In Limit holdem poker, the player who plays correctly more of the time than his opponents do is usually the winner, at least over the long run. Making the occasional brilliant move helps the bottom line, but itís the consistent solid play, not the clever moves, that gets the money day in and day out.
In No Limit holdem, solid play is rewarded. But a no-limit player can play correctly 99% of the time and still lose a huge sum of money on one mistake. One error can ruin an entire night of perfect poker. Sad truth that I have learned only too well as Iíve followed the action from limit to no limit these last few years.
Hereís an example of a no limit holdem mistake from a game I just returned from. It was a $1/$2 blind no limit game. The standard buy-in was $300, but I arrived late, when players had large stacks. I was allowed to buy in for the size of the largest stack, so I bought in for $900.
Players had stacks of between $200 and $900. The game played was much larger than the typical $1/$2 game with a bunch of mice in the casino who fold for a $5 raise. This game had a couple of crankers and bangers as well as a couple of guys who would call for any raise up to about $20 or so.
I had already established an image as a very, very tight and aggressive player -- in prior playing sessions against a few of the guys at the table, and then this evening as well -- in the 30 minutes I'd been playing. Even the least observant player there had probably figured out that I folded much more frequently than the other players. Even the calling stations had begun to fold when I raised. I had knocked out all but one player on an earlier hand when I raised with KK from under the gun. The button called my $10 raise to $12 but then folded when I bet $25 on the flop, which had no Ace in it.
That was the context into which I was dealt Aces, again under the gun. I wanted at least a few of these guys to call me, then hoped for a generally ragged flop, so I could make a large bet and possibly take the pot.
So I raised the $2 big blind to $7. In a game that played much smaller this would have been a typical raise. In this game it was a raise that indicated weakness. Most of the time players raised to $15 or $20, or on occasion $50. I got five callers.
The flop was Qh Ts 4d. That was very good for me. I figured it might have given someone a pair of Queens or 10s and that player might stay with me if he had a good kicker. The small blind, who had called me pre-flop, checked. I bet $50. The next player raised me to $150. I knew him to be a very loose and passive player. But I wasnít thinking too hard about him. I was thinking that I had Aces and he probably had AQ or KQ. I really wasnít sure; I thought he might be bluffing. These thoughts passed my cortex briefly. Mainly I was thinking about this, the best hand I had gotten all night -- a pair of Aces. I thought no matter what he had I could still draw a winning hand by hitting another Ace. But mainly I was just thinking that I had a beautiful pair of Aces, and I was already in the pot.
Everyone else folded. I called. I thought about raising; I had him covered and he had about $400 in chips. But I figured it would be safer just to call. So I called.
The Turn was a good card for me, a 7c. I thought about betting but decided that since I only had a pair of Aces I should check. Admittedly, not the most sophisticated way of thinking about my hand. He went all in. I didnít think at all. I knew that having called on the flop that I had to call now. So I called.
He said, "Do you have trips?" I didnít answer, just tossed down my Aces. He said, "Two pair," and turned over Ts 4d. The board didnít pair on the River and I was down over $600 on that hand.
What I had done was something I'd seen many players do. I called because I had already committed a large amount to the pot while I held a strong but not great hand. In limit, itís often the correct move. When the pot gets big it is usually correct to call unless the board is extremely scary as the hand progresses. If you think you have a good shot at winning you should almost always call on the River and usually on the Turn for a single bet. It doesnít pay to fold for a single bet into a large pot, because the amount you can win by calling dwarfs the amount you can save by folding.
But in no limit what I did was deadly, a rack-emptying mistake. And itís not the result that made this an awful mistake. The mistake was in the process, how I thought (and didnít think) about the hand.
I failed to think fully through what he was likely to have, given everything that I knew. In fact, I hardly focused on the situation at all. Had I truly thought about it, and weighed the amount of money I was committing to the pot, I would have folded.
In no limit, we must focus long and hard on the single-bet decisions in ways we rarely do in limit. I should have thought about him, as a player. I knew that he was loose and passive. Since he was passive he was unlikely to make such a bold raise to my bet. I would have also realized that he knew that I was a very tight player and would be unlikely to bet without a very strong hand. His raise then should have looked incredibly strong to me. I should have immediately started to think about what hands he was likely to have. If I concluded that he might well have me beaten then I should have folded.
