How to beat low-limit no-limit: a beginner’s guide

“Our lives improve only when we take chances – and the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves.”
–Walter Anderson
In the many hours I spent at Hollywood Park during my “poker vacation,” I had the pleasure of spending some time in the No Limit cash games that are now raging through casino like wildfire. The TV poker craze has made No Limit poker the game of choice among many new players, and as a result, there are lots of chips just waiting to be rescued from those ignorant of odds and strategy.
Lou Krieger’s description of these games is the best I’ve come across yet– big bet poker with training wheels:
“The recent surge in poker’s popularity has produced one possible compromise in game structure: the introduction of no-limit games with a fixed buy-in. These games, in which there’s a cap on the amount a player can buy in for — a typical game features blinds of $1-$2, with a maximum buy-in of either $100 or $200 — provide no-limit decision-making and the ability to protect one’s hand with a big bet. But because of the cap on the buy-in, they also mitigate the catastrophic nature of a single bad decision. While some players derisively refer to these games as big-bet poker with training wheels, the game structure straddles a middle ground between limit hold’em and real big-bet games.”
The nice thing about these games is that you can’t lose too much money, but if you catch some cards, you can make a lot of money fast. This makes for a minimum amount of risk and the potential to win a lot of money. From my small sample size, I’ve found that it’s rare to have a session where you lose more than your buy-in, but it’s relatively easy to double or triple up (keep in mind the competition here is probably at the same level as the $25 buy in No Limit game on PartyPoker). By playing tight and aggressive, you can minimize your variance while retaining the possibility of winning a lot of money.
The observant reader will ask “Ok, low variance, and it’s easy to triple up… why don’t you play these games all the time Double?” The problem is that the optimal strategy in these games is extremely boring. In fact, I believe I could program a computer to play better in these games than I do. While the opportunity to make good reads and difficult decisions does come up every so often, most of the time you are waiting for other players to make big mistakes when you have a big hand. The old “sit and wait for the nuts” is the best strategy in a game where the big blind is approximately 1% of your stack.
I don’t claim to be an expert on no-limit poker. However, in my play I’ve developed some very simple rules of thumb that seem to get the money. My goal in this post is to offer some simple rules of thumb to get the complete newbie started. Most readers have probably played more NL than me, so feel free to criticize or offer better advice.
How to Make a Steady Profit while minimizing risk in Low Buy In No-Limit Ring Games
First off, I’m going to go through some of the most common newbie mistakes that I saw in my time at the No Limit tables. You want to avoid making these mistakes, and exploit them when your opponent makes them.
1. Underbetting
At Hollywood Park, the default preflop raise was usually between $10 and $20 (blinds are $2 and $3).
If two people call a $10 bet, there is at least $30 in the pot on the flop. I’d say the majority of players would bet $10 or $15 into a $30 on the pot when there was a draw on the board. A $10 bet into a $30 pot gives your opponent 4:1 pot odds on a call, and the implied odds are far greater (assuming your opponent will get a call if he makes his hand). Unless you are trying to do something tricky, always make your bet equal to the size of the pot. Note that this does not apply to the river, but only to the flop and turn (more on the river later). If you do this, your opponents will almost never have the correct odds to call your bet (there are exceptions for big draws and multi-way pots, but ignore those for now).
2. Overbetting
The opposite of underbetting, overbetting prevents your opponent from making mistakes by scaring them out of the pot. While there are times when you want to push all your chips in, an oversized bet forces the majority of opponents to make the correct decision– fold with a hand far inferior than yours. In most cases, the only time an opponent will be willing to call a bet that is 2 or 3 times the size of the pot is when he has you beaten.
That said, I’ve seen people make terrible calls for all their chips, so overbetting can sometimes be a good thing. And I’m talking about the flop and turn here, not preflop. I saw many people throw out an oversized raise with pocket 9s or some middle pair, get raised all in, and happily call, only to be shown a bigger pair. The overbetting here I’m talking about is on the flop– people going all in with a pocket pair to win a $20 pot (only to get called by someone who flopped two pair or trips).
Another common (and very annoying) move is the preflop “8 times the big blind” bet. I saw a lot of players opening the pot for $25, only to steal the $5 in blinds. While this play is ok if there are a lot of big stacks at the table, it’s pretty tough to call a bet for 1/4th your stack if you only have $100 in front of you. This play only works if you think one of the big stacks will call you with a hand worse than yours.
