Advanced Poker Advice: Protection vs. Control

Trends in poker strategies have changed much faster since the world of online poker became more popular:

Smooth calling with A-A pre-flop vs. reraising; fast-playing your flopped set rather than slow-playing; being more aggressive with a flush or straight draw, etc.

With the ultra aggressive style of many of today’s online and live tournament poker players, it is often said that you should try your best to protect your hand. However, while this statement is true, you must also consider spots where raising to push people out might cause you to lose control of the pot size. Losing control of the pot could often be a far greater mistake than missing a bet with a hand you think is best. However, in a spot where you keep the pot small instead, you will lose fewer chips during those times when you are wrong about the strength of your hand.

This concept is the basis for the “small ball” style of play applied by a countless number of the game’s best players. The core idea behind “small ball” is keeping control of the pot over all other factors in a single hand. This allows you to lose the minimum in marginal situations and gain the maximum in spots where you are the heavy favorite. Let’s look at an example:

The blinds are $200-$400 with a 50 ante when a player in early position raises it to $1,200. You call from the small blind with the Qd-Jd, and the BB calls as well.

The flop comes 7s-8d-4h. Since you are out of position and caught absolutely nothing, you check.

It gets checked around, and the Qh falls on the turn. You have hit top pair, but since you are out of position, facing a player who raised from early position pre-flop and the BB, you decide to check to see how the other players in the pot react to this card on the turn.

The BB immediately makes a bet of $1,800, which is a little less than half the pot.

Now stop right here. At this point, you have to agree that if the early position pre-flop raiser reraises here, you will have to fold your hand, since hands like K-Q and A-Q or a slow-played flopped-set are strong possibilities. If the pre-flop bettor calls here, it is still hard for you to make an overcall with nothing but top pair, marginal kicker.

To your delight, the early pre-flop raiser folds, leaving you to call the BB and see what develops on the river card, all while maintaining control of the pot.

Now, an argument could have been made for betting out on the turn into the other two players in order to protect your holding from being drawn if a backdoor flush or gutshot-straight type card hits the river, which would leave you scratching your head on what to do here. However, instead of trying to “protect your hand,” you decided to stop and consider that when you are out of position, you should be looking to limit your losses on a hand by keeping the pot small. It’s when you are in position that you should look to be aggressive and maximize your winnings. Here, considering the way the action went pre-flop, checking will often be the correct play.

You decided to check-call in this spot, and the 5d comes on Fifth Street.

That’s not a great card, as it could complete some drawing hands for a straight, or straight and a pair type of hand. You decide to check again, since your hand value has not gone considerably up or down since the turn card, and your opponent bets about 1/3 of the pot.

Now, considering how you have kept the pot controlled and small, it allows you to make a call here, assuming you don’t put your opponent on a straight, since that is the only real hand he’d consider making a value bet here with. Any other hand that has you beat or out-kicked would likely check to that scare card, so it looks to be either the nuts or nothing. You call, and your opponent shows 9-10 offsuit and you take the pot.

Understand how controlling the pot here enabled you to gain about as much profit on the hand as you could, while allowing yourself to see the whole board run out. If you bet the turn, he would’ve called anyways, and then you’d be forced to bet the river to continue showing strength. Then, if your opponent hit his straight, you would have lost more chips. If a jack came on the river completing his straight, although you held two pairs, given the way the pot was played, you should have been able to get off of it. This way, you minimized risk and induced a bluff bet on the river.

It is always good to protect your hand. It is also always good to control the pot size. When you are forced to decide which one is more favorable to your overall stack size and position in the tournament, remember: If you keep the pot controlled when you face an unknown, you will always have chips left if you’re wrong and you’ll live to fight another hand where you rate yourself to be in front!