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Playing No-Limit For Your Life

by Bob Ciaffone |  Published: Jul 23, 2014


Bob CiaffoneHow would you play no-limit hold’em if you had to play for your life? Let me specify the conditions. You have $1,000 in chips and are playing with blinds of $5-$5. You are being forced to play until you either up $1,000 or down $1,000. Once you win a grand, all threats to your health and safety will be removed. If you lose a grand, it’s curtains; you die. What is your poker strategy?

The first question you should ask is, “who am I playing against?” I will specify that there are no rookies in the group of opponents. Three of the opponents play way too many hands. There is one player somewhat more aggressive than the others. The other four are sound poker players who do not seem to put a lot of pressure on their opponents, but play solid poker. In other words, you are in a typical $5-to-go game.

The second question you should ask is, “how deep is the money?” Let’s say that no one has less than $100, the one bulldozer has around a grand, and the rest are in the $200-to-$600 range.

How will you decide on a buy-in amount? Playing for my life, I am certainly not going to put my entire grand on the table. I would not be able to play my best knowing that losing all my chips would put me in a coffin. But I would not want to play a shortstack either. So I would probably do something like plan to make four buy-ins for $250 each, which would mean playing an amount of 50 times the big blind (BB).

Here are the strategies I would adopt if I were playing for my life in the no-limit hold’em game I have described.

Do not risk slowplaying any hands weaker than quads: Getting a big hand cracked is expensive. Furthermore, a lot of the players in these games with fairly small stakes do not pounce when they encounter weakness, so you may well be running a risk for no reward. If they are drawing to a gutshot and you are not betting, I like their end of the situation, not yours.

Do not raise preflop when out of position unless you have A-K suited or one of the three biggest pairs: A preflop raise either from under the gun (UTG) or one of the blinds is a much riskier play than from late position. Furthermore, the more players that see the flop with you, the greater the risk. In a $5-to-go game, out-of-position raises, even large ones, will attract a large collection of callers, especially if the game has been going a while and some of the players are stuck. This leaves you in an awkward situation where you have the unpleasant choice of putting your stack at risk with a continuation bet (c-bet) “into a crowd,” or giving the field a free card when you may have the best hand.

Do not call from the small blind (SB) position on a drawing hand: A draw is a dangerous hand to hold when out of position. There are a number of problems. It is difficult to get a free card when you have to act first and check. The opponent will not only bet most of the time when you have checked, but will also size his bet differently, betting a larger amount after you have shown weakness by checking. It will be riskier when out of position when you try to buy the pot on a bluff. Perhaps the opponent will be holding the hand you are trying to represent. I would much rather pay the full price of admission in late position than get in for half price with the worst seat on that deal.

Beware of committing a large amount of money to the pot on the flop betting round: A draw has double the power when there are two cards to come. You inevitably will sometimes hold a solid one-pair hand such as two kings, or an A-K that makes a pair with a board card, and be put to a decision for your whole stack. This is quite unpalatable, as you hate both the call and the fold. Even when you have the best hand, you surely are within striking distance of losing the pot. Checking on the flop will defang a draw and make it more likely that a strong bet on the turn is by a hand that is better than yours. You can also throw in a check on the turn for both deception purposes and a more stable advantage.

Lock up a win by quitting the game when you are up a fairly large amount of money: We did not specify whether you would be able to withdraw from playing, take a break, and go back at a short time later. However, if you can, this should be one of the possible strategies to use. This should also be an alternative when you have made a comeback and have a large amount of money in play that would cripple your chance of survival if you lost a big pot. Most poker games set a time limit of an hour or two where you no longer have to restore all your chips to play.

Bluffing does not need to be abandoned: I admit to being reluctant to put my life on the line by betting all my chips that an opponent will fold. However, there are quite a few times in a poker session when you can see that your opponent(s) are big favorites to be folding if you bet or raise. You can nibble away at some small pots and win money that no one else seems to want. They check, you bet, and the opponents cannot wait to throw their cards away to get on to a possibly more interesting scenario in the next hand. Those small pots add up to something by the end of the night.

Additionally, your tight play is going to make other players think you will not risk any chips without a good hand. You want to exploit that image to win some pots where you do not have all that much of a hand.

It is time for me to explain that the situation I am describing has a very practical application; this is not all theatre. When you see a lucrative lineup in a game that you really can’t afford, what do you do? I think that dismissing such a game as too risky is not the most reasonable strategy. In my opinion, you should play something like you would play in the situation that we have been discussing as a sensible course of action. You should think about it in the right way. Instead of regretting that you are giving up some equity, look upon the strategy I outlined as an insurance premium that enables you to reduce your jeopardy and thus earn more money than you would be making in a lower-stakes game. ♠

Bob Ciaffone’s new poker book, No-limit Holdem Poker, is now available. This is Bob’s fifth book on poker strategy. It can be ordered from Bob for $25 by emailing him at Free shipping in the lower 48 states to Card Player readers. All books autographed. Bob Ciaffone is available for poker lessons.