3. “Don’t go broke in an unraised pot”
I think it was Texas Dolly who originated this quote, but the absolute worst play in these games is the person willing to put all their chips in the middle in a big multi-way pot without the nuts. So many times I’ve been in a family pot where everyone limps, and the person with top pair will get punished by someone who flopped 2 small pair. If you’ve got AT, limp into a pot with 8 other players to see a flop of T 7 2, you’ve got to think you have the best hand. But if you’re called or reraised, watch out, because somebody’s gonna drop the hammer on you. If you take nothing else from these ramblings, remember this saying: “Don’t go broke in an unraised pot.” Doyle’s words, not mine.
So those are the typical mistakes that players make in these games. Now for some rules of thumb to help you build up that stack. Again, the style I’m suggesting here is very conservative and designed to minimize risk. After you get some experience (and chips), you can open it up a little and make some real plays.
1. Limping is good?
Contrary to popular belief, limping in with junk hands is a good thing on a passive table. I’ve sat at a lot of tables where about 1 of 3 hands are raised preflop. On these tables, you’re only risking $3 to see a flop, and against bad players who will call you when you flop the nuts, your implied odds are through the roof. Think about it this way– you limp in with 10 junk hands. 3 of those pots are raised, so you lose $9 to the raisers right there. The next 6 hands you miss the flop completely, so that’s $18 more dollars. That’s $27 down the drain. But on the 10th hand, you flop big… there’s already around 5 * $3 = $15 if 5 players are in, and if you can get one caller, you make your money back right there. And if you can get the guy to push his chips in, you’ve doubled up and made a lot more than your lost limps. Now be careful– I’m not talking about hands like 84o. I’m talking about hands that will hold up if you flop big. 2 gappers, any 2 medium cards, any ace (you want to be outkicked but pair your kicker on the flop).
Now this strategy is somewhat dangerous. You’ve got no idea what anyone else is holding (“don’t go broke in an unraised pot!”), so you want to be pretty sure you’ve got the best hand when you get your money in on the flop (that’s the “low risk” part). But you win by others making big mistakes, and a lot of limping puts you in position to capitalize on the big mistakes of your opponents.
2. Play tight with a small stack
I’m not contradicting myself, but you’ve gotta play tight with your first buy in and try to double up to give yourself some ammunition. Limping is good, but first you’ve got to have some chips to burn. Think about it like this. You’ve got $100 chips, and you make a $15 raise with AK and get 2 callers. The pot is already $45 on the flop, and you’ve only got $85 to work with. If you make a pot-sized bet, that leaves you with only $40 on the turn, and probably broke at the showdown. It’s tough to get in the game until you get some chips in front of you, so save your limping for when you’ve won a couple pots.
3. Don’t go broke with top pair
In limit poker, a lot of the money you makes comes from dominating hands– you outkick somebody else who’s also holding top pair. In low buy in no-limit, most of the money comes from beating top pair. The problem is this– with top pair and a good kicker, you’ve got to bet to protect your hand. But if you face a raise, you could be looking at a set or two pair. Good players know this, and will put you to the test on hands like these:
You’ve got AK and put out a raise preflop and get one caller. The flop is K J 7 and you bet the size of the pot. Now, the good player has to put you on a King here, and if he comes over the top you have to make the decision if your top pair is good, or if he’s making a move on you. Could he have KJ? Unlikely but possible. He flopped a set of 7s? Unlikely but more likely than KJ. Or maybe a draw like AQs or QTs? The risk-averse player will lay down their top pair top kicker, but this is weak play. Depending how much is in the pot, I advise new players to lay this hand down to a big reraise. But decisions like that are the beauty of no-limit.
4. Draws are overrated
If players are betting correctly, you’re usually not going to get past the flop with a draw. You can’t call a pot sized bet, and you don’t know how much your opponent will bet on the turn, so it’s risky to take a card off on the flop to a decent sized bet with only a flush or a straight draw. Of course you see bad players doing this all the time, but the risk-averse player does not like draws. When you limp with a hand like 65s, what you really want to flop is a combination draw, like a flush draw with a backdoor straight draw, or maybe a flush draw with a pair. This gives you a ton of outs, and if you can get a couple players to go to the turn you have odds to call. A lot of players make the mistake of going all-in with a combination draw, as Matt Lessinger explains in his excellent Cardplayer article about these types of hands:
” I’ve seen times when one opponent bet, another raised, and the player with the combination hand [a hand that represents a big draw and a pair or better] reraised all in. As no-limit plays go, this has to be one of the worst you can make. Of course, those players with the combination hands went on to bemoan their bad luck when they realized they had gone all in and were drawing completely dead. I could have told them that luck was not the issue there. If you’re going to go all in over two players who have both shown strength, you’d darn well better have something more than just a pair and a weak flush draw.”
