Despite its reputation as a simple game, pre-flop play in limit hold’em is a complex and subtle affair
While no-limit hold’em is the undisputed king of the playground, there’s still a lot of money to be made at the limit hold’em tables. I should know. I played limit hold’em 40 hours a week for four years, starting out as a prop at the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles. Being a prop means you’ve been hired by the casino to play poker and help fuel the action. You play with your own money, but they tell you which games they want you to play in and when. You often start games short-handed, keep games going, and generally get moved from table to table at the casino’s whim. I used to complain about this, but it helped me develop my game in ways that I never would have other wise. I’ve played in tight-weak games, short-handed crazy games and no fold’em games. Name the type of game and I’ve played in it.
SWINGS OF FORTUNE
Limit hold’em can be a volatile game. Depending on what kind of game you’re playing in, the swings can be wild. You don’t want one or two bad sessions to put you out of business. Make sure you’re playing in a game you can afford.
First off, you never want to play with scared money. If you’re scared of losing, that’s exactly what you’ll do. Most experts suggest that you have 300 times the big bet available. So, if you’re playing a $10/$20 game, you’ll need $6,000.
Secondly you need to focus on game selection. Good game selection is one of the most important and under-utilised tools a poker player has at his or her disposal. As a prop, I had this ability taken away from me, making me realise its value even more keenly.
I had a conversation with Barry Greenstein on this subject, and he told me that table selection isn’t a place to get your ego involved – it’s about winning money. If you’re playing with eight players who are better than you, you’ll probably lose – so why not look for a game you can beat?
Be honest with yourself – what kind of player are you? Do you want to be in a crazy game where you might only win one hand an hour, or do you prefer to play in a more stable game where the pots aren’t so big and the players are more predictable? Both games are very beatable, it’s just a matter of preference.
But make sure you know what style of game is more profitable for you. If you’re playing online, take the time to watch a few of the games. Find one that suits your style with a few weak players in it to boot.
Something else I learned from my years as a prop is this: you almost can’t play tight enough in limit hold’em. If you want to be a winning player, practise folding. Unlike no-limit hold’em, pre-flop decisions make up a big part of whether you’ll be a winner or not. Generally, your opponents will play so badly pre-flop that just by waiting patiently for a big hand you’ll be way ahead of the game. The following is a rough guide to what hands to play in a typical loose-aggressive limit game online.
EARLY POSITION RANGE
Avoid playing hands out of position. When you’re in early position, look for an excuse not to get involved. Not only is it harder to protect your hand and manipulate your opponents from early position, it’s also harder to extract full value when you hit.
Pocket pairs have great implied odds, but if you think everyone is going to call then don’t raise. Try to see the flop cheaply. If you hit your set, you can punish them later on.
As such, I’d only raise with Queens, Kings or Aces (although keep in mind one pair doesn’t always take the pot against multiple opponents), plus A-K, A-Q suited, A-J suited and K-Q suited.
Believe it or not, that’s pretty much all I am going to get involved with in early position and if the game is aggressive I might start folding a few of them as well.
MIDDLE POSITION RANGE
You can add a few more hands to your raising range in mid-position, namely A-Q offsuit, K-J suited, A-10 suited, Q-J suited, A-J offsuit and J-10 suited. If you’re the first to enter the pot, bring it in with a raise. Try to buy the button.
If someone else has already brought in with a raise, you can call with the suited hands, but I’d three-bet with A-J offsuit or fold. If you’ve got a pair and someone has raised before you, you might consider three-betting to isolate. If you don’t think that will work, you can call with small or medium pocket pairs for value.
Unfortunately as you can see there is no one-size-fits-all formula. No-limit pundits will claim that limit hold’em is a simple game – they are sorely mistaken.
LATE POSITION RANGE
In late position you can expand your range considerably. Your raising range can include any suited Ace, all suited connectors 4-5 and above, J-9 suited, K-10 suited, Q-10 suited, A-10 offsuit, K-J offsuit, Q-J offsuit and J-10 offsuit.
Notice how I don’t mention Ace-rag. I hate this hand. You’ll either win a small pot or lose a big one. It only has value in a tight game if you’re stealing the blinds, but in that case I’d rather steal with 7-6. If an Ace falls I can always represent it.
Of course, this is all dependent on the preceding action. Generally, if I’m opening a pot in late position, I’ll bring it in for a raise. I’ll call a raise with suited connectors and small and middle pocket pairs if there are at least three players already in the pot. I’m not calling raises with hands like K-J offsuit – in that spot I’ll either three-bet and use my position to try and win the pot or just fold.
You might be wondering what to do in the blinds – this can be one of the trickier parts of limit hold’em. First off, the blinds are negative EV (expected value) by their very nature. That is, overall you are expected to lose money in the blinds. Accept and expect it, but, having said that, there are a few ways to minimise the damage in the blinds.
Firstly, be careful about defending your blinds against one or two very good players. While you are inherently getting good odds on your money, you can easily be outplayed when out of position. Also don’t feel compelled to complete from the small blind unless the pot is multi- way. If your hand is not strong, just release it and pick a better spot.
Against one or two opponents, play aggressively or don’t play at all. If there are only one or two players in the pot and the raise comes from late position, don’t call from the small blind – raise or fold. If there has only been one raise and the pot is multi-way, feel free to call from the big blind with almost any hand that has some connectivity (everything from 7-5 and 5-3 to K-x suited).
At the end of the day, don’t just play a hand because the book says you should. Think about why you’re playing it. Don’t raise just because you think you should. What are you trying to accomplish with the raise? Are you building a pot, are you raising to eliminate the field or are you raising to isolate an opponent? No matter what the no-limit players will try and tell you, limit is not a simple game and you need to think carefully about every decision to be a winning player. Try to avoid the automatic raises and calls and you will be off to a good start.