Moving From Limit to No-Limit

By Rob Smith (robsmith82 on the Low Limit Poker Forum).

Intro

Until quite recently, most players who started playing holdem started with the fixed limit variety, the thinking being that you will lose less than you would in no limit while your learn the fundamentals. While this is usually true, it leaves a lot of limit players with some fairly common bad habits when they try to get into the no limit cash games. I was a victim of this myself, and had to learn the hard way the big differences in strategy between the two closely related disciplines. Each of the following topics could warrant an article in itself, but it’s worthwhile touching on them all here to be aware of the big mistakes a limit player can make, or the concepts that are sometimes misunderstood.

Stack Size

Choosing a stack size to play with is a much discussed topic. While there are certain advantages to buying in short, if you really want to learn to play NL, and to take the most off your opponents you have an edge over, buying in for the maximum is usually the best way to go. For nearly all online cardrooms this equates to 100 Big Blinds (BB), but sometimes it can be as much as 200BB. Be aware though that strategy significantly changes when you buy in for 200BB, so I recommend that while you are still learning to stick to 100BB, and to reload to this whenever you lose a hand. Most poker literature out there is based on this stack size.

Position, use it!

Remember when you started playing limit, and you were told position was one of the most important advantages to have? Well in No Limit this becomes even more important – in certain situations it can be more valuable than hand strength! Playing no limit hold’em out of position against an aggressive opponent is a horrible situation to be in. He could be a worse player than you, but the positional disadvantage can often lead to you being outplayed. Take the following example:

You are playing in an online 9-handed NL hold’em game with blinds of $1/$2. Everyone has $200 stacks, and you are in MP with

King of Spades Jack of Diamonds
Hole Cards

You raise to $7 and a Tight aggressive opponent on the button calls. The flop comes

Jack of Hearts Eight of Clubs Four of Diamonds
Flop

Giving you top pair. The pot is $17, you bet $14 and your opponent calls. The turn is

Qs

Now what? In a limit game you can still get to a showdown very easily here no matter what your opponent does. In a no limit game, you’re in a much tougher spot. If you check, and your opponent makes a pot sized bet, can you call? If you fire a second bet and your opponent raises, can you fold? The escalating pot size mean you already have to think about whether or not to play for your whole stack, even though all you’ve done is raised and made a continuation bet. You need to play extremely tightly from earlier positions. Even a relatively strong hand like KJo can get in to trouble extremely quickly. This brings us to the concept that most limit players get very wrong when moving across:

Protect your stack, not your hand

This is critical thinking to playing good top pair type hands that can’t stand too much heat and one of many reasons why playing in position is so important. You have the ability to check behind, keep the pot smaller and get closer to showdown. Take the hand in the example above and swap the positions of the players. The loose aggressive UTG+1 limps, and you raise on the button with Ks Jd and get called. The flop comes down the same – Jh 8c 4d and your opponent checks. You make a continuation bet, get called and see the same turn card of Qs. You opponent checks again, what do you do?

Against most opponents in limit, you need to bet here for two reasons: For value, and to protect your hand. In NL however, checking behind will do a number of good things:

You have to remember than in a small pot with a moderate hand, it’s often better to risk being drawn out on than to put your whole stack in jeopardy. If they hit their hand to beat you, so what? The pot is small, and you didn’t put a lot of chips at risk. On the other hand though:

Don’t slowplay big hands

I won’t spend a lot of time here, as this is a concept good limit players understand well. If you have a big hand on a somewhat coordinated board, you need be getting the money in early. This protects your hand and usually gets the most value. In NL, the more bets you get in early, the bigger the bets are going to be on later streets.

The two concepts of protecting your stack with a mediocre hand, and building a large pot with a good hand, comes from the well know no limit saying “playing big hands for big pots and small hands for small pots.”

Sounds obvious, I know, but so many players don’t think about this at all.

Isolating

In no limit holdem, the situation where you have the biggest advantage is heads up in position against a weak opponent, preferably where you were the preflop raiser and have the initiative. Multiway pots just aren’t as valuable in NL. The main reason is that you can still get huge implied odds from just one opponent, and being in position with only one opponent to deal with is much easier than being in the middle of a multiway pot! So when a weak player limps into the pot and you have a hand that’s has good implied odds, even if it’s inherently strong multiway i.e. suited connectors, it’s often better to raise to isolate than to let players in behind with position on you.

Implied odds – The Power of Pocket Pairs!

In order to play small pocket pairs profitably in limit holdem, you usually need a multiway limped pot and position. You are playing almost completely for set value and you are relying on implied odds. In NL, if you are playing for full (100BB) stacks, pocket pairs become much more powerful. Even the smallest of pairs, deuces, can be played against a raise in position, as you have the chance to stack you opponent if you hit your set. Small pairs are easy – you hit your set and try to build a big pot, or you don’t and you get away very cheap. In short, pocket pairs are now your best friend! In 6max, you should raise them all from any position, and in full ring they can sometimes be played from very early position if you find yourself a passive enough table.