5. You win the most money by outflopping your opponents
For the most part, the only way to double up is for your big hand to beat your opponent’s big hand. In order for your opponent to stick all of his chips in the pot, he’s usually going to have a very strong hand. This means that you’ll probably have to outflop him with an inferior hand in order to get all his chips (unless you’re lucky enough to get Aces when he’s got Kings). This brings us to the power of the pocket pair. You’ve got pocket deuces on the button, and the first to act turns over pocket aces and dares you to call his $20 bet. Should you call?
Well, suppose that the guy says that he will bet the size of the pot on every street if his hand does not improve. He’s got $200 in front of him. That means that the most we can get from this player is 10 times his bet, so we’re getting implied odds of around 7.5:1 (12%) (our hand can still lose even if we flop our set). Since it’s about 8:1 to flop one of the two deuces, it’s a close call. We’re break even if we get $160 for our $20 investment. If there’s one more caller, it makes our decision easy. You should always be thinking about implied odds when you’re deciding whether to call. The opponent’s stack size is just as important as the cards you are holding.
That’s it for the tips. I’m not sure if that made any sense, but those rules of thumb have enabled me to do pretty well in the low buy in No-Limit games out in La-La land. It’s a conservative strategy, not far off from “sit and wait for the nuts”. Not the style of poker I prefer or usually play, but since I have a lot to learn about No Limit, it’s the style I’ve been using.
Of course, if a young guy with mirror shades underbets and you smell weakness, I encourage pushing all your chips in immediately.
I can’t resist a comment on poker jumping the shark– tonight during some CSI-like show, a commercial starts with close ups on tough-guy faces around a poker table. The last face is a middle age woman who obviously doesn’t fit in with the crowd. Here we go… the cards are dealt, and the woman says, “I’m new at this. I’ve never played before…” Cut again to the tough guys. Back to the woman. “But I’m feeling lucky. It’s my birthday.” She mouths some number to one of the tough guys (39?). Cut to a close up of her cards… of course, it’s a royal flush in spades. She lays the cards on the table, and we cut to a close up of her purse. A bottle of “Oil of Olay” is sitting on the top. Fade to black.
Poker has not only jumped the shark, it shot a harpoon through the eye and canned the meat for mass consumption.
New Blogs
I can’t keep up anymore. There’s so much good poker writing going on out there, and I wish I could make time to read everything, but it’s out of control. That said, there are a few (more) blogs deserving of your attention.
Sloejack is an up and comer from Chicago that is developing his game quickly. A good writer with gambling demons in his past and a “one day at a time” motto, he always has some insight into the world of poker. In a recent post, he shares my agony in the endless waiting involved in these low-limit no-limit games:
“So my first table I’m looking rock like for what seems like ages before I decide that I need to make something happen or I’m just wasting time and paying blinds. I figure I’m either going to create a table image that will give me action, or I’ll bend the weak guys over and pick some pockets.”
-EV is a new blogger who is crusing the low limits at PartyPoker. I liked his explanation of his blog title:
“I took a little time in choosing the title, and settled on “A Fool and His Money” because for the most part, that’s the mentality I bring to the table when I play. The guy in the next seat is more than likely a fool to some degree when it comes to poker, and eventually, he’ll part with his whole bankroll as a result. The only variables are how fast and two whom.”
Another upstart is JW, who gets immediate linkage starts his blog off humbly with a shout out to yours truly:
“This is meant to be a journal of my travles up the low-limit poker ladder. Yes, that’s right, yet another poker blog. I’m sure there are quite a few of the regular bloggers out there cringing at this, and I can only hope I’m able to live up to the standards of those who inspired me to start this journal. In particular I have to give credit to HDouble of cardsspeak. Not only have I found his blog to be a wealth of information and a great read, but I’m one of the few suckers who actually subscribed to All-In Magazine.”
Wait, there’s more!
UWannaBet? is yet another low limit player with a good sense of humor. I enjoyed his Top Ten Rants about Online Poker, especially number 8:
“8 – The ‘I play in big money games all the time’ chat…then why are you at a $5 single table tournament?”
