Winning Poker Pots

Choose Your Battles

Small Pot Poker"God is on the side with the most artillery."
-- Napoleon Bonaparte

Choosing your battles is a key concept in poker. Clearly you want to mostly play winning hands and mostly not play losing hands. You want to bet when you win and either fold or not bet when you lose. These are basics that anyone who is trying to win will understand.

But like other aspects of poker where simple things on the surface mask complexities below the surface, choosing your battles is also extremely sophisticated. Besides playing hands where we think we have a positive expectation, players should choose the type of battles suited to their ability, skills and bankroll. Napoleon was surely right about artillery, and the principal holds true to a very great degree in poker.

Money goes to money.

No matter what the venue, deep pockets have an edge when pockets matter. Poker is all about taking money out of, and putting money into, pockets. In big bet poker games, big stacks generally beat small stacks because they can manipulate value better. They have more options. Short stacks can peck away at little stacks time and again, but one blow from a big stack can crush a small stack.

But while that is a standard way for money to go to money, it's not the emphasis here. In poker, literally, we use money to make more money. Each bit of money we have is a little bit of artillery. The more money we have, the more tools we have to make more money. The concept of "make a mule of your money" should never be off a player's mind. It applies to both bankroll that is not sitting on the table (it is in a bank or the stock market or wherever, earning a bit of return while we essentially do nothing with it), and to the money we work on the table as we play.

Repetition makes money in poker. Getting the best of it time and again leads to winning. Applying and reapplying our advantages over our weaker, less disciplined opponents leads to poker income. It's (usually) not flashy, or even noticeable sometimes, but our advantage, our edge, makes us a bit of money every time we do anything at a poker table.

Think of the casino. It makes its money via a smallish, unsexy, regular cut of each pot or collection charge. These small sums add up to a staggering sum over time.

So it is with players. Suppose you have a choice. Your first option is to bet $100,000 on a 60/40 opportunity. Pretty sweet, but also dangerous if $100,000 is all the money you have in the world. Passing up such a bet is sensible since it is far easier to turn $100,000 into $200,000 other ways than it is to turn $0 into $100,000. But now suppose you have the option bet $1 on a 60/40 opportunity, and the opportunity to continue betting until you either have $200,000 or zero. The chances of you losing everything are astronomical.

In other words, good players want to play small pots!

Good players surely still want to play for big money. They want that $100,000 they can win, but keeping the units small drastically improves the edge for the skillful player. Bad players look for the big score. Especially in tournaments, they look to enter multiway action pots with mediocre hands. They don't have enough artillery in their hand values, nor in their chip stack. Trying to play big pots is suicide for most players, except those rare tournament players who play big stacks excellent and every other kind of stack not very well.

Good players want to send their army of soldiers out and have them gather value from every nook and cranny that they can find. "All or nothing", even with a decent edge, is not a road to success.

However, there is something worse. If big pots come along where you have an advantage, you must play them. If you do not, you are giving value away to your opponents. It's like now the rules are changed in the 60/40 game, where after you ante a $1 each, the 40% guy can raise the stakes by betting $1000 more. You can fold, because you want to only play for the $1 until you bust him, but if he keeps doing this, and you keep folding, you lose a $1 each time and thus more than lose your edge.

So, you can't turn down big pots, but you should be gearing your play (in limit poker) toward choosing to play pots where your artillery overwhelms the size of the confrontation. Especially in tournaments, where bankroll size is almost always relevant, look to play smaller pots. Paradoxically, this means that you should normally raise coming into pots. Limping attracts players, which leads to bigger pots.

You can't always get what you want, but you can get what you want more often than not if you structure your game so that you are choosing your battles.

See also Winning Poker Pots and Why Play Poker