“Preflop pot odds” describe the price we get when deciding whether to call preflop. Many schools of poker make use of preflop pot odds to help them generate a basic idea regarding good preflop defending strategies.
Not too many players realise it yet, but preflop pot odds in poker are hugely overrated. Rather than provide a perfect preflop solution as some sources claim, preflop pot odds have the tendency to be downright misleading. We could even go so far as to say that preflop pot odds are a highly pervasive myth in poker.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves! There is at least one preflop situation where our pot odds do indeed allow for razor-sharp calculation.
PREFLOP - WHEN POT ODDS REALLY MATTER
Let’s see an example hand where our preflop pot odds are the most critical factor in determining the best preflop line.
Example – 100bb in the effective stacks
Hero open-raises to 3bb on the BTN with AKo
Villain in SB 3bets to 10bb. (BB folds)
Hero 4bets to 25bb
Villain 5bets all-in to 100bb
If we were to make the call in this scenario, we could describe ourselves as “closing the action” - i.e. there are no more decisions to make after this point. We simply hope that our hand wins at showdown. Any time we are “closing the action” in poker, this is a perfect situation for employing pot odds.
The reason for this is that we don’t need to account for any complex variables on the later streets. We don’t need to worry about who will bet or fold; none of these options is any more possible. If we know our opponent’s precise range, we’ll also be able to calculate our precise expectation (long run profits), since it is purely a function of our pot equity.
Key Takeaway – Pot Odds should primarily be used when facing an all-in bet from our opponent.
HOW TO CALCULATE PREFLOP ODDS
So how does the above calculation actually work? We simply need to look at the price we are getting and compare it to our pot odds. If we have already worked with postflop pot odds calculations, then preflop calculations are no different.
We need to call $75 after our opponent shoves.
Think about the following:
1. How big would the total pot be if we made the call?
2. What percentage of the whole pot would we be investing if we called?
After calling, the total pot will be roughly 200bb (201bb to be exact but let’s round down). This makes sense given that two players with 100bb effective stacks are all-in. We would be investing 75bb of that total (note that we don’t count our initial 25bb 4bet since this is already part of the pot).
We’d hence be investing 75/200 or 37.5% of the total pot. Therefore, 37.5% is our pot-odds expressed as a percentage. Note that some old-school players still prefer to express this as a ratio. i.e. 1.67:1 in this case, but most modern poker players have abandoned ratios entirely. Why? Because we need to compare our pot-odds to our pot-equity, which is usually in percentage form. Either way, we’ll need to convert our pot-odds ratio to a percentage, so it makes sense to skip a step and ignore ratios entirely.
Calling a heads-up all-in shove when playing 100bb effective allows for an easy pot-odds estimate. Seeing as the total pot-size will always be roughly 200bb, we can simply divide our call-amount by 2 to calculate our pot odds expressed as a percentage.
Provided the amount of pot equity we have exceeds our preflop pot odds (37.5%) we will have a call which generates profit in the long-run.
How much equity do we have in the above scenario though?
CALCULATING OUR POT-EQUITY
At this stage, many players rely on equity calculators to make a rough estimate regarding our pot equity against our opponent’s range. Of course, the equity calculator would not typically be used mid-hand, but frequent practice with equity calculators allows us to make more accurate estimates on the fly. Since we are not mid-hand right now, we can make use of an equity calculator to produce precise estimates.
Before we can do this though, we need to make quick estimates regarding our opponent’s 5bet shoving range. As a rough guide it usually looks something like this:
Of course, depending on the dynamics of the game in question, villain’s shoving range could easily end up being tighter or looser.
If we plug the above range into an equity calculator we can see how it weighs up against our AKo:
In this case, we have almost 40% equity, so our call should be marginally profitable. In very close spots, the rake should also be considered. In games that are raked at 6% or higher this preflop call could even end up marginally losing. (This scenario mostly applies to micro-stakes games.)
Of course, it makes sense to consider other alternatives if we think our opponent is looser/tighter.
Let’s see how we stack up against the following looser range:
TT+, AJs+, AQo+
Then again, perhaps our opponent is exceptionally tight and only 5bets with the following range.
In this example, we should fold our AKo when facing the 5bet jam since we are not even close to having the required pot equity to make the call.
The above brief analysis teaches us some useful lessons.
1. Calling a 5bet with AKo is a much closer decision than many players imagine. It’s usually better that our opponent folds to our 4bet rather than 5bets.
- Folding to a 5bet with AKo is a perfectly reasonable decision if we don’t feel we are getting the right price. This simple fact helps to debunk the prevalent myth “If we 4bet with AKo, then we can never fold to a 5bet”.
