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Spread-Limit Hold'em

by Diego Cordovez |  Published: Apr 26, 2002


Pot-limit and no-limit games have always been popular but generally short-lived. Players are attracted by the fun of having a multitude of strategic options combined with big pots featuring lots of drama, but the speed with which experienced players extract money from their less-skilled brethren discourages most cardrooms from spreading these games, and scares away new players from sustaining them when they are spread.

Cardrooms in San Jose (California, not Costa Rica) feature a compromise – spread-limit hold'em games where players can bet or raise up to $200. These games were not devised by some ingenious cardroom manager who recognized that not having a fixed bet combined with a reasonable limit would make the game more interesting while generally preventing players from losing their entire stack in one hand (or their entire savings in one day, for that matter). Rather, the game evolved as a result of a city ordinance that restricts bets to $200. In any case, the resulting game is a challenging hybrid of limit and no-limit poker.

The game is played with three blinds (one of them on the button) and limits ranging from $20-$200 up to $40-$200. The game's play is heavily dependent on the lineup on a given day. Sometimes a few players insist on raising the maximum amount at every opportunity, and the game essentially becomes a $200-$200 limit game. Other times, most pots feature multiple limpers looking to hit a big flop and get paid off. The most challenging aspect of the game is recognizing the style of play that predominates on a given day and making the correct strategic adjustments. The $200-$200 game kills the implied odds of most drawing hands and requires marginal made hands to be played strongly. The limp-in game plays like a more traditional no-limit game, where speculative hands are worthwhile if your opponents are capable of paying off when you make a hand.

In either case, the structure of these games leads to many interesting hands. Tricky, unconventional play is often rewarded, so unusual pots develop with surprising outcomes. Of course, sometimes this is taken to an extreme. A recent hand I witnessed is one of the most bizarre I have ever seen. It doesn't really illustrate any specific strategy – it just reinforces that you never know what you will see next in a poker game. The hand was played at Bay 101.

The blinds were $10-$10-$20 with a $40 forced kill posted by the previous pot's winner. The kill was posted under the gun by a good young player. Lots of talented players begin their poker careers by playing too loosely or too tightly; they graduate to becoming formidable players by mixing in small doses of the opposite style and learning to change gears. The under-the-gun player fit this profile. When he began playing the game, he was loose and aggressive to the point of recklessness, a style that won pots through sheer intimidation but quickly dissipated the profits via bad calls. He tightened up his early-position play and began making the occasional laydown, and as a result, started beating the game consistently. I'll take the easy way out and call him "the kid."

A digression: It seems that almost every player under 40 is saddled with the moniker "kid" when he begins playing poker, except for those unfortunate souls who wear eyeglasses – these players are honored with "professor." Maybe I'm just revealing a lingering bitterness, because when I started playing poker at age 25, after four years in the business world, my hesitation in acting on a hand was usually greeted with "hurry up, schoolboy." Is this how you bring in new blood to the cardroom?

In any case, on this day the game had just started and our version of "the kid" was losing a few hundred dollars, which was not a big deal since this is an amount that can easily be recouped in one hand. The hand was folded around to the button, a prop player who usually helps start the game. He is more active than the typical prop and will start playing virtually every hand late in the day if he is stuck, but he is not prone to giving loose action early in a session when he is even. The prop called the $40. The small and big blinds folded and the kid checked. This was fairly unusual – a heads-up, unraised pot. With only $110 in the center, it seemed likely that the hand would be inconsequential and we'd move on to the next deal. Little did we know that a very strange hand was about to transpire.

The flop was K-Q-Q (with three different suits) and the kid checked. The prop bet $80. The kid stared at the board for a long time and finally showed the table his hand faceup (but didn't release it). He held 6-4 offsuit. I assumed that he had been contemplating a check-raise bluff on the flop, which would not have been unreasonable. He kept holding the hand without releasing it, as if in a trance. "Come on, let's go," "Let's play the next hand," "Don't waste time" – the rest of the table became a chorus of players eager to get on with the game, increasingly annoyed at the kid.

"I'm deciding what to do, don't rush me," replied the kid, apparently punishing us for pressuring him.

An older player got angry. "You can't play the hand now, so muck it," he said.

"Why can't I play it? Maybe I have the best hand," replied the kid.

The older player decided to bring the silliness to a close. "You can't play the hand. If you play it, I'll give you $20." Boom! The kid called the $80 and we saw the turn card, which was a 6. The kid immediately bet out $200 and was raised $200 more by the prop. The kid called and we saw the river, which was a 10. The kid checked and called $200, and the prop showed a king. The kid didn't seem too bothered by losing $680 in this manner, but he jumped up from the table to collect the $20 that the older player had promised him.

Is there a moral to the story? No, except that poker is a funny game that makes people do funny things. What about spread-limit games? Cardrooms need to consider them. The variable bet makes the game less mechanical and more challenging than limit poker, while the cap keeps players in the game and reduces huge swings in one

Editor's note: Diego Cordovez recently won the largest limit hold'em tournament ever, and also holds a gold bracelet in no-limit hold'em from the World Series of Poker.