Hack 37. Know When to Fold 'Em
In Texas Hold 'Em, the concept of pot odds provides a powerful tool for deciding whether to call or fold.
If you watch any poker on TV, you quickly pick up a boatload of jargon. You'll hear about big slick and bullets and all-in and tilt. You'll also hear discussions about pot odds, as in, "He might call here, not because he thinks he has the best hand, but because of the pot odds."
When the pot odds are right, you should call a hand even when the odds are that you will lose. So, what are pot odds and why would I ever put more money into a pot that I am likely to lose?
Pot odds are determined by comparing the chance that you will win the pot to the amount of chips you would win if you did win the pot. For example, if you estimate that there is a 50 percent chance that you will win a pot, but the pot is big enough that winning it would win you more than double the cost of calling the bet in front of you, then you should call.
To see how pot odds works in practice, here is a scenario with four players: Thelma, Louise, Mike, and Vince. As shown in Table 4-3, Thelma is in the best shape before the flop.
Then comes the flop: Ace Spades, 3 Diamonds, 6 Diamonds. Table 4-4 shows the revised analysis of the players' positions. After the flop, three of them are hoping to improve their hands, while one of them, Thelma, would be satisfied with no improvement of her hand, thinking she has the best one now. Thelma is driving the betting, and the other three players are deciding whether to call.
Table 4-4 shows the use of pot odds after the flop. Thelma has a pair of aces to start and hits the third ace on the flop. Consequently, she begins each round by betting. The other players who have yet to hit anything must decide whether to stick around and hope to improve their hands into strong, likely winners.
Pot odds come into play primarily when making the decision whether to stick around or fold. Louise needs a five to make her straight, and she estimates a 16 percent chance of getting that 5 somewhere in the next two cards. However, with that pot currently at $250 and a $50 raise from Thelma, which she would have to call, Louise would have to pay 20 percent of the pot. This is a 20 percent cost compared with a 16 percent chance of winning the pot. The risk is greater than the payoff, so Louise folds. Mike and Vince, however, have more outs, so pot odds dictate that they stick around.
Then comes the turn: the Jack of Clubs. As shown in Table 4-5, after the turn, with only one card left to go, Mike's pot odds are no longer better than his chances of drawing a winning card, and he folds. Though Vince starts out with a potentially better hand than Mike, he too eventually folds when the pot odds indicate he should.
Let's assume that the players are using only pot odds to make their decisions, ignoring for the sake of illustration that they are probably trying to get a read on the other players (e.g., who could bluff, raise, and so on). By the way, players are calculating the chance that they will get a card to improve their hand using the rule of four and the rule of 2 + 2 [Hack #36].
Why It Works
Imagine a game that costs a dollar to play. Pretend the rules are such that half the time you will win and get paid three dollars. The other half of the time you would lose one dollar and gain two dollars. Over time, if you kept playing this crazy game, you would make a whole lot of money.
It is the same sort of thinking that governs the use of pot odds in poker. With a 36 percent chance of making a flush, a perfectly fair bet would be to wager 36 percent of the pot. You would get your flush 36 percent of the time and break even over the long run. If you could play a game in which you could pay less than 36 percent of the pot and still win 36 percent of the time in the long run, you should play that crazy game, right? Well, every time you find yourself in a situation in which the pot odds are better than the proportion of the pot you have to wager, you have an opportunity to play just such a crazy game. Trust the statistics. Play the crazy game.
Where Else It Works
Experienced players not only make use of pot odds to make decisions about folding their hands, but they even make use of a slightly more sophisticated concept known as implied pot odds. Implied pot odds are based not on the proportion of the current pot that a player must call, but on the proportion of the pot total when the betting is completed for that betting round.
If players have yet to act, a player who is undecided about whether to stay in based on pot odds might expect other players to call down the line. This increases the amount of the final pot, increases the amount the player would win if she hit one of her wish cards, and increases the actual pot odds when all the wagering is done.
The phrase "implied pot odds" is also sometimes used to refer to the relative cost of betting compared to the final, total pot after all rounds of betting have been completed. I have also heard the term "pot odds" used to describe the idea that if you happen to " hit the nuts" (get a strong hand that's unlikely to be beaten) or close to it, then you are likely to win a pot much bigger than the typical pot. Some players spend a lot of energy and a lot of calls just hoping to hit one of these super hands and really clean up.
Implied pot odds works like this. In the scenario in Table 4-3, Mike might have called after Fourth Street (the fourth card revealed), anticipating that Vince would also call. This would have increased the final pot to 650, making Mike's contribution that round only 15 percent and justifying his call.
Interestingly, if Vince had been betting into a slightly larger pot that contained Mike's call, the pot odds for Vince's 100-chip call would then have dropped to 18 percent and Vince might have called. In fact, if Mike were a super genius-type player, he well could have called on the turn knowing that would change the pot odds for Vince and therefore encourage him to call. Real-life professional poker playerswho are really, really goodreally do think that way sometimes.
Where It Doesn't Work
Remember that pot odds are based on the assumption that you will be playing poker for an infinite amount of time. If you are in a no-limit tournament format, though, where you can't dig into your pockets, you might not be willing to risk all or most of your chips on your faith about what will happen in the long run.
The other problem with basing life and death decisions on pot odds is that you are treating a "really good hand" as if it were a guaranteed winner. Of course, it's not. The other players may have really good hands, too, that are better than yours.