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Three Mistakes Good Live No-Limit Players Make

by Ed Miller |  Published: Jul 10, 2013


Ed MillerQuick, in your head, think of the top three differences between online no-limit hold’em and live no-limit hold’em strategy.

I’ll tell you mine. In a live game (compared to online), I:

Play more hands

Bet more flops and turns

Overbet more frequently

I do these three things because, in general, I can expect my live game to have one or more opponents that are truly terrible. (In fact, if a live game doesn’t meet that standard, I typically find a different one.)

Now here’s a different question. What are the intrinsic strategic differences between live no-limit and online. That is, what strategic differences should you make because of the format of the game, rather than the players at the table?

I’d argue there are almost no intrinsic differences. Online games tend to play a little shallower on average than live games, so that’s a difference. But it’s not intrinsic to either format, as you can have deep stacks online and shallow stacks live. The rake structure online is often slightly more forgiving, but I don’t consider this a major difference.

Online games are often played six-max, whereas live games are nearly always nine-handed or ten-handed. Ok, that’s another difference, but there are nine-handed online games too.

“Correct strategy” (whatever that term may mean to you) in a nine-handed online $5-$10 game played with $1,000 stacks is nearly identical to that in a nine-handed live $5-$10 game played with $1,000 stacks. And yet, if you play the two games, you’ll see stark differences in how people play. Indeed everyone plays differently in the live game, even the good players.

The live game deviations most players make are, strictly speaking, mistakes as compared to a more theoretically sound strategy. This gives you a window to gain an edge, even on some pretty good live players. Here are three mistakes good live no-limit players at the $2-$5 and $5-$10 levels make.

1. They open too many hands.

This one is nearly universal. Theoretically speaking, no-limit hold’em is a fight for the blind money. When you’re under-the-gun (UTG) in a nine-handed game, how frequently do you think you should be trying to attack the blind money?

There are seven players outside the blinds. If we were to assume that each of these players would attack the blind money an equal percentage of the time, that would have you opening about 14 percent of the time.

All is, however, not equal. Position matters. When you’re first to speak, you run the risk of any of six non-blind players behind you waking up with a hand. Furthermore, if one does wake up with a hand, you will have to play out of position postflop. Therefore, the UTG player clearly should not be opening 14 percent of hands. Perhaps 10 percent is a better estimate.

The worst hands in a range that includes the best 14 percent of all preflop hands is roughly Q-10 suited or K-Q offsuit or 7-6 suited or 2-2. Theoretically speaking, all four of these hands are likely too weak to open from UTG, yet most live players would open every one of them.

Furthermore, many live players would open to four or five times the big blind (for example, $40 or $50 in a $5-$10 game). This is just plain too much money with too many hands.

This over-looseness carries through nearly all of the early and middle positions. Good live no-limit players play too many hands from the first six or so positions.

If you merely play correctly tight preflop ranges against these players, you will automatically exploit their looseness. (Though it’s possible to play so poorly after the flop that you give back your advantage.)

2. They reraise too many hands preflop from outside the blinds.

It used to be that you’d rarely see anyone make a preflop reraise. When you did see one, you could count on the raise coming from A-A or K-K or maybe A-K or Q-Q.

Now you see it much more frequently, with good players leading the reraising revolution. It’s now not uncommon to see hands like this:

In a nine-handed game, a good live player raises first in to $40 second to act. Two players fold, and then another good player reraises to $110.

If the hand goes to showdown, you’ll frequently see that the reraiser has a hand such as A-Q offsuit or 10-10.

These reraises are too loose. There are two main problems with them. First, when you make this reraise, you’re risking $110 to win the $40 open plus $15 in blind money. So it’s $110 to win $55. You have to win this particular pot often to justify risking $110 to win $55. But there will often be four or five players who can still wake up with a big hand. The chance someone wakes up with a big hand, combined with the chance you get out-flopped makes this a marginal reraise.

The second problem is that reraising these hands depletes the strength of your calling range. If you typically reraise hands like A-K, A-Q, J-J, and 10-10, then it becomes difficult for you to have a strong hand on an ace-high, king-high, queen-high, jack-high or ten-high flop when you just call preflop. The original preflop raiser does not have this problem, as all these hands are in his opening range. Moreover, the vast majority of flops contain one of these five cards.

Good players reraise too much preflop, which causes them to be vulnerable in pots where they just call. And, in some cases, they may be turning otherwise profitable hands like A-Q and 10-10 into unprofitable ones.

3. They don’t defend their checks enough.

Another way to say this is that they bet too many hands. Since good players bet so much, they tend to bet nearly all of their legitimately good hands (as well as a bunch of bluffs). Thus, when they check, they have nothing too often, and they’ll fold too predictably.

Let’s put these concepts into practice. It’s a $5-$10 game. You’re on the button with $1,000 and 9Diamond Suit 8Diamond Suit. A good player opens to $40 second to act, and three players fold. A good player calls, and it folds to you. You call. The blinds both fold.

The flop comes QDiamond Suit JSpade Suit 2Heart Suit.

The original preflop raiser checks. The next player bets $90 into the $135 pot. You call with your bottom-end gutshot and backdoor-flush draw. The preflop raiser folds.

The turn is the 4Heart Suit. The flop bettor checks. You can make a small bet like $100 (into the $315 pot), and you will win far too frequently.

The preflop raiser opened too many hands. This may include stuff like A-5 suited and 8-6 suited that whiffed this flop. He checks. He doesn’t defend checks often enough, so you can count too heavily on him to fold.

The next player bets. His range, however, is depleted in strong queen and jack hands. You call.

He then checks the turn and, even to the small bet, predictably folds. ♠

Ed’s newest book, Playing The Player: Moving Beyond ABC Poker To Dominate Your Opponents, is on sale at Find Ed on Facebook at and on Twitter @EdMillerPoker.