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Ace Speaks Hold'em: No-Limit Versus Limit - An In-Depth Analysis

Part XII: Making the Transition From No-limit to Limit; Taking Into Account the Size of the Bet

by Rolf Slotboom |  Published: Jan 01, 2007


In previous columns in this series, I have analyzed many key aspects that one should take into account when making the transfer from limit hold'em to no-limit hold'em, the two most popular poker games nowadays. Please note that this list is far from exhaustive, as there are many more differences between the two. Here, I will start discussing the difficulties someone who is used to playing no-limit hold'em may face when taking on limit hold'em. I will mention only things that I have not talked about before, as it should be clear that a lot of problems and difficulties that occur when moving from limit to no-limit are the exact opposite when moving in the opposite direction. All in all, here are some things that you should be aware of when moving in the "wrong" direction, from big-bet play to limit, or more specifically, from no-limit hold'em to the limit version of the game. A lot of players nowadays actually start their poker experience by playing no-limit hold'em, and if they then decide to take on limit hold'em as well, they usually find that it is far from easy. In fact, it is generally accepted that moving from limit to no-limit is much easier and much more "natural" than the path that so many young people take nowadays, starting with big-bet play and taking on limit much later. As before, I will be discussing cash games only, not tournaments, and most comments are aimed at brick-and-mortar casino play – even though quite a few may apply to Internet games, as well.

Learn to appreciate the fact that one bet is a significant part of both the total pot size and the amount of money that you stand to win, and that your goals in limit are simply not the same as in no-limit

While in no-limit hold'em you would often be looking for opportunities to double up, or get yourself into situations in which you could take an opponent's entire stack, limit hold'em is a different breed of cat. At the middle limits, making one big bet per hour is considered quite an accomplishment, and this would translate into $40 per hour for a $20-$40 game. (Note that very few players are actually capable of making this much; most good players would be very happy to make $20 or $25, and some of them don't even make that much.) This means that your total earnings are rather limited compared to the amounts of money put at risk. In other words, even good players in limit hold'em are ahead by a much slighter margin than no-limit hold'em players would be, given the same type of game circumstances. All of this means that gaining and saving bets is a very important aspect of limit hold'em, because saving a small bet here and making a little extra there really adds up in the long run. But no-limit players who are used to calling, say, 5 percent of their stack with hands like suited or even unsuited connectors in order to break an opponent who is marked with a big pair will have to learn to accept that in limit hold'em, these kinds of situations don't come up very often, simply because the implied odds are not the same as in no-limit. Those who habitually call a raise in a heads-up situation with a 6-5 suited, which may be correct in some no-limit games (of course, against only certain types of opponents, and, of course, only when the money is deep and having position over the raiser), may be executing a chip-burning play.

Example: Let's say that in limit hold'em, you call a raise from the button with the 6heart 5heart in order to break an early-position raiser who you know has a real hand, and who you read for having a big pocket pair – as he raises preflop only with the very best hands. As we have seen in earlier columns in this series, this is a very reasonable play in no-limit, provided that the money is deep, and especially if your opponent plays rather weakly or predictably after the flop. But, is it reasonable in limit, too? Let's take a closer look at this.

One thing that is perfectly clear is that if you are heads up and you flop a pair, you will at least reach the turn. This is especially true when there are no aces and kings on the board, because of the distinct possibility that your opponent has nothing more than an unimproved A-K, and that your mere pair of fives or sixes is actually good now. Either way, you know that if no aces or kings are on the board and you have flopped a pair, your read on your opponent has to be very reliable to even consider laying your pair down. This means that you will often take your small pair to the river, and when your opponent has overcards that don't improve on the turn or river, you will win a decent-sized pot, and when he has the overpair you read him for and you are unable to outdraw him, he will usually win a good-sized pot.

A negative way to look at your small cards in this situation would be this:

1. You are playing a long-shot hand, hoping that if you get lucky against a premium hand, you could win a very big pot.

2. Even if you do hit, it may turn out that your opponent doesn't hold much after all, and you will win just a marginal pot.

3. There is too much danger of leaking chips because of second-best hands that you may make. This is not just the case when things get down to just you and one opponent; in a multiway pot, this is also a distinct possibility. Why? Well, because other players may now be in the pot who are playing cards in the same playing range as you. If you are up against three players who are all holding high cards, you would not mind that at all, because your cards are very live, because you have "maximum stretch," and because you get good odds. But if people are in there with hands like the 8heart 7heart or even just 7-6 offsuit, it is actually quite possible that even if you improve over the preflop raiser, your hand will still be second-best – because a third player will have improved more than you.

Of course, there is some good news, as well. The good news is that you have called the raise with the exact type of holding that fares the best against big pairs and high cards. It is much better to call an early-position raiser with a 6-5 suited than with a K-J offsuit. Because you know the range of cards the preflop raiser can be holding, and your cards are in the opposite range, you obviously have some edge post-flop. There is also some possibility of outplaying your opponent after the flop when you know the flop must have been bad for him, while he cannot be certain about your hand. So, my guess is that for a good post-flop player, calling this raise from the button is not such a bad play. But, it is not nearly as profitable as in no-limit, and former no-limit players who make these calls habitually rather than just under special circumstances are making a clear mistake. What they tend to forget is that in limit hold'em, they miss that specific no-limit tool that they cannot use: the possibility to apply pressure after the flop, to put someone to the test with a large bet or raise when they know that the board looks scary. In limit, lots of players who raise before the flop will take their unimproved A-K to the river, no matter what. And while this may be good for you when you have caught a good flop, it clearly limits your possibility to bluff and bully them out of the hand.

In limit, most pots are won by those who start with the best hand, especially in full ring games (as opposed to the six-player games that are so popular online nowadays). While this does not mean that there is no room for creativity or that you cannot make moves on specific players, if you take too much the worst of it before the flop, it will usually be hard to regain that edge after the flop. In other words, if in limit you give your opponents too much of a head start, they will beat you in the long run – even if you are by far the better player.

Lots of big-bet players believe that limit hold'em is too boring, because they incorrectly think in terms of working toward a climax/creating situations/setting up plays/breaking players on one hand. They should realize that limit hold'em is a long-term grind in which lots of small profits really add up in the end, and that it is not a game in which one or two big scores can make up for a rather large number of speculative plays. In other words, while in no-limit you can afford to be wrong on one or two occasions if you make sure you are correct in the all-important pot later, in limit you simply have to be right all the time, because there is no all-important pot that can make up for things now.

Rolf's Rule No. 17: Limit hold'em is a game in which you should try to play according to the odds, and in which you cannot get out of line too often. While in no-limit it is perfectly acceptable strategy to play a couple of garbage hands in order to pave the way for a massive pot later, in limit poker it will be impossible to recoup these initial losses later – simply because of the way the game is structured. In limit, you should learn to appreciate that every hand is a struggle in which you may be playing for one small-bet profit, and sometimes even less than that. It's the little things that add up in the long run, and it's quite different from the "working toward the climax" that is so common of no-limit play. spade

This is Part XII in a XIV-part series on limit and no-limit hold'em. This series was created especially for Card Player Europe. The accompanying DVDs on this subject can be obtained through Rolf's site,