Thursday, September 28, 2006

What Am I Doing Wrong In NL Hold'em?

I saw this article on the hope page of Adam Schwartz from Rounders the Poker Show. It pretty much details my problems in No Limit Hold'em.

No-Limit Strategy
Most players who earned their stripes playing in the public cardrooms of Vancouver learned to play one game only: limit hold'em. But now, in the post-WPT, post-ESPN world, it's no-limit hold'em that everyone wants to play. While many of the players in a typical no-limit hold'em game might be new to the game, trying out the "all-in game", many are seasoned players at big-bet hold'em, making them formidable no-limit players.
I am one of those players. I was raised in the limit hold'em cardrooms of Vancouver. I enjoyed success in the relatively loose, passive low- and mid-limit games that were prevalent of the time. I didn't play much in the way of no-limit hold'em cash games until I started playing more on the internet. Until recently, it was hard to find a no-limit game in the public cardrooms of Vancouver. Even the major casinos and cardrooms in Las Vegas and Los Angeles rarely spread no-limit cash games. So until recently, if you lived in North America and wanted a good selection of no-limit hold'em cash games to play, the internet was the place to do it. Nowadays, of course, there aren't many cardrooms where you won't find the "Cadillac of Poker".
Initially, I had a hard time adapting to the differences between limit and no-limit hold'em. Poker players often refer to opponents derisively by saying they play with a "limit" accent in no-limit games, or vice versa. In this article, I'd like to talk a bit about how a winning limit hold'em cash game player can become a better no-limit hold'em cash game player. The easiest way to do that is to talk about the typical mistakes a successful limit hold'em player makes when he changes over to no-limit.
1. Betting too often
This first mistake may come as a surprise. After all, isn't no-limit hold'em a game of aggression? Aren't the super-aggressive players like Gus Hansen and Phil Ivey the most feared opponents at a no-limit hold'em table? Doesn't the undisputed all-time guru of no-limit hold'em, Doyle Brunson, advocate a powerful, attacking style?
The answer to all of those questions is yes. Doyle's (and Gus' and Phil's, among others) style of picking up small pots whereever possible is as valid now as it was when he literally wrote the book on no-limit hold'em 30 years ago. However what most successful, strong limit players converting to no-limit don't realize is that you don't have to bet medium-strength as often in limit hold'em. In limit hold'em, the pot is your primary concern. Since the pot is laying you good odds, you often need to bet - whether it's to protect your made hand, or as a semi-bluff. For example, in limit hold'em if you're heads-up on the turn against one opponent, and you're holding a hand like middle pair, you should usually bet the turn even if you're really not sure whether you have the best hand. That's because if you check and allow your opponent a free card to draw out on you for free in a situation where he would have folded, you've cost yourself a lot of money. However in no-limit, since for your bet to have credibility it needs to be about one-third to two-thirds of the pot, the price of protecting your hand is much more. Therefore it's not a huge disaster to give up a free card which costs you the pot, if you had significant doubts about whether your hand was best.
Another instance of this is when you hold a good draw. Let's suppose in limit hold'em you raised before the flop with AsKs and got two callers. The flop comes down Js9c2s. You bet, as you should, and one of your two opponents call. The turn is no help to you, a 7h. Your opponent checks to you. In limit hold'em, unless you have some information about your opponent that indicates to you that you should check, you should typically bet in this situation. Your opponent may fold a better hand like Ad9d, ThTc, Ac2c or even 9h8h. You may still have the best hand, if your opponent holds a hand like QsTc, Th8h, KdQs, or 7s6s. Because it's relatively cheap to do so, and chances are reasonable that you'll win the pot, you should bet. Even if your opponent was sandbagging a huge hand like 2h2c and raises you, this is unfortunate, but not a disaster, because you can still call and draw out on him.
However, if the exact same sequence occurs in no-limit hold'em, it is probably a significant mistake to bet (again, unless you have some information about your opponent that indicates you should). In no-limit, when an opponent checks and calls the flop, it indicates a much stronger hand than it does in limit. While in limit it is usually correct to take a card off with a mediocre hand or a weak draw, in no-limit it is usually incorrect to make these calls, because the size of the bet (and implied bets on future streets) is so much larger. Thus you're probably against a bigger hand than you were in the limit scenario. But more importantly, in no-limit, you can be raised off the hand. If you bet in second position and your opponent check-raises, he will probably raise you so much it would be incorrect for you to draw at your flush. Now you have to fold. By betting and allowing yourself to be check-raised, you've cost yourself not only your bet and the pot, but also any bet that you would have won on the river after completing your flush (or even top pair, if that was enough to win).
Yet another situation where limit players bet too much is in last position on the river. In limit hold'em, holding all else equal, you should typically bet top pair on the river against a single opponent. In no-limit hold'em, it's often a mistake to do so. By the time the river card is dealt in limit hold'em, the pot is usually laying your opponent good enough odds that he will call if he has anything at all. Therefore you value bet knowing your opponent will call with almost any kind of hand. In no-limit, however, it's rare that an opponent will pay you off with a hand that top pair can beat, unless you have a profile as an aggressive bluffer. The reasons for this are both mathematical and psychological. Mathematically, if you make a solid bet on the river, your opponent is not correct to simply "call for the size of the pot". Psychologically, many opponents have a much harder time calling say, $1500 on the river in a 10-25 blinds NL game, than $200 on the river in a $100/$200 limit hold'em game. In addition, we have the same problem as the previous scenario, presented in a different way: If your opponent puts in a big check-raise, you'll probably have to lay down your hand. By betting, you've opened yourself up to the possibility of a bluff-raise on the part of your opponent, which you can't call. In limit, the pure check-raise-bluff on the river is fairly rare, as the bluffer knows that the bettor is getting good odds to call that last bet, and probably will.
2. Paying off too much
Suppose you're heads-up on the flop against a very aggressive player. He's raised before the flop, and you were the only caller. You make something like middle pair with an ace kicker. True to his style, he's come out gunning on the flop, and there's no indication he's going to stop betting any time soon. Should you call him down?
In limit hold'em, the answer is almost certainly yes. Unless you pick up a tell or the board gets very scary, you normally should call down heads-up with middle pair against a very aggressive opponent. In fact, calling down is often preferable to firing back at him, because you're letting him bet your hand for you if he has nothing. Because you he's a gunner, you're not afraid of giving free cards - he's going to take care of the betting for you.
In no-limit, however, calling down an aggressive opponent automatically is a recipe for disaster. If you buy in for around 50-100 times the big blind, your entire stack is in danger any time you play a pot against an aggressive player - even if you never raise. Let's suppose the game is no-limit with $5 and $10 blinds. If your opponent raises to $50 before the flop, you call, and check and call a pot-sized bet on the flop and turn, you'll be facing a bet for pretty much all your chips on the river. Are you so confident in your read on your aggressive opponent that you're consistently willing to back your stack with middle pair? If so, I want you in my game.
Usually the best thing to do against a very aggressive player like this is to fire back at him early in the hand. A good-sized raise preflop or on the flop will tell your opponent that you mean business, and that he's going to have to risk his stack if he wants to take you off the hand.
Another spot where good limit players fail in no-limit is paying off on the river. In a limit game, a good player will often raise preflop, lead out on the flop, bet again on the turn, and again on the river. Sometimes the good player will get raised on the river and figure that he is beat, but pay off anyway. As we discussed earlier, he is usually correct to do so. However in no-limit, if the player with the initiative gets raised, his best play is often to fold, not call.

