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Capture The Flag -- Bill Chen

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: May 01, 2010


Team PokerStars Pro member Bill Chen is one of the world’s best limit hold’em players, thanks to his innate ability to make the right decision regardless of the situation. He has done extensive work in the mathematics of poker, and even created the Chen Formula, a tool used to rank poker hands.

Bill ChenHe also co-authored a book with World Series of Poker bracelet winner Jerrod Ankenman, titled The Mathematics of Poker. Although he has earned more than $1 million in tournaments and has two bracelets himself, Chen spends most of his poker time in limit hold’em cash games.

Julio Rodriguez: What stakes are you playing these days?

Bill Chen: I usually play $30-$60 or $40-$80 limit hold’em on PokerStars. The games are definitely getter tougher to beat nowadays, but it’s not like it’s an impossible task. All it really takes is one not-so-good player in the game to make it profitable. The problem is that you can’t really isolate against a weak player like you can in no-limit hold’em. So, you pretty much need to count on that weak player spewing his chips off to you in one way or another. Going out of your way to target anyone in particular will only get you into trouble with the other players.

JR: Limit games have taken a back seat to no-limit and pot-limit games since the Moneymaker boom, but there seems to have been a resurgence of mixed games lately.

BC: That wasn’t always the case. Limit hold’em used to be the game of choice when I started playing in the ’90s. I think it comes and goes in waves. No-limit was definitely the catalyst for the poker boom, but now players are looking elsewhere to make their money. Limit hold’em is a big part of that, along with the other variations, such as stud and especially Omaha.

JR: The average first-time poker player is going to sit down in a small-stakes limit hold’em game. Is that the best environment for learning the game?

BC: It’s definitely hard to beat the rake, let alone the game. To be honest, just because I’m considered to be a decent high-limit player, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to be able to consistently beat a random $3-$6 or $4-$8 game. It’s a completely different skill set. There’s a lot less psychology involved in those games, and it becomes more about your cards and your position at the table. That being said, I do think those games can be beat, just because the level of competition is so poor.

JR: What’s the most common mistake among beginners at those levels?

BC: When they are making the transition from no-limit to limit, they try to make too many moves. They bluff with nothing, and they don’t realize that you don’t really have to bluff a lot in limit hold’em. People are just going to call you down. It’s actually correct in most cases to call down, especially in shorthanded or heads-up ring games. You shouldn’t even be surprised to see someone call you down with as little as small pairs or ace high.

People who make that transition generally don’t understand that concept. They think to themselves that they can bet, bet, bet, or worse, that they can represent some sort of hand to bluff with, but they don’t realize that limit hold’em isn’t about making plays, it’s about earning and saving each and every bet on each and every street.

That, of course, brings up another concern, which is that players often take it upon themselves to play aggressively with nothing. I would recommend that you always have a little something when you try to take control of the pot. Otherwise, you’ll often find yourself showing down with air and losing credibility altogether.

You don’t really need to worry that much about getting bluffed out, either. If you make it to the river, you should be calling about 90 percent of the time anyway, so it’s important that all of your decisions are made correctly on the flop.

JR: With that in mind, every time that you make it to the river, should you be calling unless you missed a draw?

BC: That’s generally true, but you need to evaluate what constitutes a strong hand, as well. Sometimes, you’ll miss a draw completely, but your ace high is enough to call the river. There’s a decent enough chance that your opponent was betting a draw the whole way and fired when he missed, so your call will be correct enough of the time to justify it.

JR: What does it take to be a successful limit hold’em player?

BC: A lot of it has to do with mastering post-flop play. On the flop, you shouldn’t be trying to bluff people out, but instead should be working on extracting value. You should always be looking to win that extra bet, and your decisions should reflect that line of thinking. For instance, if you think you can win an extra bet by check-raising instead of betting, you should do that. If you think your opponent is likely to check behind, you should bet. The entire time that you are playing, you should keep in mind that it’s all about getting the players at the table to give you that extra bet.

JR: Is the free-card play still a viable strategy in today’s game?

BC: A few years ago, players could utilize the free-card play, whereby they would raise in position on the flop to buy themselves a free card on the turn. But nowadays, people are playing much more aggressively. If they think you are pushing a draw, they may go ahead and reraise, not allowing you to take control of the hand. In fact, if you have a big draw, you should be playing it aggressively. Not only should you raise on the flop, but instead of taking the free card, perhaps you continue to bet. But keep in mind that when you do this, you often commit yourself to betting the river regardless of whether or not you hit your draw. It’s definitely a higher-variance style of play, but it’s often the correct play in the right situation. Spade Suit