3. In very close spots, rake should be considered, along with other variables such as the size of the 4bet and precise effective stacks. If our 4bet is smaller in the above example, we get a worse price facing the 5bet, which can sometimes be enough to shift our decision towards a fold. Even playing 120bb deep as opposed to 100bb deep can have a significant impact on our decision
THE PREFLOP POT ODDS MYTH
So far, we have seen how relevant and accurate usage of pot odds augments our decision-making in a preflop scenario. So why do we still refer to preflop pot odds as a myth? Because the majority of preflop decisions are not all-in, meaning pot odds are not relevant.
There are a variety of strategy resources out there linking preflop range construction to the pot-odds we are offered when facing an open-raise. Put simply, this is an incorrect application of maths. The pot-odds we get gives us little to no information about the expectation we will generate on a call. Even good players seem confused about this at times, citing “pot odds” as their reason for making preflop decisions which can in no way effectively be solved by pot odds.
Cognizant of this shortfall, some players have attempted to utilise a mixture of preflop pot odds and “equity-realisation” techniques to make estimates regarding preflop defending ranges. While this approach carries more merit than analysing raw pot odds, it frequently involves making highly speculative estimates regarding a hand’s value in various postflop scenarios. (We’ll see an example of this later.) It should, hopefully, be evident to the discerning player that a higher-accuracy approach is desirable.
WHY POT ODDS DON'T WORK FOR MOST PREFLOP SCENARIOS
So why is it that pot-odds can’t be used to solve for various preflop scenarios?
The answer is probably already at the back of our brains somewhere but may need a measure of coaxing.
Think about the following postflop scenario:
Example – 100bb effective. Hero cold-calls on the BTN with ATs facing an MP 3bb open. There is 7.5bb in the middle on the flop, and we hold the nut flush draw. Our opponent bets 6bb. If we make the call, there will be 91bb remaining in the effective stacks.
Best play in this scenario? Perhaps some of us are thinking about raising, which could indeed be a strong option, but let’s ignore that temporarily. Imagine that we are forced to choose between calling or folding, which is the best play?
If we assume that only our flush-draw outs are live, it means we will make the best hand by the turn roughly 18% of the time. Regarding pot odds, we would be investing 6bb into a total pot of 19.5bb or approximately 31% of the total pot. In other words, we don’t get the pot-odds to make the call here. Does this mean the best play is to fold? Not at all! Folding would be ridiculous; hopefully, we intuitively realise that. Our pot odds are not relevant here because there is a more important factor at work: our implied odds.
Most players understand how implied odds pertain to preflop decisions, but often have a blind spot when it comes to reverse implied odds. Just as we can sometimes call without pot odds due to the promise of future expectation (implied odds), we sometimes need to fold even when getting the odds, due to the threat of future losses (reverse implied odds). Every poker maths book out there walks through the maths governing implied odds, but hardly any discuss the maths associated with reverse implied odds. Think about it – when was the last time you performed a reverse implied odds calculation mid-hand? It’s therefore not surprising that the average player doesn’t have a good grasp of the concept.
Let’s see a preflop example where even some good players are routinely making mistakes.
Example – 100bb effective stacks. Villain opens on the BTN for 3bb with KQo. SB folds and hero 3bets in the BB to 10bb. Villain 4bets preflop to 19bb. His range is JJ+/AK. Should we call or fold? (Let’s ignore jamming, probably not a great idea anyway).
Let’s start by taking a quick look at the price we get on a call. We’d be investing 9bb into a total pot of 38.5bb.
9/38.5 = 0.2337
So according to basic pot-odds calculations, we only need 23.4% pot-equity for this to be a correct call.
Let’s use our equity calculator the run the numbers on how KQo stacks up vs villain’s range.
Great! 25.4% pot-equity against villain’s range. So, we have a call, right? Many players would assume so, but the calculation in no way guarantees that calling will be profitable. Remember, we are not closing the action here, so a raw pot odds calculation does not give us the full picture. It’s very important that we factor in any relevant projections regarding implied-odds and reverse-implied-odds.
To some extent, we can gauge this using logic.
Think about the following:
After flatting KQo OOP against a 4bet, what are some of the common postflop scenarios that might occur against a range of JJ+, AK.
It might not take too much, though, to realise that we are horribly dominated by almost every hand in villain’s range. If we flop a King, the villain might have AA, AK, or KK. If we flop a Queen, the villain might hold QQ, KK or AA. The chances of us losing additional chips even after we flop relatively well are high. We may even find ourselves getting stacked with a relatively high frequency. We are clearly risking more than just the 9bb we are calling preflop.
Conversely, in scenarios where we do indeed flop the best hand, our opponent usually won’t have anything to pay us off with. For example, if we flop the best hand with a pair of Queens, then Villain must hold AK or JJ; neither likely candidates for us being able to get a big payout.
