You will encounter all kinds of odd situations when you sit down at a poker table for a few hours. You are likely to see some insane coolers, some horrible bad beats, and some complicated multiway pots. Eventually, there will be a hand with multiple players and an all-in or two, and that is when a side pot will develop.

If you aren’t very familiar with poker, you may be wondering: how does a side pot work in poker? Quite simply, a side pot will need to involve a hand with at least three players, where one short stack is all in and called by the other two players. Say three players see a flop of Ace-Jack-Ten, and the smallest stack is all in and called by the other two, those players would be the only ones who can bet on the turn and river. Those bets would go into the side pot, money that cannot be won by the third player.

Here, Q-10 and J-2 played the side pot, 8-4 was the short stack, and won the main pot
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Side pots can often affect how certain hands are played. You don’t always need a calculator to help figure out how the pot odds are affected by having a side pot involved. Let’s break down a few scenarios.

Big Main Pot, No Side Pot (yet) – This is the most likely side pot scenario you will come across when playing poker. Say, for example, a short stack is all in preflop and called by two or three players. There isn’t any money in the side pot at the moment, but that will likely change after the flop, turn, and river. It is unlikely, especially in the early stages of a tournament, that nothing is added to the side pot and the action is checked down. That is for later in the tournament, which we will touch on in a bit.

Big Main Pot, Small Side Pot – There are also scenarios where Player A will make a big raise preflop, say to 20,000, Player B will call, and Player C will call all in for less, let's say for 10,000. That means the main pot has 30,000+ (the three bets and the blinds and antes), and the side pot between Player A and Player B will have 20,000. In these scenarios, players are more likely to make bets later on in the hand in order to try to claim the side pot, and also get heads up against the all-in player for the main pot as well.

Small Main Pot, Big Side Pot – You won’t run into this scenario much live, where stacks don’t get quite as short, but you will see these often online on sites like 888Poker, GGPoker, and AmericasCardroom. Here, it’s easier for a player to be crippled down to just a few chips, less than 100 even depending on the stack sizes. So you will often encounter scenarios where a player is very short and all in, so the main pot could just have a few hundred chips, while the standard raise and call that are made preflop are much more than the main pot, say a few thousand chips. In this case, the side pot will largely be treated as the main pot, as players will be fighting over those extra chips, and the short stack is only eligible for the small main pot in this case.

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Multiway All-In Pot – The last kind of side pot is one that usually provides the most action, and that is where multiple players go all in at the same time. Say the flop has come down K-Q-J. Three players move all in: the short stack has Ace-Ten, the medium stack Queen-Jack, and the big stack King-Queen. The board finishes out with two low cards, so the short stack wins the main pot with the straight and triples up. The big stack would win the side pot with King-Queen, and the medium stack with Queen-Jack would be eliminated.

A live hand with multiple side pots involved

Poker, like any other competitive game or sport, has a few unwritten rules that are occasionally broken but are often honored. One of those rules that is often respected by many is playing side pots at final tables, especially in large multi-table tournaments with big pay jumps involved. Often, players will check down the board if a third player is all in, especially if the main pot is not that large. Basically, it is more important for both players that the short stack gets knocked out, than it is for one of them to bluff at a non-existent side pot with a marginal hand.

Of course, this can and will often change if there is even a small side pot involved. Let’s say Player A raises to 750,000, and Player B calls all in for 500,000. Player C has to call the full bet of 750,000 if they want to see the flop, so there is 1,500,000 in the main pot, and a side pot of 500,000 between Player A and C. It is likely in this case, that one player, probably Player A since they were the aggressor preflop, will make another bet to try and pick up the side pot. However, some players will still elect to check down in this spot, even if they hit a pair or better on the board, in order to try and knock out the short stack and secure a pay jump.

Getting used to playing side pots with different factors will help improve your game greatly, and more importantly, will have a positive impact on your bottom line. Grab a calculator if you help determining the pot odds involved, and invest the time in studying these situations and find the optimal strategy for you in these hands.