Feeling pot-committed in a poker hand

November 20, 2012  

I constantly hear amateur players talk about being pot-committed, usually in incorrect ways. You should rarely set yourself up to be committed to a hand unless you’re happy to get your money in the middle. The way you make money in poker is by making correct decisions. If you put yourself in neutral EV situations for lots of money, you’re blatantly gambling, which is something you generally want to avoid.

Probably the worst use of the term pot-committed is when you are on the river and make a bet with a strong, but not great hand, and your opponent goes all-in or raises, giving you excellent odds to call in a spot where he is basically never bluffing. Say you get to the river with 4-3 on an A-4-3-7-K board. You bet 1,500 into a 2,000 pot and your opponent goes all-in for 2,200 total. You know your opponent would never bluff or raise with a made hand worse than A-3. You have to call 700 to win a pot of 5,700, meaning you need to win 11 percent of the time to break even, which seems like an excellent price. This is a spot where amateur players constantly call, claiming they’re pot-committed whereas in reality, they have a trivial fold because they need to win at least 11 percent of the time and they’re going to win zero percent of the time. Notice this situation could be avoided by going all-in for 2,200, betting 800, or checking the river.

Thinking ahead about what is likely to happen on future betting rounds will allow you to make better decisions. Also notice when you make a large bet on the river, if your opponent is still willing to go all-in, knowing he’s likely to get called, he must have a strong hand to put his stack in. If you needed to win 5 percent of the time instead of 11 percent in the hand above, you should probably call because your opponent may feel like he might as well put his entire stack in if he is going to put almost all of it in.

The other main situation where amateur players use the pot-committed defense is on the flop or turn with a strong, but not great hand when getting good odds. Say you have A-J on an A-Q-5-9 board. You bet 1,000 into a 2,000 pot and your opponent raises to 2,000. Again, you know your opponent would never bluff, making his range A-K and better. You have to call 1,000 to win 5,000, meaning you need to win 17 percent of the time to call. You also have to take into account whatever implied or reverse implied odds you may encounter on the river.

You probably have reverse implied odds in this situation because you could be drawing dead against A-Q or a set. If your opponent happens to have A-5 or A-9, you will likely get one more bet in, but even if you peel a jack, you can’t be too happy. So, you are going to win around 9 percent of the time and you need 17 percent to call, making this an easy fold even though you have top pair with a decent kicker and are getting great odds.

Don’t fall into the habit of making inferior plays simply because you know you’re getting somewhat decent odds and your hand is pretty good. Always think about how your hand does against your opponent’s range and how your hand will play on future streets, both if you hit and if you miss your hand. If you think ahead, you will find you can avoid numerous situations where you would feel pot-committed with suboptimal play.

— Jonathan Little, a representative for Blue Shark Optics, is the author of Professional Tournament Poker Vols. 1 & 2, owns the poker training site FloatTheTurn.com and 3bet Clothing, plus check out his iPhone app, Instapoker.