Wow, this almost feels like an uber post. How does that guy do it?
Stay focused.

The Monk Speaks

It’s taken me a year, but I’ve finally got my first guest post. It’s written by none other than my protege and prodigy, the mighty Monk. He’s been my best friend for a long, long time, and I plan to take his advice. Here are his words…
Dear Hdouble,
The classes have sunk in and after the twists and turns of the 1-2 world i fought up to the 2-4 fields of green. Now that i am comfortable there you sent me to “promised land” of 3-6 where i was promptly Moses-ed and denied access. so i hit the multis and saved myself and am now preparing to make another biblical rush for those green valleys. but before i do that i thought i would send you some of the thoughts that having been chasing flushes in my head.
1. Poker is no end
There was an old man who was dying, he had been a successful farmer his whole life, and on his death bed he told his three sons that he had buried a treasure out in the fields. when he died they began searching the fields systematically, starting by digging rows through one field and then the next. as they had already dug up the field they planted seeds behind them (my guess is that it was on the advice of their wives) and after five years they had discovered no treasure and decided to make another round. after ten years they had become successful farmers with families and perhaps realized, as the old man on the train tracks in “O, Brother Where Art Thou” says that “you will not find the treasure you seek.”
now each and every one of us out there on the tables, be it in a casino or logged onto one are searching for a treasure. but it seems that the only one worth having is one you can use, and nothing is more useful than self knowledge. so when i am out there plowing the field i remember that the unexamined life is not worth living and heed yours and the great Igg-father’s words so that not a win or a loss go by that don’t imprint some new knowledge in me.
2. As Above, So Below
Each action at the poker table needs to have two aspects to it. the temporal and the eternal. i need to be paying attention ot the table and the mood of the players. even the mood of the whole, like some ugly 100 toed 20 armed mammal, needs to be carefully monitored. but the most difficult perhaps is watching your own mood. i don’t mean only “table image” but how your mood is rearranging your play. i think there are times when my play fits my mood and so i “see” more clearly. other times it doesn’t and it costs me.
but there is also the long run, as you poker vets call it. each move needs to stand far into the long reaches of mathmatical probability. you need to be able to see yourself making the same move over and over again. some sort of pokerish eternal return. how well these two facets, now and forever, come together and how aware i am of them both dictates how well i play each session, and every session thereafter.
3. “Knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Ask, and it shall be given unto you.”
this one goes out to H and Iggy. there was a girl i really liked when i was in school. i used to talk to her every chance i got. she was great. we laughed alot and i thought we enjoyed each others company. after graduating (she was a year younger then me) i returned to see if the school was still doing ok without me there. i met this girl that night and she promptly told me she had had a crush on me throughout our time together at the school. now if that girl’s name’s not 15-30 then i’ll be sewn into a potato sack and tossed in the Trosa river. do the words “ripe for the plucking” mean anything to you. some of us don’t do our work first and pay for that. others don’t use the hands they have.
4. “its nothing personal Sonny!!”
the lesson michael never seemed to learn. the game can’t run you. whenever confused i try to remember that i am sitting in a chair, at a table, on the earth, round the sun a-spinning, swimming through a galaxy thats a tiny part of the whole thing that i know nothing about. i must remember that i am chosing to play the game and not get so caught up that i have to kill my brother to feel safe.
Whoah. i jumped into the local river this weekend after a good night of drinking with your wife and my wife and some friends. then a remarkable thing happened. SHE JUMPED IN TOO. our friend Johan told me all the boats dumped the piss and crap they had on board in the river. i told him i was doing the same right then. no one should take themselves too seriously right?

Poker Gods, why hast thou forsaken me?

“It is bad luck to be superstitious.”
–Andrew W. Mathis
Well, my “poker vacation” is over. Mrs. Double gets back from Sweden tomorrow, so my 3 week stint at Hollywood Park came to a close last night, and with plenty of bad beats to make me happy to return to online poker. Variance reared it’s ugly head this week, and the river was extremely unkind, so I’m sad to report that I gave back nearly all of my winnings last week in 3 terrible sessions of $6-12. I was more or less happy with the way I played, but when the $200 pots are pushed to players catching their 2 outer on the river, there’s not much you can do about it. That’s poker.
