by Barbara Connors
It’s an unusual concept in a poker game: money that isn’t wanted. Poker players have a reputation as being ruthless sharks who would sell out their own grandmothers for a little extra profit. But watch any given poker game and inevitably it happens, the bizarre spectacle of a pot surrounded by apathetic players who check, check, check. These unwanted pots—where nobody has flopped much of a hand or shows any real interest in winning—are commonly known as orphan pots.
Orphan pots aren’t robust and they aren’t sexy. What they are is small and neglected. That waif-like pot sitting lonely and unwanted in the middle of the table is no great prize; it’s not going to appreciably add to your stack or give you any kind of emotional rush as you rake in the chips. But in a game where we are forced to fight constant losing battles against the blinds and the rake, where the margin between glorious victory and crushing defeat can be painfully thin, orphan pots are not something you can afford to ignore. The beauty of the orphan pot is that it usually goes to the first player who makes a bet at it. And they come around often enough that the art of stealing these little pots can make a big difference to your bottom line.
Most of the time, orphans can be had for a cheap bet. In a hand where the betting “action” consists of an endless check-fest around the table, one small-to-moderate bet is usually all it takes to bring the hand to a swift conclusion. Small-to-moderate is a key concept here. Since orphan pots are, almost by definition, on the diminutive side—if they weren’t, players would naturally take a lot more interest in winning them—you don’t want to risk much of your own money trying to pick them up.
As with all bluffs, it’s about picking your spots, and that starts with position—especially critical for picking up orphan pots. The player sitting on the button or the cutoff has an immense advantage over his earlier-positioned counterpart when it comes to stealing the occasional orphan. He can make his move earlier, on the flop, as opposed to having to wait for the turn or the river, where a lot of opponents like to play sheriff. And he can make a better move, because late position allows him a better read of his opponents. Much depends on the specifics of the situation of course—the number of opponents, the quality of the opponents, the texture of the board, the stakes of the game, etc—but all things being equal, picking up orphan pots from late position can be ridiculously easy.
However, when bluffing at an orphan pot, always keep in mind what you’re risking, versus what you’re trying to win. The last thing you want to do is shove out a massive pile of chips just for the chance to win a piddling little orphan pot. When the prize is so small, it’s generally not worth the trouble to bet big or bet more than once. So if you push out a bet expecting to make a little easy money only to find that one of your opponents is in the mood to play back at you—let it go. Don’t allow yourself to get drawn into some testosterone-fueled bluffing war over an orphan pot. That’s like sending your army into battle over possession of an anthill.
Occasionally you’ll run into a trap. Perhaps it’s an opponent slow-playing aces who is now visibly grateful that he’s finally getting some action with his bullets. Tell him “you’re welcome” and let it go. Orphan pots aren’t worth investing much of your time, energy, or chips in an effort to win them. But if you pick your spots right, they offer a chance to pick up some free money now and then. Orphan pots may not be much of a fortune, but they do favor the bold.
Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.