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The Key To No-Limit Hold’em

by Ed Miller |  Published: Jul 25, 2012

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Ed MillerWant to know the key to no-limit hold’em? Well, I won’t make you wait. Here it is.

Get your opponents to put their money in bad.

For me, this is the key principle in no-limit hold’em. Get your opponents to put their money in bad. The more you can get them to put money in bad, the more money you will make.

Say you’re watching me play, and you see me play a hand a little funny. If you come up to me afterwards and ask why I played the way I did, nearly always my answer will boil down to, “I was trying to get my opponent to put money in bad.”

I find most other players don’t think this way when they play, but I think it’s a very useful way to think.

Over the long term, everyone gets the same cards. Or, more accurately, there’s no way to predict or control who will get better cards over a period of time, and after a long enough period, the percentage of your results that you can attribute to luck as opposed to skill becomes quite small.

If everyone gets the same cards over the long term, then to generate an edge, you have to get your opponents to put too much money into the pot with the wrong cards. You need your opponents to put their money in bad. If this is the key to winning at poker, then by my thinking, it should be the principle that determines most of my plays.

Sometimes getting players to put money in bad is as simple as making a good hand, betting it, and getting called by worse. But as players become less willing to make dumb payoffs and simultaneously become more aggressive, you will have to work harder to get your opponents to put money in bad.

Give free or cheap cards to induce action on a later round.

Most no-limit players are very concerned about getting outdrawn. If they have a made hand and there are significant draws on board, you can count on these players to bet big to “protect their hands.”

I’m not nearly as concerned about getting drawn out on. It’s poker. It’s going to happen.

I’m much more concerned if my opponents play against me as if they could see my cards. When I have a good hand, they find folds. And when I show weakness, they find lots of bets. This is very bad.

I’d happily accept an extra chance to get outdrawn if it means that when I don’t get outdrawn, I’m more likely to get my opponent to put money in bad.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I raise to $15 preflop from middle position, and the relatively tight player in the big blind calls.

The flop comes A-9-4. I have A-Q. The blind checks, and I bet $25. He calls.
He’s probably got an ace, and I’ve probably got him outkicked.

The turn is a 7. The blind checks. If I make a big bet here, many tight, Vegas-type players will fold a hand like A-5 suited. They’ll figure that they are outkicked too often to try to call down.

So I check. It looks like I tried a continuation bet, got called, and then gave up on the turn. Many players will bet their ace on the river, and I can call or possibly even raise.

Instead of betting the turn and getting a fold, I give a free card on the turn to net an extra bet on the river. The river card could pair my opponent’s kicker, and I could lose because of it, but if I want my opponent to put money in bad, it’s the price I have to pay.

Overall, it’s better to have my opponent putting in bad money on the river than it is to lock up the pot on the turn (and have my opponent making a correct fold).

This type of tradeoff comes up all the time. Before you bet to protect your hand, think about two things. First, think, “What worse hands will my opponent call this bet with?” If you can’t think of any hands, then your opponent won’t be putting any money in bad. There’s often a better play.

So second, think, “If I make a play other than my normal bet – a check, a small bet, even an oversized bet – under what scenarios might my opponent put in bad money by the end of the hand?” In the above example, if you check the turn, your opponent might make a bad value bet on the river. Sometimes checking will induce a bluff on the river. Sometimes a small bet will induce a bluff raise. Occasionally an oversized bet will elicit a call where a normal bet wouldn’t.

Be creative. If you want action on your strong hands, think about how you might play a weak hand. Play your strong hand the same way. Don’t worry about getting outdrawn. Just try to get your opponents to put in more bad money than you do. That’s what makes you a long-term winner.

Induce bluffs and bluff-raises.

Players are getting more aggressive lately. With aggressive players, frequently the way you get them to put money in bad is to get them to raise in situations when you expect them to bluff. Then you simply snap them off and enjoy the spoils.

When are aggressive players likely to bluff? There are generally two ingredients: the aggressive player is sitting on a wide range of largely weak hands, and you show a measure of weakness.

What’s a wide range? You know how aggressive players sometimes like to raise the button every time it’s their turn? That’s a wide range. Whenever you play a good chunk of your preflop hands, you’re destined to be weak on most flops. (Just try playing half your hands and see how many top-pair-plus hands you make.) But aggressive players aren’t content to meekly fold their weak hands. They make plays for pots they think they can win.

So all you have to do is engage an aggressive player when they’re marked with a wide hand range and then show weakness. Check to “give up” on a pot. Make a small “blocking bet” with top pair. Trigger their, “I can win this pot,” sensor.

Or, even more sneakily, make a good-sized bet in a situation where you aren’t supposed to have a strong hand. For example, a loose player open raises, and you call in the big blind with K-J suited. The flop comes J-6-6 with a flush draw. Bet out fairly big, and watch your opponent holding nothing put you on a weak range and either float you or raise.

Final Thoughts

A student asked me recently about a hand, “So should I bet big enough to get my aggressive opponent to fold a flush draw so he doesn’t outdraw me?”

I replied, “No, you don’t want him to fold. You want him to raise his flush draw.” And that’s the key to no-limit hold’em. ♠

Ed’s brand new book, Playing The Player: Moving Beyond ABC Poker To Dominate Your Opponents, is on sale at notedpokerauthority.com. Find Ed on Facebook at facebook.com/edmillerauthor and on Twitter @EdMillerPoker.