No-Limit Or Pot-Limit?

Different playing styles and
strategies are required for
pot-limit and no-limit poker if
you want to win big

No-limit hold’em is variously referred to as ‘the Cadillac of poker’ and ‘the crack cocaine of poker’

If you want to play poker to any sort of level above that of 10¢-a-hand weekender, you need to know the differences between the pot-limit and no-limit versions of the game.

No limit is very exciting to watch, and easy to explain to new players. It does what it says on the tin: there is no limit to the amount you can raise. Pot limit is slightly more esoteric.

The maximum raise in pot limit is the total amount bet by all players, after you have matched the amount required to call. So if the blinds are $1 and $2 and nobody has bet yet, you can bet a maximum of $7 ($2 to call plus the total $5 on the table, made up of $3 blinds and your $2 call, which is counted as part of the pot).

There are several other important differences between pot-limit and no-limit poker, not least the context in which they are usually played. No-limit hold’em, variously referred to as ‘the Cadillac of poker’ and ‘the crack cocaine of poker’, owes its popularity almost solely to tournaments, the oldest and most prestigious of which is the $10,000 World Series Of Poker main event.

When hold’em was first played in the United States, no-limit cash games were common, but they dried up too quickly, as the top players soon took all the money. Basically, the pot-limit format was introduced to slow things down! Today, no-limit cash games are making a comeback on the internet, although pot limit remains popular both in tournaments and cash games, and is often preferred by more experienced players.

If you’re playing either pot limit or no limit in a cash game or at the start of a tournament, there is no reason for hasty action, as the blinds are low in relation to the total number of chips in play. You need to be playing mainly either hands that are very strong – like A-A, K-K, A-K and Q-Q – or hands that can catch out less well-advised players, like small pairs that draw to three of a kind, and suited connectors (7♣-8♣ for instance) that draw to straights and flushes.

Just how big the big hands need to be depends on the level of game you play in. In a small game, other players may not even understand the importance of kickers, giving you a big advantage. In contrast, in the first few hours of the WSOP $10,000 main event, the blinds start so small and the skill level is so high that many players would only risk all their chips pre-flop with pocket Aces.

If you’ve got a strong hand, use it!

The classic beginner’s mistake in bigbet games is to play strong hands too weakly before the flop, then put all the money in on the next (more expensive) rounds after someone else has made a better hand. Aces is the prime example here, as K-K and Q-Q can look weak when an overcard such as an Ace flops. Some players seem to think A-A is invincible, whereas it’s often a oneway ticket to a disappointingly small win or a murderously big loss.

Pairs generally play strongly providing no overcards or obvious draws come on the flop (eg if you have Q-Q on a broken flop of 2♣, 5, 10), but you will need to bear in mind that anyone with a smaller pair has a 15/2 chance of hitting three of a kind, and since poker is based on such odds, you need to try and ensure you are not giving others an incentive to draw out on you. The way to do this is to raise by a sizeable amount in the first place.

In no limit, you can bet what you want, so the standard raise of three times the big blind or the pot could be a disaster if the blinds are still small and you run into the above situation against 2-2, 5-5 or 10-10. To avoid this, you might bet 10-15% of your chips, or more. Maximise the action and minimise the risk.

Pot limit, by contrast, is still in many ways a drawing game where raises are restricted. So if the blinds are small, you might not be able to raise enough to protect A-A or K-K. In this instance, good players sometimes go for a check-raise in order to get more chips in, and play big hands slowly if they can’t get a lot of money in pre-flop.

The other strong hands in big-bet hold’em are of the A-K and A-Q variety. In tough games, A-Q has been called a trouble hand as strong, tight players only play or represent the very big pairs and A-K if they are not drawing, but if playing in loose, low-stakes, highblind or late-position situations, it is playable, as are A-J, A-10, K-Q and K-J.

As with big pairs, you should raise enough in no limit to shut out draws if you feel your hand is initially the best.

In pot limit, you must bear in mind the ratio of a pot-sized raise to your stack size, so you don’t lose a lot of money to a draw. A-K needs to connect with an A or K on the flop to be bet strongly, but you can still bluff if you think the other players are weak, tight or respect you for strong hands.

As the blinds go up in tournaments, the value of the weaker Aces and face cards rise and the value of drawing hands fall, so with few bets left, A-Q and A-J are certainly hands you can raise or move all-in with, as are big and medium pairs. The key here is that with weaker hands you want to be the one raising to steal the blinds and make others fold, and you want to do this before anyone else has made a bet. When raising in the late stages of a pot-limit tournament with a medium hand, you also need to be aware of how much of your stack you can get in the middle in one go.

Show me the money

In pot-limit and no-limit cash games, since the blinds stay the same, money is only usually going to change hands when players make mistakes. Cash games can be played pot limit (favoured in casinos) or no limit (favoured online) and can be played with a lot of money on the table (casinos) in relation to the size of the blinds or relatively little (online). You need to adapt to the style of game you are playing in.

Deep-stack, pot-limit games naturally tend to attract skilful players eager to exploit the innocents who raise the pot to $7 from their $200 stack with Aces before the flop and proceed to put in the other $193 on the next rounds when they have fallen behind to a pair that made trips, or are in considerable danger from a number of draws.

No-limit games tend to be wilder and more volatile, with people raising and moving in frequently, which gives more opportunities to make quick money from bad players, but also removes the constraints that usually allow you to draw hands in.

The standard of the game also has a massive bearing on the quality of hands you need to win big pots. For example, in a fast, loose, no-limit game you might tempt a short-stacked, inexperienced player to move all-in with a weak Ace against your A-K before the flop, whereas in a skilful, deep-stacked game it is common to only see money changing hands because of a powerful bluff and/or excellent call, or a clash of massive hands such as two players both making a full house.

The key to both pot-limit and nolimit hold’em is rooted in understanding the other players, the odds and how the amounts on the table relate to what you can bet at any given stage.

The principal difference you should remember is the restriction on betting in the early rounds in pot limit, making it a more draw-based game, whereas in no limit you are usually in a position to bet a draw out of existence.

To be a successful player, you should really try both formats. By playing pot limit you will learn the importance of drawing hands, which can, in turn, help you learn how to protect a big hand in no limit. Both games require a lot of skill and self control because any decision can be extremely costly. If you can become a strong, disciplined player there are limitless amounts of money out there to be won.

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