I finally realized what it means to be “running bad”– not only do you seem to get more than your fair share of unplayable hands, but the few good hands you get don’t hold up. You miss your draws, you lose set under set, and the only thing you can do to stay off tilt is to replay the hand and make sure you played it correctly. My luck is so bad that even when I sweat other players I bring them bad luck– I managed to ruin Iggy in the PartyPoker Sunday Guaranteed Quarter-Million Tournament by sending him bad luck through the monitor. Immediately after logging on (he was just above the average number of chips), I watched him lose a coin flip with his AK vs. TT, and then a few hands later painfully witnessed him lose to A4s with his pocket 9s. Oh the humanity.
The most interesting thing about spending a lot of time at the casino is getting ingrained into the Hollywood Park culture. Seeing the same faces night after night, the “regulars” who all have different reasons for playing. My play over the past year has been equally divided between online play and live play, but for the most part the live play has been on weekends only. But after playing a few days in a row, the dealers greet you with a smile and a wink of recognition, and the players who respect your play will help you find the softest table (as long as it’s not the one they’re sitting at).
Some of my favorite poker blogger posts are the ones that attempt to answer the question “why do I play poker?” After spending some time with a lot of different players, it’s been interesting to see the variety of answers to this question. You’ve got the action players, the gamboolers who are there for the excitement of hitting their river card. You’ve got the old retired guys who go there because they have nothing better to do. You can find the 21 year old WPT fans with their mirror shades at the $100 No Limit tables. Middle aged guys reading super system at the table. Dealers playing after their shift. And the pros who are always waiting, watching, looking for the best table and a way to squeeze out a couple more big bets.
I played a few sessions with OJ, who recently started dealing at HP. He’s a tough player to play against, and sitting on his left ended up saving me some money since he rarely came in without a raise. It was a little consoling that his solid play was getting the chips, and that not everyone gets their Aces cracked by 10-4 offsuit on the river.
Another thing about live play that is absent from online play is the importance of small non-poker decisions that end up making a huge difference in the amount you win or lose. For example, the night I won $1000, three small events ended up putting me in the position to win all that money.
(1) I actually got to the casino a little later than I had originally planned, since my sister called and we chatted for a while.
(2) The wait for the $6-12 was long, and there was one seat open in a new $200 NL game. The game looked good, so I sat down.
(3) Since there was only one seat open, I was forced to sit in the seat I hate most– directly across from the dealer.
So if any of these events hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have got the hands I did that night. Of course, I may have won more at $6-12, but the point is that in live play, you notice things like that more than you do online, since the online tables are always open and online choices like seat position (your view of the table is the same at all seats) doesn’t apply. This presence of “fate” in live play makes for a lot more superstition than in the online world, and you’ll find many players asking for a deck change, a seat change, and my favorite– players who refuse to play with dealers who “always kill them” and will wait 30 minutes until the next dealer shows up.
I’m exhausted, so I’m going to end this post before I start typing more nonsense, but I’ll leave you with three of my favorite people at Hollywood Park:
1. The note taker
OJ had told me earlier in the week that there is a guy who carries around a pen and a piece of paper and writes notes on the individual dealers, and what hands they give him. Apparently when each dealer sits down, he writes the dealer’s name and badge number, and the hands they give him and pots he wins. Sure enough, last night a guy sits next to me with a pen and paper, and I notice him writing tally marks next to a list of names in the left hand column. He takes notes consistently for the whole 2 hours he’s there. When he leaves, I tell the good player about the list, and he starts laughing, saying he knows all about it:
“The funny thing is, it’s made him a better player! You should have seen him before he started that list!”
I guess analyzing something, even if it’s the dealers, is better than nothing.
2. The ultimate fish
One night I recognized a woman who I’d played with before, remembering her as one of the worst hold ’em players I’d ever played with. She saw about 90% of hands to the river, and put several terrible beats on me. It didn’t take her long to lose it all back. Anyway, she walks past our $6-12 table, ignoring the “seat open!” cries of the sharks, and heads for the $20-40. 45 minutes later she taps me on the shoulder, and asks to borrow $50. I tell her I’m stuck, and ask her to grab me the next time she goes to play in the big game. If I only had a bankroll.
3. The heads up specialist
Rumor has it that there is a top section player that will play anyone heads up for any limit. “Anyone heads-up at any limit” sounds like a bankroll killer to me. I have no idea if the guy is any good, but that offer sounds a little scary. Last night I saw a couple guys playing $15-30 heads-up in the top section, and wondered if he had found a customer. I wonder if he’d play me $1-2…
Coming up next: how to beat the $100 buy-in NL game and a review of Ed Miller’s new book.