Keep It Simple

There is a lot to poker...

There are tells, there are probabilities, there is lots of deception. Achieving the highest levels of poker play requires ample supplies of talent, dedication and practice. There really really is a lot to know and consider of the thousands of times you need to act in a single session.  However, the biggest and most frequent decisions you make are often the simplest.  In this article we'll talk about pot odds and probabilities in general as they relate to low limit hold'em.

Pot odds

Understanding pot odds (the ratio of the size of the pot to the size of the current bet when it is your turn to act) is important, or rather knowing what to actually do during your turn is important. 

The thing is, knowing what to do the vast majority of the time doesn't require you to know the exact pot odds, a simple guesstimate is almost always correct except in those extremely close-call situations where making either a call or a fold or a call or a raise have very similar expectations.  Making an error in those situations is not the end of the world.  The most important thing about pot odds is understanding the concept and why staying in with certain hands lose money and staying in with others makes money.

The simple truth is that a lot of players make bad calls in situations that come up all the time.  This is the worst possible scenario for their bankroll.  Here are some of the common pot odds snafus:

The Gutshot Straight Draw

You are holding

Nine of Clubs Eight of Clubs
Hole Cards

and three people see a flop for one bet each of

Seven of Diamonds Ace of Spades Jack of Hearts

you are last to act, player 1 bets, player 2 calls and you should...

fold.  Of course.  You know that anyhow.  Right now the pot odds are 5 to 1 and a gutshot draw is worse than 11 to 1.  Do you ever make this call on this flop in this situation, which happens frequently?  If you don't make that call then how about this?

You are holding:

Jack of Hearts Ten of Hearts
Hole Cards

in middle position and four people see a flop for one bet each of

Ace of Diamonds Queen of Spades Five of Clubs

You check and there is a bet and a call, do you make another call?  It's the almost same situation as before (actually the first scenario is even worse than this one because if a ten does fall to give you your straight it make make a higher straight for someone else--at least in this scenario if you make the straight it will be the nut straight).  The truth is that unless you are extremely generous with your estimation of implied odds then this call is a mistake also, yet people make it all the time.  However, far worse than this call is the next call on the turn when they still have not completed their straight and there is still action in the hand. 

Bets and raises between the other players only make this more costly!  Many people will chase a straight in this situation because they know if they make their hand they are probably going to make a decent pot,  However they will more than pay for those rare occasions where they drag a large pot with the very frequent times when they have to pay off all of those bets and raises for no gain at all.

This is not to say never draw to gutshot straights

It's a familiar piece of advice not to draw to a gutshot straight, but the fact is that sometimes you have to draw to a gutshot straight in low limit hold'em because there is enough money in the pot to do so.  It's not uncommon in a live game for there to be 15 or more small bets in the pot on the flop in which case you definitely should draw a card to the gutshot straight when the gutshot straight is the nuts and when you can get in for a single bet.  If the pot is raised or if you expect it to be raised then the pot needs to be twice as large to make this call and sometimes even this happens at a low limit table.  The key is to be able to recognize when the pot is large enough to make this call and when it is not.

Know about how big a pot must be when you have a certain number of outs

The most common drawing hands are straights (with 8 outs) and flushes (with 9 outs) this means that the whole pot (including any other bets made this round) has to be about 5 times the size of the bet you are calling.  This is usually the case in any sort of multi-way pot, sometimes though these draws cost money.  For example when it is a small blind vs. big blind situation with no raises then the size of the pot is only going to be 3 small bets which is not enough to justify a call to a straight or a flush.  Also in a heads up situation it may make sense to make a call on the flop but not on the turn (when the bet size doubles).  Keep in mind that this is related to the calling of bets and not potential heads up bluff and semi bluff possibilities.  Also note that there may be other outs (including overcards and backdoor draws) that need to be included.

Calling on the flop doesn't mean you can call on the turn

Because the bet size doubles on the turn, if you had a draw that was worthwhile on the flop it might not be worth it to draw a second card on the turn.  This is often the case where the number of opponents drops on the flop or when there is light action on the flop.  For example if three players see a capped pot pre-flop there are 16 small bets (plus the blinds if they didn't play) in the pot.  At this price it is correct to see one card on the flop to draw to an inside straight, however on the turn there will not be enough money to continue unless you have improved.

In Summary

  1. Know enough about the relationship between outs and pot size that you can make an instant estimate about whether to continue with a hand or not.  This estimate will almost always be correct and when it isn't you won't be giving up much.

  2. Avoid common pot odds errors like drawing to an inside straight or even a flush or open ended straight when the pot odds do not justify it.