pot, most likely $3,400. I’m hoping they both fold and I take down the pot right then and there. At the least, I’m hoping to isolate just one player, the one with the weaker Ace, as I’m not offering sufficient odds for the draw to call. Both players fold.


EXAMPLE 2: In pot-limit play, the hand plays out the exact same way. The action is folded down to you and you put out a pot-sized raise of $500. After the same flop, the big blind leads out again with a $200 minimum bet. You now have two possible choices. You could raise by the amount in the pot, giving the button 2/1 odds to call; 3/1 implied odds if he believes the big blind will also call. However, if the button does call, the big blind is almost guaranteed to make the call. You could slow-play top pair and just make the call, and if the button raises, you could then change gears and reraise when the action gets back to you. In a cash game, I’ll almost certainly raise with a pot-sized bet and again hope to isolate one player – or, better still, make both players fold.

CONCLUSION: It’s important to remember that the way of protecting my hand I’ve just explained is a cash-game strategy. However, in the early stages of a tournament, being in a pot with two reckless aggressive players, you may want to have a rethink. Sometimes it’s far more important to play the player rather than the hand. Bad calls in a cash game will almost certainly guarantee a losing session for a reckless, aggressive player, as the odds will inevitably catch up with him. A bad call followed by a suck-out in the early stages of a tournament will leave you scrambling for chips. Most likely, it will secure you an early exit from the tournament. So be fully aware of your specific situation and the danger your opponent represents specific to that situation. In a tournament setting, it’s far more important to protect your chip lead rather than any one individual hand.

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