Value betting

Limit holdem is a game of value betting. If you bet, or raise when you have an equity advantageyou won’t be going far wrong. Say you have AK and you see a flop of K63 against 1 opponent, your probably going to bet every street for value. This isn’t the automatic thing to do in NL, as a pot sized bet on every street is enough to get all in by the river. It goes back to an earlier, very important point – protect your stack. Top pair hands are still decent money winners, but usually you don’t want to play your whole stack with them. This usually means checking behind on a street to keep the pot to a size you are happy with.

River value betting is particularly important. If you bet the flop with top pair, get called, check behind on the turn and it’s checked to you on the river, you need to put a lot of thought into whether to value bet even on dangerous boards. On the river, the bets are the largest, and if you are ahead, your hand has the most pot equity – 100%. Every time you get called by a worse hand on the river, you claim 100% of that bet in expectation (rather than if they had a flush draw on the turn and called your bet, they claim a fraction of that bet for the times they hit.)

Drawing hands = Semi-bluffing hands

Drawing hands often have to be played very differently when playing NL holdem. The fact that the bet size is often such a large proportion of the pot, it’s rare to be offered the correct pot odds to simply call profitably with your flush and straight draws. This is where the power of semi-bluffing comes in. On the flop, or even the turn, flush and straight draws are always going to have a decent amount of equity, but unless you have a monster combo draw, it will be less than 50%. It doesn’t take a lot of fold equity, however, to make a big bet or raise with a good drawing hand into a profitable play. Remember, you’re betting a bigger portion of the pot than you were in limit, your fold equity is going to be a lot higher. These are also great spots to balance your good made hands with. You can’t always have a big hand when you bet or raise, or you won’t get paid off as often.

Beware, however, that if you are in position and being offered decent implied odds by an aggressive opponent, it can be better to just call than to reopen the betting. The last thing you want to see happen with a draw is to be raised on the same street.

Bluffing/Continuation Betting

It’s safe to say that bluffing isn’t exactly your best friend when playing fixed limit holdem. Players make the mistake of calling far too much, making your bluffs next to useless. The same is somewhat true in NL, however there are a few more spots where you can bluff profitably. This is for 2 reasons: Your bet is bigger in proportion to the pot, and your opponents have to fear bigger, stack endangering bets on later streets.

One concept that is very similar to limit is the continuation bet. This is vital for mixing up your flop play. Basically you raise preflop and get called, and then make a bet on the flop of around ¾ pot whether you hit your hand or not. This is such a big money winner and balancing strategy that it deserves an article in it’s own right, but for now, be aware that if the raise preflop and only get called by one or two players, you should usually be making a decent bet on the flop.

Another spot to bluff profitably is on the turn in position. So many online players these days know about the continuation bet. They use it practically every time, but give up on the turn. If you call a preflop raiser, and get a flop in position that isn’t likely to hit much of his range but looks like it hit yours, then a good play is to call, or “float” the flop, planning to make a large bet on the turn if it’s checked to you. Against the right opponents, this play works a huge amount of the time.

Bet Sizing

One of the most difficult concepts for a limit player to learn is how to size their NL bets effectively. This should be obvious, as it is the fundamental difference between the two games! A lot of players either bet too little, just guess randomly at what they should bet, or fall into the trap of just hitting the “bet pot” button. The most important thing to think about when trying to size your bet is:

Bet the amount that is most likely to achieve your goal.

Examples of this can be value betting the right amount to achieve maximum expectation when called, bluffing the least amount that will still get them to fold, or betting enough to make draws unprofitable to call with.

Defending your blinds

This is one area that isn’t as important to your winrate as it is in limit. This is mostly for two reasons, the fact that the blinds in NL are smaller relative to future bets, and you’re nearly always playing out of position which is even more of a disadvantage in NL. If in any doubt, it’s usually best to play tight and conservative from the blinds when starting out. While this can make your slightly exploitable, most opponents won’t be aware enough to make the most of it so you’re really not giving up much. It keeps you out of tricky spots – playing out of position with a marginal hand.

Improving Your Game and Fixing Leaks

So now you have some fundamental concepts to get you started. It’s a lot to take in, but thinking about concepts like these while playing should really help to plug those big leaks that it’s common for experienced limit players to make. The important thing is to keep evaluating your game. Keep thinking about concepts and ideas, as well as looking back over specific hand histories. Read books, discuss strategy with other players (www.lowlimitforum.com) and most of all, keep playing! One trick I learnt when starting to play no limit was at the end of every session, to look back over the biggest winning and losing pots that I’d played. It’s kind of obvious, but these are the most important hands to analyse as they affect your winrate the most. It’s important to look at them while they are fresh, so you remember the reason why you made the decision you did. Were you on tilt? Were you building too big a pot with just top pair? Did you call light because your opponent was playing like a maniac, or was it just a bad decision?

No limit holdem isn’t easy. In fact, the more you play, the more you realise just how complex and subtle this game can be. This might sound daunting, but it’s actually quite reassuring. There are plenty of players out there who will never even realise how difficult it is to play solid NL holdem. Make sure you take their money.