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Understanding Poker Side Pots
Poker is a complex game, but you already know that, and that's why you're here. You've heard someone say something like, "Why are you betting into a dry side pot?", and you didn't have a clue what they meant. Be confused no more, as your poker journey is about to blaze a new trail.
To understand a side pot, you need to know what they other pots, which is fairly simple, as the answer is only one. The Main pot. In a typical poker hand, players will either ante, or pay blinds, then then cards are dealt, and the first round of betting commences. When everyone has enough money, then the Main pot is the only pot that everyone plays for and is eligible to win.
A side pot doesn't come into play until someone doesn't have enough money to cover an entire bet, or they are out of chips, and there are more rounds of betting that other players participate, but the "all-in" player cannot.
Side Note: If you've ever watched an olde-tyme poker movie, then you've seen something where a player has a good hand, and it's so good that they go out to a bank or a loan shark to get more money to have more money to bet, or to cover a bet made by another player. It's important to understand that in this day in age, that this type of shenanigans is no longer allowed. When a hand is started, the player may only bet as many chips as they started the hand with, and no more. No other source of funding is authorized... no watches, car keys, or pairs of underwear. (Now, I'm referring to a cash game, because in a tournament, there isn't the ability to go get more chips, but side pots can occur in a tounament as well.)
So, the exceptions that must occur for a side pot to form requires:
1. More than 2 players
2. One player must exhaust all their chips during the hand.
3. Another bet occurs in which one of the players in the Main pot cannot participate, because they have exhausted their chips in a previous round of betting.
Side Pot Example
3 players are playing No Limit Texas Hold'em with $1/2 blinds.
Player A has $100, B has $400, C has $500.
After the first round of betting, pre-flop, Player A is all-in, and Players B & C have both called, and there's $300 in the Main pot. After the Flop, Player B makes a bet for $50, and Player C calls. The side pot is now $100, and only Players B & C are eligible to win it, as Player A did not contribute to the side pot. The turn and river are shown, and no further betting occurs.
To resolve the pots, the dealer will first address the side pot. Players B & C will show their hands, and the winner of those two hands wins the side pot. Next, all players will show their hands, and the winner of all three hands wins the Main pot.
If you've ever watched a Pot-Limit Omaha game, then you've probably seen a hand where 2 or 3 players are All-in, and multiple side pots occur. In each case, only the players that have contributed to a pot are eligible to win that pot.
Side Pot Strategies
In a tournament, when one player is all-in, and there are multiple other players, often times none of the other players will "Bet into the dry side pot." The reason for this is that when you've got one person against the ropes, the more fists that can punch them, the better. Betting at this point reduces the odds that you will knock that person out of the tounament. Just know that this is considered collusion or soft-play, and any words spoken regarding not betting will be met with resistance. But, it's just the smart play.
Conversely, in a cash game, it is a great idea to bet up a side pot, especially when you know that you have a paying customer with a lessor hand. Often times, a side pot will be relatively large in comparison to the main pot. Betting up the side pot to counter the losses to the main pot can negate the losses of the main pot.