In limit, players are often too tight as the pot grows. The best example occurs on the River. Imagine an aggressive game, a lot of betting and raising. The pot grows to $120 by the Turn in a $10/$20 game. On the River your opponent bets $20. Should you call? The pot is giving you 7:1 odds on your call ($140 for your $20 call). Unless youíre really pretty certain that youíre beaten you should call. If you catch your opponent bluffing just one time in six then youíre ahead of the game.
But in no limit your thinking must change, because the size of the bet you must call compared to the size of the pot changes so dramatically. In this case, I was faced with essentially even odds for my call. If I won I would win back my chips plus an equal stack of his (plus a small amount in the pot before he bet). This assumes of course that I was committed to the pot once I called his raise of $100. Had I considered his action carefully I would have concluded that I didnít have a 50% or better chance of winning the hand. It may seem absurd to do it but you need to assign a rough percentage of surety to your reads. Are you absolutely dead certain? That would be 90% or more sure for me. Put it into numbers. If youíre 90% sure, then the pot has to be laying you better than 9:1 odds for a call to make sense (on the tiny chance that youíre wrong). Are you completely on the fence? Thatís a 50:50 situation. If the pot is laying you even money or better, then a call is in order.
Here, had I looked carefully at all the facts I would have been pretty sure that I was beaten, not 90% but surely better than 50/50. Probably around 75-80% sure. Here is the thinking process that I should have followed when contemplating the initial call of his $100 bet.
"I raised to $7. He and many others called. Heís especially loose. He could have just about any hand; pairs, connectors, big cards. But he probably didnít start with a big pair or he would have raised. Even though heís passive, if he had Kings or Queens he would have re-raised my bet.
The flop was QT4 rainbow. I bet $50. He knows Iím tight. Even so he raised me. Heís not a wild player; heís loose, true, but heís also pretty passive and calling along is his style. Whatís he likely to have that would justify such a raise of my $50 bet?
He could have anything, sure; he might be erratic. But whatís he likely to have? He doesnít think of me as a bluffer. So if he raised me $100 after I bet $50, he must have a strong hand. What could he have that I could beat? Was he slowplaying Kings or Queens or Jacks until now? Highly unlikely. He would have re-raised pre-flop.
AK? A semi-bluff, hoping he might hit a Jack or thinking that Iím playing AQ and heíll hit an Ace or a King? No, he doesnít strike me as tricky in that way. But he could be. More likely he hit a set or that he hit two pair. He might have AQ himself and hit top pair top kicker.
But I have a pair of Aces. Is he sitting there with an Ace? He could be testing me. Yeah, but he probably has two pair. Iím not sure. But his $100 over the top bet is strong.
I could re-pop him, should I? Iíd be in for my entire stack. Heís very deep, as am I. But he already knows that Iím strong; Iím pretty obvious. If my bet didnít get him to concede then my raise probably wonít either.
QT? T4? AQ? 444? TTT? Too many possibilities that Iím badly beaten and enough possibilities that Iím in the lead. And if Iím beaten now, what are my drawing options? The board might pair, giving me top two pair. But if he has two pair then I have only three outs. The other cards pairing would fill him up.
Iím pretty sure, but not certain that he has a better hand; and Iím drawing very, very thin if Iím behind. Iíll fold."
But I didnít follow that line of thinking. Instead, I pretty much just girded myself for a tough call, as if it were limit, and I lost my stack.
In no limit holdem, when thereís a close call, and the amount at stake is very large when compared to the amount already in the pot, your primary question must be "Am I beaten?" And then you must rigorously try to figure out whether you are. For the most part, if you conclude that thereís a better chance than not that your opponent is ahead, given a pot-sized bet to call, you should usually fold.
Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 42 years, since learning the game literally at his grandfather's knee. He's been playing seriously (and winning) in casinos, poker rooms, living rooms and kitchens all over the world, for the past 12 years. He started playing seriously in 1993 at the poker room in Foxwoods Resort Casino and he's been winning just about ever since. He's won No Limit HoldĎEm and 7-Card Stud tournaments in Connecticut, Massachusetts, California and Nevada.
He is the author of Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and articles in Card Player Magazine, Poker Player Magazine, Live Action Poker Magazine, Southwestern Poker Magazine, 5thStreet Magazine, and numerous online sites. He is under agreement for his next book, Winning Low Limit/No Limit HoldĎEm, due to be published by Kensington in early 2006.
He is by profession a union organizer and negotiator, representing broadcasters, health care workers and now teachers. He has two daughters, both of whom play poker.