Win the pot, or the jackpot?

October 25, 2012, Chris  

One of the dilemmas low-stakes players face that high-stakes players pretty much never encounter is the high-hand or bad-beat jackpot scenario. In many poker rooms, making a high hand yields a tidy sum of money, and not just because you won the pot.

Promotions are the backbone of most poker rooms, especially during down times in the industry, and these specials are designed to draw the recreational player into poker rooms, and most high-stakes games don’t qualify.
Two of the more popular promotions are the aforementioned high hands and bad-beat jackpots, and what always accompanies these fun ways to earn bonus money is a qualifier. For high hands, usually you need to play the two cards in your hand and, of course, make a high hand, usually four of a kind or better. Bad beats, as you know, are when a prerequisite high hand is beaten. And with these promotions, you usually need to have a certain amount of money in the pot to qualify, and it tends to be a nominal amount, such as $10.

So what are the dilemmas? Here are two from a recent trip I took to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker:
After the business day is done, I like to unwind with some mindless low-stakes cash games. When inevitably I can’t find a mixed game in my wheelhouse, I settle for some no-limit hold’em, usually $1-$2 or $2-$5. Now, I had said “mindless” just a couple of sentences ago, but that couldn’t be more wrong.

After about 90 minutes of mostly uneventful poker at my $1-$3 table, I picked up {a-Hearts}{k-Hearts} and was second to act. The under-the-gun player folded and I made it the table-standard $10 to go. I hadn’t picked up a quality hand all session so I was glad to have my chance to play a pot with Super Slick. The action folded to the big blind, a quiet woman who played four pots in 90 minutes and all of those hands went to showdown. The worst hand I saw from her was pocket queens, so when she played it was always a big holding, and she had about $400 in front of her. I had about $300.

She looked at her cards, looked at my stack and then called $7 (if I had thought longer about her looking at my stack I likely would have changed the way I played this hand). The flop was {k-Clubs}{q-Hearts}{j-Hearts}. She checked and without thinking I fired $15 into the pot. She looked at her cards and folded. I screamed, “No!” and started to laugh. The table knew immediately what happened. I had top pair, top kicker and a gutshot to a royal flush, which would’ve earned me $500 had I gotten there.

People at the table told me I was crazy for betting and I should’ve checked it down. They even said I should’ve let her know I was on a royal-flush draw and asked her to check it down with me. I knew that was collusion and against the rules (thus likely disqualifying me from winning the jackpot anyway) so I wouldn’t have done it. I was just sick, but did I really make a mistake?

Do I alter the way I play poker just to have a one-out chance at a $500 payday? Remember, she only played big hands as far as I could tell, so this flop could’ve very well hit her hard, and I could’ve doubled-through her for a $300 payday. After the hand she admitted to having two red eights, which perfectly explains why she looked at my stack as she was set-mining and hoping to bust me. If I had checked, she would’ve been given a free chance to hit one of two cards to give her a set on the turn, meaning I would’ve had to hit my flush or Broadway on the river to win. But there was only one 10H in the deck, so she had a better chance to get there than me, slim as it may be. Much to my chagrin, I pulled in a small pot and tipped the dealer.

The next night, in a different poker room, I again found myself at a $1-$3 NLHE table, only this time the pain of not knowing if my royal would’ve gotten there was fresh in my mind. This room paid cash for quads, so if you had a pocket pair and made four of a kind you’d win a predetermined jackpot that was at least a few hundred bucks.

I picked up 9-9 on the button and two limpers came in before action got to me. I made it $15 to go and I got two callers. The flop was 9-4-2 rainbow. The only thing I could ask for in a better flop would be another nine. Everyone checked to me and, remembering the debacle from the night before, I checked, hoping to hit my quads, since I had a hammerlock on this hand. The pot was about $45 when the turn was a five.

One of the limpers bet $30 and I raised to $90, which put him all-in. He called and showed {a-Diamonds}{3-Diamonds} for a wheel. The story has a happy ending as another four fell on the river, so my full house was good, but this hand could’ve easily gone the other way. Of course, a bet on the flop might not have gotten the straight draw to fold, but I cringe knowing I gave him a free chance to hit it. And visions of a quads jackpot made me alter how I normally would’ve played that hand.

So, should you go for jackpots or just play your game? It’s a low-stakes version of Deal or No Deal, isn’t it? My advice is to play your hand the way you would’ve played it had a jackpot not been on the line. If you happen to hit a jackpot as a result then it’s truly a bonus, but don’t risk losing what’s in the middle for a 2 percent shot at glory.

— Chris Cosenza is co-publisher of Ante Up.