Most poker literature is aimed at limit play, how to play a specific hand in a specific situation. In pot-limit, it is not so much the hand you play that is important- it is much more how you play the hand from the flop onward (note the difference). Because in limit a large percentage of the pots ends in a showdown, you will simply need a good starting hand to have a decent chance to win. In pot-limit, this is not necessarily the case. For a lot of good pot-limit players it is often more important who they are up against than the hand they are holding. To be more specific: in pot-limit, good players can often win against weak, predictable players almost irrespective of their own hand, and they try to do everything they can to get involved with these players as often as possible. (That said, I am considered to be one of the tightest "good" pot-limit players around, and I hardly ever enter a pot without a good starting hand, even against relatively weak opposition. Still, this doesn't take away the importance of the strategies I'm going to share with you today). In this article, I will discuss a situation where a top professional is not playing according to the strength of his own hand, but where he is playing the player. He is making his decisions based on the cards his opponent probably holds, or better: on the cards his opponent does not hold. I will share with you some of the thought processes that may guide the pro's decisions at the different stages in the hand.
The situation / plays / actions: A pot-limit Omaha game, buy-in $500, blinds $10-10, no rake (you are paying time collection). You (the pro) are on the button with a very weak Omaha hand, Ah 6s 5s 4d, and have the biggest stack on the table. A weak player in middle position, playing a $800 stack, has called. What makes him weak is not that he plays bad starting hands (quite the contrary in fact, since this player needs a fairly good hand to enter a pot), but that he doesn't play well after the flop: he plays in predictable patterns and is easy to read, as his betting actions always represent the exact hand he holds. All other players fold, and it's up to you. What do you do?
Professional player's thoughts: Gee, this hand is really horrible, and it can never be played on the basis of hand strength alone. The player in mid position almost certainly holds a better hand than I do, most likely some sort of high card / big pair hand. Normally I would throw away a hand like this almost every time, even on the button. However, if I raise and I can get the pot heads up between me and the caller, then I might be in a profitable situation even with the poor hand I hold. I will be in position, heads up against a predictable player, who is easy to read and also easy to bluff, which means that I almost certainly have a positive expectation here.
You decide to raise to $30, your standard raise in this game, the blinds fold and you're heads up against the caller in mid position (just as planned). The flop comes Qh 9d 3h. Your opponent bets into you for the size of the pot, $80. What do you do?
Professional player's thoughts: I can never win this pot on the basis of the strength of my hand. My opponent almost certainly holds Q9, 33, 99 or QQ, as he almost always has a good made hand when he comes out betting; he doesn't like to bet his draws as a semi-bluff, for example. In the past I have always won the big pots against him, and there's no doubt he fears and respects my play- which has caused him to play even more predictably against me. Therefore, the most likely scenario is that he simply wants to win this pot right away with a hand that he thinks is probably good now. He doesn't want to fight, he just wants me out, as he fears I might outdraw him on the turn or river. Even though it is possible he has a flush draw in addition to his made hand, I hold the ace of hearts, the nut-flush blocker. It is unlikely he will want to risk his entire stack calling me down if a third heart comes on the turn. Plus, from his perspective: if I call his flop bet, taking into account my preflop raise, he will figure me for precisely the nut flush draw (or, less likely, a straight draw). This means that if a third heart comes, I will almost certainly be able to bluff him out of the pot. If a straight card (king, jack, ten, eight) comes, I will let my opponent's betting actions dictate my own course of action: if he checks or bets small -and therefore doesn't have the straight- I just KNOW that I can bet him off his hand, either on the turn or river.
You call the $80. The turn is the deuce of spades, as much a blank as your opponent could have hoped for. Once again, he bets the pot ($240). What do you do?
Professional player's thoughts: Even though this is not the card I had initially hoped for, it is still a great help for my hand. I have created quite a few nut outs with this deuce, and I will have my opponent in deep trouble on the last betting round. My opponent still has $470 left and will almost certainly make the wrong decision on the river if I call now. From his perspective, I am in there with the nut flush draw or a straight draw if I call his turn bet- and probably both. This means that if a club, a king, a jack, a ten or an eight comes up he will almost certainly check, and he will have a hard time calling me on the river for all his money, when I put him to the test. What's more, the cards that look like blanks to him, actually give me the nuts. With a four, five or six he will most likely bet all-in (so I can simply call with the nuts), and with an ace he will most likely check-and-call (when I bet the nuts). Either way, I will probably get his entire stack when I improve and make him lay down the best hand when I don't- now, in pot limit things don't get better than this. There are only three river cards that don't change anything (the three sevens), in addition to the cards that pair the board of course (in which case I will simply give it up). There are over 30 river cards left in the deck that can force him to make a bad decision- either by folding the best hand or by calling with the worst hand. Therefore, folding or raising are no options here. Folding is no option because the situation is just too favorable, raising because I cannot make my opponent lay down his hand (because it's pretty obvious I would be semi-bluffing) AND because I will give away my good prospects for the river. In this case, calling is clearly best.
Some final words. The thought processes described here are the way the excellent players, the top professionals, think when playing pot-limit: they play YOUR cards, rather than their own. (These thought processes also show that top players always think at least one or two steps ahead. They know exactly what the possibilities for the next card are and how they can, or should, adjust to each and every one of these possibilities. This should be second nature for any serious player, even in limit poker). Please keep in mind that I don't consider myself to be in this category of really excellent players, playing on an incredibly high level. I still think that playing from a solid basis -good starting hands- is the way to go in almost all poker games, PLO being no exception. (Also, it should be clear that for people who have just stepped up to pot-limit poker, trying to use the strategies I have described here is not something I would recommend). That said, playing ABC tight in pot-limit will make you easy to read, and if you're playing regularly against good or even excellent players, they will easily take your money by representing hands that you cannot hold (based on your starting requirements and / or the way the betting went), on the assumption that you cannot call. And if you try to counter their strategy by simply check-calling all the time, they will pick up on this faster than you can imagine, and you are going to lose a lot of money; in pot-limit, there is no place for people who check-call on a regular basis. The advanced plays I have touched upon today need to be understood very well in order to be a successful pot-limit player. Without at least a basic understanding of the thought processes I have discussed here, you will stand no chance playing pot-limit. Take care, you guys, and good luck.