Pot control is one of the most important skills for no-limit players. By keeping the pot size under control, it becomes much easier to avoid mistakes. Pot control is the art of manipulating the size of the pot based on the relative strength of your hand. “Relative strength of your hand” refers to how strong your hand is in comparison to the likely range of hands of your opponent. This means that the tighter your opponent is, the stronger hand you will need to play a big pot and the looser your opponent is, the weaker your hand can be to play a big pot.
When practicing pot control, there are several factors one must consider. The first is stack sizes. As a general rule the range of hands with which you’re willing to showdown with all the chips in the middle should be wider with a 50BB stack than with a 200BB stack. This means you should be much more willing to put a 50BB stack all in with top pair top kicker than you would with a 200BB stack.
The second factor to consider is the strength of your hand vs. the range of your opponent’s hand. This is more of a judgment call based on past experience, reads of the opponent, table dynamics, board texture and betting patterns. There is a lot to consider when trying to figure the strength of your hand vs. the range of the opponent. This is basically a problem of hand reading. The more you play and the better you get at hand reading, the easier this step will become.
The last factor to consider is the style of the opponent. This is closely related to the last factor but I have separated it for one reason. Two different styles of opponents can have a wide range but you want to practice pot control differently for each one. If you have top pair top kicker against a bad chaser, you will want to bet the hand aggressively and let him pay you off. If you have top pair top kicker against a tricky, aggressive player who has a wide range that you can’t read, you will want to practice pot control to keep the pot small. The aggressive player will be able to put you to difficult decisions in big pots if you don’t have a very defined range of hands for him.
Implementation is the actual method you use to manipulate the pot to the size you want it to be. Implementation can include the decisions of whether to bet or check, raise or call, and sometimes fold.
An easy example of this is the top pair top kicker vs. a calling station. If you believe the opponent is on a draw or weak hand and will call any bet, it’s a good idea to bet the full pot on the flop, turn, and sometimes the river. Occasionally, if you feel a weak opponent is on a draw that missed on the river, you can check to him on the river and call a bluff. Other times you will want to go ahead and bet the river again for value against a weaker hand.
With top pair against an aggressive, tricky opponent, it becomes a little more difficult first on analyzing the factors and second on the actual implementation. Aggressive opponents make it difficult to manipulate the pot size because they sometimes raise with strong hands and sometimes with draws, making it difficult for you to distinguish between the two. That’s why I recommend playing for small pots against good aggressive opponents. They usually aren’t going to pay 100BBs to you with a hand weaker than top pair.
Playing small pots against aggressive opponents means occasionally checking behind on the turn with your top pair and then betting again on the river. This line is very common and recognizable but it still keeps the pot small and tempts your opponents to call with weaker hands. It also means sometimes checking the flop – a common scenario for checking the flop is after 3-betting preflop with AK and then spiking a king. Against certain players, checking top pair here is a correct way to play the hand (occasionally, not every time). The logic behind this is that good, thinking players can pretty easily put you on AK, therefore making a continuation bet from you unprofitable – they will fold worse hands, and continue with strong hands.
You don’t want to get into the habit of defaulting to a certain line every time you play a hand against tough players. That would be easily exploited and therefore unprofitable. The best way to protect yourself against these tough players is to mix it up yourself so that they are uncertain of your holdings and less confident in their reads of you to push you around.