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You shouldn’t necessarily bet into an empty side pot if it reduces the chances of eliminating an opponent

It’s one of the first things you learn when playing tournament poker: don’t bet into a dry side pot. That is, if you and an opponent see the flop with a third player all-in, you should not bet unless you hold an extremely strong hand, because it’s more important to eliminate the all-in player than win a few extra chips.

This has become one of the most common fallacies in poker today. There are many situations where it is clearly correct to bet rather than attempt to knock out the third player, even if there is no side pot. But even some successful tournament players do not know about them, and may even brashly criticise you if you make such a ‘mistake’. In this article I want to look at some situations where it is correct to bet – and when it is not.

Don’t bet

The big mistake is to carry this advice over to all situations, instead of just the specifi c ones it applies to

First of all, let’s talk about situations where this received wisdom is true. If you’re in the bubble stages of a tournament – or any time when there is a significant jump in prize money – your primary goal is to eliminate players. That’s because you gain equity in the tournament, equivalent to real cash, every time a player is knocked out.

For example, let’s say you’re in a tournament where 27 places are paid, and 28 players remain. The player in 27th place gets $10,000, while 28th place gets a bit of sympathy and an interview with an intellectually challenged TV presenter.

If you’re in a three-way pot with a player all-in, you should do whatever is necessary to eliminate that opponent. Usually, this means ‘implicitly colluding’ with your other active opponent (don’t worry, there’s nothing immoral about this), and checking the hand down to give the maximum possible chance of eliminating the third player.

In general, you would only bet a very strong hand like a set, straight or flush – hands that are a virtual lock to win the pot – and you’d never bluff or bet on the come with a draw.

If the third player is eliminated, you’ve just earned $10,000 in real money. But if you had bet, you may not have eliminated the player and may even have risked going out on the bubble yourself. Obviously, this alternative costs you money in the long run, and it’s something you should avoid.

So it’s clear that there are situations where you should not bet, and should try to eliminate players instead. However, the big mistake so many players make is to carry this advice over to all tournament situations, instead of just the specific ones it applies to. They see this as universal advice because they don’t fully understand the concepts behind it.

Do bet

Take the same situation, but now there are 500 players remaining, again with 27 places paid. In this case, eliminating a player has almost no value whatsoever – there are no big money jumps or significant prize differences to worry about. It’s great if you send someone to the rail, but there will still be 472 other players to eliminate before you make any real money. Consequently, you should make whatever play has the highest expected value at the time – your overall equity in the tournament is not yet important.

Often, this means protecting your hand by betting, regardless of whether there is a side pot. Let’s look at an example: the blinds are 100/200, and Player A open- raises all-in for 1,500. It’s folded to you on the button, and you call with A-Q. The big blind also calls, making the pot 4,600. The flop comes Q-9-8, giving you top pair/top kicker, and the big blind checks. This is a situation where if it was the bubble, you would definitely check. You wouldn’t mind too much if the big blind held something like A-10 and made a flush or straight, because at least the third player would be gone and you would have made some real money.

However, at the early stages of a tournament, you should almost always bet. At this point in proceedings, winning that 4,600 pot is much more important than eliminating the all-in player, and you would be annoyed if you let your opponent hit a flush or straight and win the hand for free. Therefore, you should protect your hand by making a suitably large bet, and make your opponent pay to hit his draw.

Because most players do not generally bet when there is no side pot and a player is all-in, be aware that if you are called in this situation, your opponent will rarely have a weak hand. If you are called on a dry-looking board like Q-7-2, you should slow down accordingly against typical opposition. If you get called on a draw-heavy board and the draw hits, you should be very careful.

As you can see, poker isn’t as simple as some would make it out to be. Generic advice like ‘don’t bet into a dry side pot in tournament poker’ shouldn’t be taken at face value, so the next time you hear Captain Casino and his rebuy army offering poker lessons like this at the table, think about what they are saying in more detail. Try to work out if the underlying concepts are correct – and why – before applying them yourself. As this rule shows, received wisdom isn’t always reliable.

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