How Does Going All-in Work in Poker?

All-in Playing Poker

If you’re new to poker but have watched a few poker games on television, you’ve probably heard the expression “all-in.”

Going all-in at the poker table means that all the money you have in front of you is in the pot and in contention at the showdown.

If you don’t have the best hand, you’ll lose your entire stake. You might have to re-buy at this point, or you might have to complete the walk of shame.

And the walk of shame is usually accompanied by a muttered, “I’m just going to the ATM.”

Here’s a complete explanation of how going all-in works in poker.

Table Stakes and Side Pots

If you’re of a certain age, you probably remember seeing this on a TV show or a movie. You might have even read about this situation in fiction.

Someone runs out of money at the table and can’t cover their opponent’s bet. So, they’re forced to wager a night with their wife or their car or something equally ludicrous to stay in the hand.
That’s not how poker works in the real world, though.

In reality, poker is played for “table stakes.” In other words, you can participate in the game and can’t be forced to bet more money than you have on the table. The catch is that you can’t win more than the amount you risk.

Here’s an Example:

You have an opponent with a big stack in front of you, and she bets $300. You’re down to your last $50, so you call.

If you’re heads-up with this other player, the most she can win from you is $50, and that’s the most you can win from her, too. Her $300 bet was enough to run the other players out of the pot, though.

It gets more complicated when multiple players decide to call and get into the pot. This creates a situation where a side pot is created.

Let’s say you have a second caller at the table with $300 in front of them. Since you called for $50, that becomes a side pot where $50 from each one of the three players is involved. The best hand wins that pot.

The other pot is the main pot, and it consists of the $250 from each of the other players that they put into the pot ($500 total). You can’t win any of the money in this pot, so the two of them will compare their hands to determine who wins that side pot.

How to Go All-in

Going all-in is easy. You just announce, “All in.” Or you might say, “I’m all in.”

You push your chips forward on the table, but you don’t put them in the middle. After all, the chips have to be counted, especially if you have fewer chips than the other players at the table. Even if you don’t, they have to decide how many of their chips they’re having to commit.

All-in tends to happen more often in no limit poker games than it does in limit poker games.

I remember the first time I saw a player go all-in on the flop. I was playing in a no limit Texas hold’em game in Dallas, Texas, and the flop had just come out and had a couple of hearts on it. The woman at the table (there was only one) bet into the flop.

Casino Cards

An older man sitting next to me announced, “All in.”

She called him, and he turned out to have four cards to a flush. Someone called him Doyle Brunson, but I know for certain he wasn’t really Doyle Brunson.

I don’t remember who won the hand.

But I do remember the creation of the side pot.

If you’re playing in a casino cardroom, the dealer will help adjudicate the main pot and the side pot (or side pots).

Kill Phil and the “Art” of Going All-in Preflop

Several years ago, a strategy book for playing poker tournaments was published called Kill Phil by Blair Rodman and Lee Nelson. The strategy was aimed at beginners and hoped to give such players a strategy that would make them competitive in larger tournaments. The premise was that you would play few hands preflop, but when you did play them, you’d go all-in most of the time.

This eliminates the skill of playing on the flop, turn, and river that more advanced players have. They have to commit preflop.

And by showing so much aggression preflop, if the other player doesn’t also have a premium hand, they’ll probably fold to you.

The Kill Phil Rookie strategy is the easiest strategy to understand. You only have two moves using this strategy—fold or go all-in. The idea is that if you have a premium hand, you “push,” which means to go all-in.

One concept to understand is how many chips per round you’re looking at, which is based on the size of any blinds or antes you’re required to bet. For example, if the blinds are 25/50, the chips per round is 75.

You can compare that to the size of your stack to decide how aggressively you need to play. The bigger your stack is relative to the chips per round, the tighter you should play.

The four levels, according to the book, look like this:

  • 30 rounds
  • 10 to 30 rounds
  • 4 to 10 rounds
  • Less than 4 rounds

If you have so few chips that you can’t make it through four more rounds without going broke, you’re going to go all-in with almost any playable hand. If you have enough chips to last 30 rounds or more, you’re going to only push with the biggest of possible hands—aces, kings, ace-king suit, and the like.

The book goes into much more detail, including ranking that various starting hands and mixing up the bet sizing into multiple increasingly-difficult strategies, from rookie to basic to adept to expert.

When Should You Go All-in?

A definitive answer to when should you go all-in lies in the realm of computerized play and game theory optimal strategy. Old-school poker players look at some other considerations, too.

If someone else has bet in front of you, and you’re trying to decide whether you should call their bet and go all-in, it’s a no-brainer to do so if you know you have the stone-cold nuts.

But that’s usually not the case.

The basic strategies of poker apply here, though. You need a stronger hand to call than you need to bet or raise with.

In other words, if you have weak opponents, going all-in is less risky if no one has bet or raised in front of you. The likelihood that your opponents will fold increases the expected value of the move.

Most of the time, when you’re deciding whether to call an all-in bet, you need to calculate the pot odds being offered. The “pot odds” is the payoff you’re expecting in relation to the size of your bet.

Here’s an example:

If you have $500 in front of you, and the opponent’s bet plus what’s already in the pot amounts to $1500, you’re getting 3 to 1 pot odds.
If you estimate that you’ll win the pot 1 out of 3 times, or more, it’s profitable to call.

Poker Cards

If you estimate that you’ll win the pot 1 out of 4 times, you’ll break even.

If you estimate that you’ll win the pot fewer than 1 out of 5 times, you’ll lose money.

These are all long-term estimates, but that’s how you make money in poker—by focusing on the long-term expected value of your bets, calls, and raises.

The math for this should be obvious, but here’s how it works out:
If you win this pot 1 out of 3 times, you’ll win $1500 once, and you’ll lose $500 twice. Your profit is $500.

If you win this pot 1 out of 4 times, you’ll win $1500 once, but you’ll lose $500 3 times. That’s a profit/loss of $0 – it’s a break-even move.

If you win this pot 1 out of 5 times, though, you’ll win $1500 once, but you’ll lose $500 4 times—that’s a loss of $500.

Your skill at estimating how likely you are to win is critical to determining whether you should call an all-in bet or not.

Most of the time, it’s not profitable to call someone else’s all-in bet.

But against weak players, going all-in on a regular basis can make a lot of sense. All the dead money you pick up from the pot can act as a freeroll when you do have to risk money on a drawing hand later.

Conclusion

Going all-in when playing poker is most common in no-limit games, but it happens in limit and pot-limit games, too. The most important concepts to understand are table stakes, side pots, and pot odds. Good luck with your gambling!

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. …

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