The beauty — and terror — of no limit hold em is that any hand could force you to risk all your chips. Now generally, that isn’t the case. Usually, the bets are sized as a percentage of the pot. Opponents will rarely bet less than 1/3 of the pot at the low end or more than the size of the pot at the high end. When the blinds are relatively low, this is generally not enough to force an all-in confrontation without aggressive raising or re-raising.

But although it’s “textbook” to bet a “normal” amount, you should always remember that no limit betting does not restrict you in this way. Many poker books give the impression that only rank amateurs would overbet the pot, especially an all-in overbet. If you have a solid hand, why wouldn’t you get some extra value out of it? If you have a good but vulnerable hand, why risk more than necessary? Why not give yourself the flexibility to get away from the hand?

My answer to these points is that sometimes you simply have to shutdown the action in the hand. There are times when you have a solid advantage, but face too many competitors and too many possible scare cards to continue playing the hand “normally.” When you don’t know what cards to root for or against and cannot select an amount guaranteed to drive all possible draws out of the pot, you should just put the pedal to the metal. Over-bet the pot, up to and including an all-in bet (which is usually the safest move you can make), and put your opponents to the difficult decision. As a poker player, you never want to build a big pot and go deep into a hand without knowing where you stand. If the board is simply too frightening to proceed with “normal” betting, then don’t!

I’ll give two examples of when over-betting the pot and shutting down action in the hand makes sense. In both cases, this is not the only move that can be made. But it’s generally a safe play to put the hand to bed. With no limit betting, particularly in an elimination tournament environment, it’s often best to book a small profit by taking the pot down right away, rather than risk losing all your chips later on.

Example 1: An overpair to a very dangerous and unpredictable board – Let’s say you have AAs in the cut-off position with blinds at $15/$30. The player under the gun limps for $30. You make a “standard” raise to $120 (I would generally argue for a bigger raise than this textbook play with blinds so low) and get called by the big blind and the under the gun player. The pot is now $375 and you have $1,580 remaining in your stack. Your two opponents have a bit more chips than you do. The flop comes down K89 with two diamonds. You have two black aces. The big blind checks, the UTG player checks, and action is on you. What should you do?

My answer: I go all-in right here without hesitation. This hand is unplayable at this point. If you bet a “normal” amount between $190 and $375 you could be called by one or both opponents, who could hold a variety of hands. What if a third diamond comes on the turn? What if a 10, J, or Q comes, completing all kinds of possible straight or two-pair combinations? What if another king comes, or another 8 or 9? What if a 5 comes? How much can you like your single pair when the turn can bring no fewer than 30 possible scare cards (11 unseen diamonds + 3 non-diamond fives, eights, nines, tens, jacks, queens, or kings each minus the two diamonds on board… although it’s true your opponents could be holding one or more of these cards, you can’t know which ones they hold and which to fear)?! I’m afraid of dealing with anything more than 9 possible scare cards (i.e. a flush draw); when I have reason to believe there are this many scare cards out against me I want to shut the hand down right now and take whatever is in the pot.

Could one of our opponents have us beat right now? It’s possible, but not likely. A set of kings is extremely unlikely as 99% of opponents would have re-raised pre-flop with that hand. There’s always the (very small) chance we’re facing a set of 8s or 9s. A K8 or K9 is barely possible at low blinds like this, but those are both unlikely hands and we have outs if the board pairs in our favor. All in all, with a vulnerable over-pair it usually pays to jam the pot on a coordinated flop like this. We may even get action from hands like KQ, KJ, JT, or a flush draw who might be skeptical of our massive over-bet of the pot.

Example 2: A crowded field of limpers when you have a pair like JJs or QQs – I especially like this move with queens. Many players tend to overestimate queens, treating them like kings or aces. In fact, given that a king or an ace is ~48% to arrive on the flop if none of your opponent(s) hold a king or an ace or ~42% to flop if your opponent(s) hold exactly one king or ace, it’s easy to see the hand is not as playable as kings or aces. In fact, it’s half as playable as kings because there are twice as many scare cards! And nothing is as playable as aces, which is the only truly dominating pre-flop hand in Texas Hold em.

With that in mind, if I face a crowded field of limpers in one of the blinds and the pot is somewhat healthy, I’ll often just move in pre-flop. For example, if the blinds are $25/$50 and I’m in the big blind with queens, and six players and the small blind all limp in (this kind of cascading limping will often happen if the under the gun player limps), there’s $400 in the pot. Let’s say I have a $2,000 stack at that point; therefore the pot represents a 20% increase in my chips. I’m inclined to move in right here. If I were to follow the “textbook” play, I’d raise the pot ($400) and from my experience I’d be guaranteed to get one, possibly two callers. And I can guarantee one of those callers will have some kind of ace, and possibly another could have a hand like KJ suited. If a king or an ace flops out there, I’ll still have to make a continuation bet, and to make it look good this will have to be at least $500.

Do you see the asynchronous risk/reward ratio that we put ourselves in with a standard raise? By not moving in, I have to risk $900 ($400 pre-flop plus $500 continuation bet, which is nearly half my stack) to win this pot. And I risk getting bluffed off my hand. Let’s say there’s one caller of my pre-flop $400 raise. That means the pot will be $800 by the time I launch my $500 continuation bet. If my opponent has a hand like AJ, he’ll probably move in if he hits his ace and fold otherwise (unless I’m lucky enough to get a jack-high flop vs. him). I’m risking $900 to win $800, while he’s risking $400 to win at least $900 or more if I can’t get away from my hand. When you’re out of position in an uncertain situation, the risk/reward favors your opponent!

But if I just move in pre-flop, I know I’m a favorite against any hand that calls me, unless somehow the UTG player really decided to limp with kings or aces at these low blinds. I’m risking my entire stack, to be sure, but I’m unlikely to get called. I can’t get bluffed off my hand, and I’m likely a substantial favorite to any hand that might call me. Most importantly, there’s no asynchronous risk/reward ratio with this move. My opponent must risk the same $2,000 that I’ve put on the table. And there’s one more added benefit to this move: many players automatically assume AK/AQ when you jam the pot pre-flop like this. You might get called by small and medium pairs looking to gamble with you, assuming they’re getting odds to do so. In fact, you’re a huge favorite over these hands! By jamming the pot with queens, you’re actually helping to disguise the strength of your hand.

What do you think? Can you think of other scenarios where it makes sense to overbet the pot and shutdown the action in the hand? Do you agree with these examples? Let me know.

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