3. Over-defending blinds
In middle- and high-limit hold'em games, say 30/60 and above, players must be careful not to give up their blinds too easily, especially if the raiser is first in from a late position. Since the big blind is getting 3.5:1 to see the flop, he must call quite liberally against a player first in on the button.
However in no-limit games, the big blind is usually not getting such good odds to call (most opening raises in no-limit cash games are 3-4 times the big blind, making the immediate pot odds about 2:1 for the big blind). But far more importantly, the positional handicap suffered by the blinds is much more pronounced in no-limit play. If a strong opponent acts behind you, he can often infer weakness from your betting patterns and steal pots on later streets. He can also get far more value when he suspects that you've got a good hand, but he's got an even better one. In limit, position often helps a good player win a bet or save a bet. In no-limit, position often helps a player win the entire pot, win a big pot instead of winning a smaller pot, or lose a small pot instead of losing a big pot.
Again, concrete examples may help. Let's say your opponent raises, first in from the button in limit. You call with a hand like 9c7h, which is a correct defence heads-up against a button raise. The flop comes down Kh8c6h. Depending on your opponent, your playing style, and how you are perceived at the table, you may choose to play the hand hard, hoping to take your opponent off a better hand, or play it softly hoping to hit your straight for a good price and get paid off when you make it. Nevertheless, you won't be blown off the hand, and it won't cost you a lot of money when you miss your hand.
Compare the same hand in no-limit. If you choose to check and call the flop, and you miss on the turn, you could be faced with a bet that makes you lay down your draw. If you make an aggressive play for the pot and either bet out or check-raise on the flop, you'll be in no-man's land on the turn if your opponent calls and you haven't improved. Now you're in the uncomfortable position of either making a large bet on the turn as a probable dog, or meekly giving up the initiative and check-folding to a large bet.
4. Over-valuing "big cards"
Many no-limit authors have already written that while hands like AK, AQ, AJ, KQ, QJs, KJs and so forth can be your bread-and-butter hands in limit hold'em, they can be downright treacherous in no-limit. The most common playable flop for these hands is top pair with a good kicker, which is a definite money maker in limit hold'em. Even in no-limit hold'em tournaments - especially in the later stages where the ratio of blinds to stacks is larger - these hands should often be played hard. But top pair has broken many an unweary no-limit player in cash games. To play top pair correctly with over 100 big blinds on the table requires a lot of finesse. The skillful no-limit player walks a fine line, trying to make money with the hand without being broken with it. Again, position is critical when playing a hand like this, as it can often earn a good-sized bet from a dominated hand like top pair with a worse kicker, or save a large bet if the hand is second-best.
Big pairs are also vulnerable in deep-money no-limit. Heads-up in limit hold'em, you're almost always getting to the river with your big pairs unless the board looks very scary. Whether it's you or your opponent who is leading the betting, your hand is usually good enough to get to the showdown.
When there is lots of money to be played, the only hand you can feel very good about putting all your money in with before the flop is two aces. After the flop, while many people believe that two jacks is the toughest hand to play in no-limit, many experts believe that it is in fact two kings. When you've re-raised before the flop with two kings and get played back at on the flop, you have to consider two possibilities: that your opponent flopped a set, or that he slowplayed two aces before the flop. I'd bet on AA, KK, QQ and JJ winning money in the hands of just about any competent player, but the truly skilled no-limit player knows how to maximize his winnings when he's up against a weaker player while keeping from getting broke when the hand is beat.
It takes a lot of education and practice to develop the skills necessary to becoming a winning limit hold'em players in the middle and high limits. But many winning limit players don't understand why they fail when they step into the no-limit arena. If you're a successful limit player and you haven't quite enjoyed the success you think you deserve in no-limit cash games, consider whether you're making any of the mistakes outlined above. On the contrary, if you're already an experienced no-limit cash game player, think about the some of the mistakes your limit cash game opponents might be making, and try to find ways to exploit them.


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