If youíre a limit texas holdem player who is thinking about playing no-limit because thatís all you see on TV these days, youíll need to make some adjustments in your strategic thinking. The time was when no-limit poker was a very dangerous game, when oneís entire bankroll could be lost on the turn of a card, and a small coterie of highly skilled players held such an edge they almost never lost.
Somewhere I recall Doyle Brunson saying that he once played 46 straight days of no-limit holdem without a losing session. Of course that was before the poker boom, before the advent of online poker players who have learned the game in a much shorter time than anyone would have expected way back then, and before there was a spate of books explaining all the intricacies and mysteries of no-limit holdem to the masses.
But itís still a scary game. At least it is when you sit down at a table where most of your opponents are ensconced behind deep stacks. To get full value on your best hands, you need to have a bankroll big enough to get most, if not all, of your opponentís chips when you have the best of it. But poker comes with no guarantees, and whenever you sit down at a no-limit game with a deep stack, each and every chip in front of you is at risk all the time.
And that can be frightening. After all, regardless of how big an edge you have on an opponent, anyone, even the worst player in the world, can catch a miracle card or two and take your entire bankroll in a New York minute.
As a hedge against this sort of unmitigated catastrophe, weíve had the appearance and growth of restricted buy-in, no-limit holdem games. Itís no-limit holdem with training wheels, if you will, but a cap on the buy-in puts almost everyone on the same footing, and is an insurance policy of sorts that no one will lose too much money in one hand.
Casinos love this game. Not only does it provide much of the thrill and heart-pounding drama associated with the kind of no-limit Texas holdem player seen on TV all the time, the restricted buy-in prevents the suckers from going broke too quickly. No-limit holdem with no limit on the buyin was one of the big drawbacks to the game holdem, back in the day.
Bad players went broke rather quickly. Good players quickly ran out of contributors, leaving them to play against others of their own ability, and nobody really wants a game without an edge when he's trying to make a living at it. Casinos werenít fond of those games either, because they didnít last long; once the live ones all went broke, the game generally deteriorated. A game that doesnít last long canít provide the rake-based revenue stream casino management wants to see in its poker room.
But no-limit holdem with a restricted buy-in has no more inherent danger than a fixed limit game with a similar buy in. You can go broke in one hand in a no-limit game, to be sure. But in a fixed-limit game, players are prone to play more hands and the chances of buying in for $200 and losing it all in either game are always present.
Two hundred dollars is something a player might be able to afford. Sitting in what appears to be a very small $1/$2 no-limit game with $1000 may represent more of a potential loss than some players realize until itís too late. This game may not be affordable to the same player.
Restricted buy-in no limit games and no-limit games with no cap on the buy-in can be as different as night and day, and really ought to be thought of as two different games.
In unrestricted no-limit Texas holdem, the first significant decision youíll face is sizing your buy-in. Buy-in size can depend on a number of factors, including the size of your bankroll and risk tolerance, the relative difference in skill between you and your opponents, and how many chips your opponents have. Deciding how many chips to enter the game with is seldom an issue when thereís a cap on the buy-in because the vast majority of players are going to enter the game with the maximum chips permitted and will rebuy if they go broke on a hand.
And why not? The capped buy-in generally represents an affordable sum of money. But in no-limit poker each chip is always at risk and to get maximum value out of winning hands, a player needs to have approximately as many chips as his other opponents. While players can guard against risking an entire stack, the price might entail folding a hand that otherwise would have been played if only the price werenít so steep.
While having as many chips as other opponents ensures that a player receives full value on any all-in confrontation, it is also dangerous because itís possible to lose all those chips too. With more at risk when playing with a big stack than a small one, strategic perspectives shift depending on stack size.
Even if you are vastly superior to your opponents, risking an entire bankroll (or even a significant part of it) on one hand can cast your fate to a random card. Even a hopelessly inept player with a bad hand can occasionally get lucky and draw the very card that sends you out of the game.
While poker history is full of stories about players who have risked it all on the turn of a card, I donít recommend it. You might think this an overly cautious suggestion, but I think players are generally better off risking only a portion of their bankroll. That way, even if theyíre beaten on a hand by someone who was incredibly lucky, they can still buy in again and continue playing.
The size of the risk plays out in no-limit holdem decisions all the time. Two players will frequently go all-in before or on the flop anytime they have good hands, which is not something most players will do in a game where the stacks are deep and thereís lots at risk.
Moving all-in before the flop just doesnít happen as frequently in deep-stack games, and as a result, thereís more strategy involved after the flop because deep-stack players are frequently trapping, while short-stack players are generally jamming. Competitors willing to go all-in with certain hands in a restricted buy-in game will probably fold those same hands for fear of risking all of their chips in a deep-stack game.
Hands like top pair/top kicker and two pair are representative of the kinds of hands players are eager to bet their entire stack with on the flop in a no-limit game with a restricted buy-in. But when the stacks are deep, and youíve raised with top pair, top kicker only to face a significant reraise from your opponent, you have to look down at your stack and consider that each and every one of those chips might be at risk on a future betting round if you call your opponentís reraise and fail to improve on the Turn.
When you and your opponent each have $1000 at risk instead of $200, the hand will probably play out differently. Itís the potential of losing a deep stack versus the potential loss of a restricted buy-in stack that drives this.
With so much potentially at risk with a deep stack, you might be better off looking for a better opportunity rather than commit $1000 to the pot with a vulnerable hand. But with a short stack and top pair/top kicker, you would probably get your entire $200 into action without a momentís hesitation.
While a push-n-pray strategy can be effective in short-stack games, it only has to fail once to hurt you when youíre gambling with a deep stack. Even with the best hand, youíll have to decide if your opponent would bet a hand you could beat now but could still be outdrawn. Youíll even have to consider whether heís on a stone-cold bluff (this is poker, after all) and even though a big bluff is not probable, it still might happen.
Because these considerations just arenít relevant in short-stack no-limit holdem, and because players are more willing to risk a short buy-in on much weaker holdings than a large buy-in, the games are almost as different as Holdem and Omaha. They might look similar, but itís a "Tastes like chicken" analogy, under the best of circumstances. Failing to understand the differences can send a player scurrying out of the casino in search of ways to build a new bankroll. Because you canít win at poker if you canít play.
Expert poker player and author of eight books on poker, Lou Krieger is one of the world's best-known and respected writers on the subject.
Louís first book, Holdem Excellence: From Beginner to Winner, was published in 1995. He followed that up with MORE Holdem Excellence: A Winner For Life, in 1997. In 2000, Poker For Dummies -- which is currently on its way to becoming the best selling poker book in history -- was released.
His fourth book, Gambling For Dummies followed in 2001.
In 2003, Lou wrote Internet Poker: How to Play and Beat Online Poker Games with Kathy Watterson, and Winning Omaha/8 Poker, with Mark Tenner. The Poker Playerís Bible was published by Barronís in November 2004, and he is currently working on Secrets the Pros Wonít Tell You About Winning Holdem Poker, scheduled for release in spring 2006.