In summary, this is a classic reverse implied odds scenario. When translated that means we need more equity than our pot-odds might suggest for our call to be profitable. In the above situation, it likely makes sense to assume that our reverse implieds are detrimental enough to the point where folding is clearly incentivised.
WHAT USE ARE POT-ODDS THEN?
This is not to say that preflop pot odds should be ignored entirely when making non-all-in decisions. As discussed above, some analysts attempt to mix pot odds with equity-realisation in the hope of generating more reliable estimates regarding good preflop ranges.
Although highly speculative, such estimates might allow us to at least perceive whether specific scenarios are close, and perhaps even generate ideas regarding how to adjust our preflop ranges against different opening sizes.
Let’s see an example of how this works before we proceed to discuss potentially more reliable methodology.
Consider the following two scenarios with 100bb effective stacks:
BTN open raises to 2bb. SB folds. Hero is in the BB. In terms of pot-odds, he needs 22% equity to make the call.
BTN open raises to 3bb. SB folds. Hero is in the BB. In terms of pot-odds, he needs roughly 31% equity to make the call.
Now firstly note that in Scenario 1, every possible big blind holding has at least 22% equity against a standard BTN raise-first-in range (48% of holdings, or so). If we were to follow pot-odds blindly, this means that we should never fold BB against a BTN min-raise.
Hopefully, we understand intuitively without the use of maths, that’s it’s probably not a good idea to defend garbage holdings such as 32o when OOP. The raw pot odds calculation does at least help us to see that we should likely be defending an extremely wide range of holdings, however.
How would an analyst improve the quality of the decision using equity-realisation estimates? In some cases, they might start with a blanket assumption such as “we only expect to realise 65% of our equity while OOP”. They might then use this to make calculations regarding how much equity a holding would need to compensate for its reduced equity-realisation. In scenario 1 we’d need (22/0.65) roughly 34% equity, while in scenario 2 we’d need (31/0.65) roughly 48% equity.
If such were the case we’d defend about 84% of holdings in scenario 1 and a mere 25% of holdings in scenario 2. (Based on which holdings have the required equity when facing a 48% BTN raise-first-in range). Of course, that is not to say that these values are anywhere near accurate, but it does demonstrate that we should be using significantly different defending strategies as a result of even a small change in open-raise sizing.
This was an example of an elementary calculation to illustrate the concept. Analysts might look to increase the level of accuracy by assigning every specific preflop combination its own equity-realisation factor. (Some hands realise their equity better than others.) Regardless of the complexity, however, there are reasons why such equity realisation techniques can never give us precise preflop ranges.
The reasons are as follows -
1. These techniques assume that expectation of a preflop defend is determined by a hand’s equity which is demonstrably not the case.
2. These techniques ignore (or at least heavily simplify) the postflop game tree - overlooking essential concepts such as implied-odds (as discussed above).
Even so, to this day, preflop pot odds are often used by poker analysts as a way of making broad generalisations regarding preflop play.
CONSTRUCTING PREFLOP RANGERS
So, given that equity realisation techniques are prone to producing questionable results, how is that professional players come up with their preflop ranges? Are there more accurate techniques that can be utilised instead? Absolutely, here are three relevant methods.
1. Employing logic. We made the decision to fold 32o in the BB vs a BTN min-raise even though we were getting the direct pot odds. Why? It’s only logical to assume the hand is going to have some severe playability issues postflop and hence might not make a profitable defend. We didn’t do any maths here, we just looked at the situation and said, “based on our experience as poker players, the decision to call is probably going to be losing”. Logic forms a massive part in a good player’s preflop hand selection process.
2. Empirical analysis. When translated this means “get a huge database of hands and see which preflop holdings are actually making money in practice”. After all, the goal of a poker player should not be to have theoretically perfect preflop ranges, but rather to have the preflop strategy that generates the highest winrate. Empirical analysis is hence especially useful for building a robust exploitative game plan.
3. GTO style analysis. Game theory solvers are able to take into account significantly more of the postflop variables than equity realisation techniques can. If we are interested in generating approximations of GTO preflop ranges, then we should employ the use of modern GTO calculators. And, as we might imagine, they don’t work by merely looking at preflop pot odds. They generate an estimate of which hands to defend by including the entire postflop game tree (within reason). A solver will hence recommend defending some hands with lower equity while folding some hands with higher equity. Further proof that preflop pot odds are not 100% relevant!
When equity-realisation/pot-odds techniques were first employed, GTO poker solvers were not commercially available. For the most part, the former is slowly being replaced by the latter as the gold standard for the methodology behind preflop analysis.