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Why I Love Limit Hold’em

It’s almost a perfect game

by Barry Tanenbaum |  Published: May 28, 2010

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Sometime ago, I discussed why I choose to play cash games instead of tournaments. Shortly after that column appeared, some people asked me to explain why I elect to play limit hold’em with so much no-limit around.

In general, I think my audience would rather have me discuss strategy than personal preferences, but this is a milestone Card Player column for me, my 150th, so I’ll discuss some personal preferences and my views of the two most popular forms of cash games.

Here is why I play limit hold’em:
• The game plays quickly.
• You see more hands, so reading players is easier.
• The strategies are deeper than most players realize.
• “Bad beats,” although more frequent, can’t destroy your whole session.
• Weaker players have a better chance to win.

The game plays quickly: I am a fairly patient guy, which is one of my strengths at the table, but I do like to play the next hand sometime soon. Most of the no-limit games I have played in the last few years have played grindingly slowly. 

I do not know for sure why. Perhaps it’s the result of players watching their heroes agonize on TV, where they have reached the final table or are making decisions for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Perhaps they think a $40 decision in a $60 pot that may compromise their $150 stack later in the hand is worth five or six minutes of contemplation. Mostly, I suspect, they simply do not know what to do, and are waiting for divine inspiration to tell them whether to call or fold. 

Limit plays quickly. Everyone knows how much to bet, so that part of the decision each round is removed. The pot is generally large relative to the bet size, so the decision to call or fold, while sometimes tricky, is never monumental. Counting the pot, for those players who bother, is pretty elementary.

With quality dealers moving the game along, you can see up to 40 hands per hour, compared to maybe 25 or fewer in many no-limit cash games. The fact that there is another hand coming along soon enhances your ability to stay involved in the game, not play hands out of boredom, or miss important table events due to inattention.

You see more hands, so reading players is easier: One of the most important tasks you can focus on while playing is getting a read on your opponents. This is especially challenging if you play in a cardroom where the players are constantly changing from week to week. The way to succeed, of course, is to look at every hand they expose, review how they played that hand, and eventually piece together clues to gain an understanding of their playing style. The better you can do this, the better your decisions will be.

In no-limit, you see many fewer exposed hands than you do in limit. Because no-limit bets are large relative to the pot, many fewer are called. While this is great for bluffing, it is not wonderful for learning how players play. Worse yet, even if you see a few hands in small pots, it still won’t tell you how a player will react when faced with a large bet in a large pot, which is generally rare. This makes reading players much more difficult, especially in critical situations. 

In limit, roughly the same stuff happens over and over. Due to favorable pot odds, many hands are called, so you get to see how opponents play in similar circumstances to the ones that you will be facing with them during the session. You can gain this knowledge rapidly, by observation and deduction, and use it for extended periods of time.  

The strategies are deeper than most people realize: Limit seems like a fairly easy game. Unlike no-limit — where you have to decide on bet sizes, control pot sizes, and consider stack sizes and complex implied odds — limit looks like a game where you just put your money in and hope for the best. Most no-limit players understand that they are involved in something complicated, although they may not know how complicated.

In spite of appearances, limit offers many opportunities for strategic play that most players do not even know exist. Once typical players develop a comfortable strategy, they rarely vary it, and often do not even bother to improve it over time. This provides a small but ongoing edge that better players can exploit for years.

“Bad beats,” although more frequent, can’t destroy your whole session: I put “bad beats” in quotes because there really is no such thing; it is just math at work. However, math does have a habit of allowing opponents to hit their one- and two-outers at the most inconvenient times. In no-limit, this can ruin your whole session, as you spend hours building up your stack, only to see the whole thing disappear in a moment when you had way the best of it. I know that you are supposed to shrug it off and move along, but many players don’t do that very well. 

In limit, the beats are far more frequent. Players do not have to pay as high a price to continue with their hands, and many enjoy the thrill of the chase. You have limited ways to “protect your hand,” since you can’t adjust your bet size to determine your opponents’ pot odds. But when things go wrong, you lose some bets, not all of your chips. This helps some players stay on a more even keel.

Weaker players have a better chance to win: To me, this is most important. No-limit is a game that severely punishes weaker players. They don’t just lose, they tend to lose big. They find themselves, time after time, getting their money in with the worst hand. Sooner or later, they get tired of it, and either improve or quit. Either way, the games get tougher and tougher.

Weak players lose at limit, too; there is no doubt about that. But, they lose slower, as their errors cost them fractions of bets rather than entire stacks. They have far more winning sessions. As a result, they tend to continue to play, attributing their losses to bad luck and their wins to skill. There is no improve-or-quit syndrome in limit. Folks just keep showing up and playing their same game year after year.

Conclusion: I really believe that limit hold’em is almost a perfect game. It offers a wonderful combination of skill and luck that guarantees that skillful players will win over time, while enabling the less skillful ones to have a reasonable share of victories, as well. No-limit — while thrilling, exciting, and definitely requiring skill — does not offer the same opportunities to weaker players. With your long-term results depending mostly on the skill difference between you and your opponents, and with weaker players enjoying and continuing to play limit, you may choose to play more of it. Spade Suit

Barry Tanenbaum is the author of Advanced Limit Hold’em Strategy, and collaborator on Limit Hold’em: Winning Short-Handed Strategies. Barry offers private lessons tailored to the individual student. Please see his website, www.barrytanenbaum.com, or write to him at pokerbear@cox.net.