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Your objective when playing poker is to win as much money (chips) as possible. Usually that comes with the best hands. But there are situations where you can win chips without holding the best hand at the showdown.

Yes, that can happen when you bluff out your opponents; but that’s not what we are talking about here.

Let me explain.

Playing Texas Hold’em, situations may arise when you are almost certain that you hold the second-best hand with cards yet to come. But the opponent holding the better hand has gone all in. From this point on, any betting or raising goes into a side pot, from which he is excluded. Note: Once a hand starts, a player cannot rebuy chips until after that hand is completed and the dealer makes the payoffs.

In such situations, it would be ideal if the best hand goes all in on the flop or earlier. The more cards yet to come, the greater the opportunity to build the side pot as big as possible.

Toward that end, use your best judgement when deciding whether to bet out, raise, slow play so as not to chase out opponents, check-raise when you are quite certain an opponent behind you will make the bet.

Assuming you are correct that the all-in player has the best hand at the table, he wins the main pot, but you get the side pot.

Sometimes the side pot can be bigger than the main pot. And, what if you were wrong: The all-in player does not have the best hand after all. Now you win both the main pot as well as the side pot. Either way, that hand could put you well ahead for the session.

Here’s an example. It’s a $4-$8 limit hold’em game. In a middle position, you are dealt Ac-10d – a very good starting hand. Preflop, the Under-the-Gun (UTG) limps to see the flop. Then, the next player, UTG+1 – a loose-aggressive player – makes a raise (a 2-bet).

With A-10 in the hole, you decide to call the raise to see what the flop brings. The player behind you and the Button also call the raised bet. Then, without hesitation, Rose, in the Big Blind, reraises – a 3-bet.

Rose is an elderly woman against who you have played many times. Most important to you, she is a fairly tight player. She must be holding a very powerful starting hand to make this reraise.

You put her on a made hand (such as A-A, K-K, Q-Q) or a premium drawing hand (such as A-K, A-Q, A-J, K-Q).

Everyone at the table is focused on the board as the dealer places the flop cards face-up: 9c-Ah-10h.

You have flopped top two-pair on the board, Aces and 10s.

On the flop, the betting is checked to Rose, who goes all-in with her last three chips. You figure to hold the best hand after Rose. You decide to just call her bet, rather than raise it up and chase out any players, or see if anyone raises. The other three players in the hand also just call long. You feel certain that your hand most likely is second-best to Rose’s.

The Turn is 4d – a rag – not likely to help anyone. The UTG opens the betting, and is called by the UTG+1. You decide to slow-play (just call along) to keep them all in the pot until the river. All (except Rose who is all-in) call along. The River is the 4s, putting a pair of 4’s on the board.

You are almost certain that your top two-pair on the board is second only to Rose’s hand. Once again, the UTG opens the betting and is called by UTG+1. Contemplating the board for a few seconds, you make your raise. They all call.

Hoping you are right, you turn up your hand: Aces and 10s. You win the side pot. Rose then turns up her hand: A-K of diamonds in the hole. You also win the main pot. Wow! 

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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