Side pots

Things you will learn:

  • What an empty sidepot is
  • Why some people think you shouldn't bet into an empty sidepot
  • When you should bet - and when you should check

It's one of the first things you learn when playing tournament poker: don't bet into a dry side-pot.

People say that if you and an opponent see the flop when a third player is all-in, you shouldn't normally bet - because it's more important to eliminate the all-in player than win a few extra chips.

This has become one a common fallacy in poker. In fact, there are many situations where it is correct to bet rather than attempt to knock out the third player. Let's look at some situations where it is correct to bet into a side-pot - and some where it's best to hang onto your chips.

When not to bet

First of all, let's talk about situations where this received wisdom is true. That is, when you shouldn't bet into a dry sidepot:

One situation is when you're in the bubble stages of a tournament or when you're at a stage in the tournament where there's about to be a significant jump in prize money. Then, your primary goal is to eliminate players. That's because you make money every time a player is knocked out.

For example, imagine you're in a tournament where 27 places are paid and 28 players remain. The player in 27th place gets $10,000, while 28th place gets nothing.

If two of you are in the pot and another player is all-in you should do whatever is necessary to eliminate the opponent who is all-in.

Usually, this means checking the hand down to give the maximum possible chance of eliminating the third player (if your hand doesn't eliminate the all-in player, your opponent's hand might). So, In general, you would only bet a very strong hand like a set, straight or flush - hands that are virtually guaranteed to win the pot.

If the third player is eliminated, you've just earned $10,000 in real money. But had you had bet, you may not have eliminated the player - and may even have risked going out on the bubble yourself. Obviously, this alternative costs you money in the long run and it's something you should avoid.

It's clear that there are situations where you should not bet and should try to eliminate players instead.

However, the big mistake so many players make is to carry this advice over to all tournament situations, instead of just the specific ones it applies to. They see this as universal advice because they don't fully understand the concepts behind it.

When to bet

Take the same situation, but now there are 500 players remaining, again with 27 places paid. In this case, eliminating a player has almost no value whatsoever - there are no big money jumps or significant prize differences to worry about. It's great if you send someone to the rail, but there will still be 472 other players to eliminate before you make any real money.

Consequently, you should make whatever play has the highest expected value at the time - your overall equity in the tournament is not yet important. Often, this means protecting your hand by betting, regardless of whether there is a side pot.

Let's look at an example:

  • The blinds are 100/200, and Player A raises all-in for 1,500. It's folded to you on the button and you call with A♣ Q♠. The big blind also calls, making the pot 4,600
  • The flop comes Q♣ 9♥ 8♥, giving you top pair with top kicker - a nice hand. The big blind checks. Remember, Player A is still all-in
  • Now it's on you. This is a situation where if it was the bubble, you would definitely check. You wouldn't mind too much if the big blind held something like A♥ 10♥ and made a flush or a straight - because at least the third player would be gone and you would have made some real money
  • However, at the early stages of a tournament, you should almost always bet. At this point in proceedings, winning that 4,600 pot is much more important than eliminating the all-in player and you would be annoyed if you let your opponent hit a flush or straight and win the hand for free
  • Therefore, you should protect your hand by making a suitably large bet and make your opponent pay to hit his draw
  • Because most players do not generally bet when there is no side pot and a player is all-in, be aware that if you are called in this situation your opponent will rarely have a weak hand. If you are called on a dry-looking board like Q♣ 7♥ 2♦, you should slow down accordingly against typical opposition. If you get called on a draw-heavy board and the draw hits, you should be very careful.

As you can see, poker isn't as simple as some would make it out to be. Generic advice like 'don't bet into a dry side pot in tournament poker' shouldn't be taken at face value, so the next time you hear Captain Casino and his re-buy army offering poker lessons like this at the table, think about what they are saying in more detail. Try to work out if the underlying concepts are correct - and why - before applying them yourself. As this rule shows, received wisdom isn't always reliable.