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Why You Can’t Beat Low-Limit Games-Maximizing Bonus Profits

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Sep 16, 2015


Alan SchoonmakerSome low-limit grinders get most of their profits from bonuses. They’re paid from jackpot drops (JPD) which can cost you $3-$6 per hour, thousands of dollars per year. Obviously, you should maximize your return on that substantial investment.

I love bonuses because:

1. They provide direct profits because I adjust well.

2. They provide indirect profits because some players adjust poorly. For example, they cold-call raises with hands like 3-3 or 5-4 suited, hoping for a high hand bonus. Or they limp with aces, perhaps even check a set of aces, hoping for an aces-cracked bonus.

3. They provide much subtler, indirect profits by putting competent players on tilt. They raise with aces, lose to 5-4 suited, blow up, and play badly.
Sometimes you should call raises with weak cards or play aces passively, but do so only to increase your Total Expected Value (EV). Later I’ll discuss calculating Total EV.

The Critical First Steps

You can’t make intelligent decisions about bonuses without carefully analyzing:

• How much you pay
• Where the money goes
• Your own strengths, weaknesses, and situation

Rooms vary widely in how much and when they take the JPD. Some Las Vegas rooms don’t have bonuses or JPD. Some take $1 at $10 and another dollar at $20 or $30. Some take only $1 at $10 or $20. A few take $1 if there is a flop, even for tiny pots. Others are “no flop, no drop.” You don’t pay a rake or JPD if you raise preflop and win immediately. Obviously, you should choose rooms with smaller JPD or bonuses that fit your style, strengths, weaknesses, and situation.

In Nevada, every penny must be returned to the players. In some states the room takes a percentage for administration.

Rooms vary widely in how they return money. For example, several Las Vegas rooms put serious money into freeroll tournaments. Since tourists usually leave before the freeroll, locals get some of their JPD.

If you’re a tourist and can’t make the freeroll, you’ll get a better deal at rooms with bonuses with the same value for tourists and locals such as aces cracked, high hands (quads or better), or high hand per hour.

Since most freerolls are no-limit, they obviously favor no-limit players. If you can’t play well in no-limit tournaments, they’re bad for you.

Some rooms allocate substantial amounts to bonuses for the highest hand of the hour (HHH) or other time period. They’re given only at certain times, such as during NFL games or from 9 AM to 1 PM. If you can’t or won’t play when they’re paid, you’re wasting some of your JPD. Play where the bonuses fit your schedule, or change your schedule.

During the HHH period, some no-limit players move to limit games. Because far more limit players see the flop and go to showdown, it’s much easier to win bonuses. Smart players adjust their strategy. For example, if the qualifying hand must be a flush or better, they play more suited cards (even weak ones if a large bonus justifies calling) and small pocket pairs.

Know And Follow All The Rules

Countless players have lost money because they didn’t know or follow the rules. For example, a woman forfeited a $100 HHH bonus because she missed her big blind after making a full house. She was furious: “Nobody told me! It’s not fair.” Perhaps it wasn’t fair, and I’ve never seen that rule anyplace else, but it was her responsibility to know and follow the rules.

Many rooms have minimum pots to qualify for high hand, aces cracked, and other bonuses. Bonuses are often lost because the pot is too small. I once won a $75 HHH bonus with a queen-high flush. Because a tourist didn’t know the rules, had not counted the pot, or just wasn’t thinking, he lost that bonus. When the pot was just below the minimum, he turned an ace-high flush. If he had bet and been called, he would have gotten that bonus. Instead, he tried twice for a check-raise. Because nobody bet, his hand didn’t qualify.

Perhaps nobody would have called his bet, but he certainly had a better chance of getting a call than successfully check-raising. Many people won’t bet, but will call when they see a threeflush board. Trying for one extra bet probably cost him $75.

Many players have lost HHH bonuses by playing draws, sets, and two pairs too passively. Instead of betting and raising to build the pot on the flop or turn, they check until they make a qualifying hand (usually a flush or better). Then they bet, but opponents who would have called an earlier bet often won’t call when the board has a three-flush or pair. Instead of winning a larger pot and a bonus, they win a smaller pot and no bonus.

Many bonuses are given only during certain times. I’ve seen people play aces passively, get them cracked, show them for the bonus, and been shocked that the aces cracked bonus wasn’t in effect.

Know The Situation

If you don’t know the situation, you’ll certainly make stupid mistakes. For example, I’ve seen people cold-call raises with weak suited cards, hoping to make a flush to win a HHH bonus. But somebody had already made a full house, and that information was posted where everyone could see it. They just didn’t look.

Calculate Your Total EV

Total is italicized because you should calculate the EV of both the bonus and the pot. Then combine both types of EV to get your total EV. Calculate Bonus-EV the same way you calculate Pot-EV:

• What does it cost?
• How much can you win?
• What’s the probability of winning?

Your Total-EV is your Pot-EV plus or minus your Bonus-EV. Frequently, you must sacrifice one type of EV to gain more EV of the other type. Your check or bet may have negative Pot-EV, but still have positive Total-EV because you gain more in Bonus-EV than you lose in Pot-EV.

For example, if there is an aces-cracked bonus and you play aces passively, you’re obviously giving up Pot-EV and hoping to gain Bonus-EV. If the pot is small, and the bonus is large, of course you should play them passively. But, if the pot is large, and the bonus is small, you should play them aggressively.

Because these calculations can be counter-intuitive and fairly complicated, my next column will teach you how to make them.

Slow Down

It takes time to calculate both types of EV, review the bonus rules, review the situation, and make the best decision. You can’t do all these things without slowing down, but many players act too quickly. Unless you’re sure you fully understand the situation and are making the right decision, take a little extra time. ♠

I’m on FaceBook and I coach only on psychology issues, such as controlling impulses and emotions, coping with losing streaks, and developing yourself. I’ve published five poker books, five books on other subjects, and am David Sklansky’s co-author for DUCY.