[This is the first of a three-part series aimed at novice players interested in trying low-stakes no-limit hold’em after having initially gotten their feet wet by playing low-stakes fixed-limit hold’em.]
At first glance, the average poker room lined with Texas hold’em tables appears to be filled with people all playing the same game: two cards are dealt, betting occurs, and a series of board cards and bets decides the winner. If not for the different coloured chips used at tables on either side of the room, the uninformed observer would never suspect that two entirely different games were being contested.
In reality, a significant gulf exists between the fixed-limit and no-limit versions of hold’em, with the great leap in betting ability afforded to each player changing literally every aspect of the game.
Beginning players often end up testing the waters in the lowest-stakes limit game — the $2/$4 or $3/$6 blue chip games which are a staple of brick-and-mortar poker rooms everywhere — before attempting to take a shot at a NLHE table. Indeed, playing LHE isn’t such a bad way to get introduced to live poker.
Considering that some of these newer players will likely want to make a transition from fixed-limit to no-limit hold’em at some point in their poker progression, this three-part series is intended to bridge the gap by highlighting some of the more important considerations LHE players need to make before moving across the room to take a seat in an NLHE game. Today we’ll start by establishing some of the characteristics of most low-stakes LHE games to set up the stark contrast the NLHE games provide to be explored in Parts 2 and 3.
Slow and Steady Wins the Race
If no-limit hold’em is “the Cadillac of poker” — as Doyle Brunson once famously declared — then limit hold’em is undoubtedly the Volkswagen. The game plods along at a predictable pace with the betting capped at predetermined amounts throughout the hand, and like those old VWs it has managed to endure a long time.
For the sake of this discussion, we will examine a typical $3/$6 fixed-limit game found in many poker rooms. Know, however, that limit games can often be found with lower stakes (e.g., $2/$4) and that they are also frequently spread in escalating amounts from $4/$8 to $5/$10 and so on.
When you sit to play a $3/$6 game, the ammunition on hand will be mostly $1 chips (often blue), with the standard starting stack being a $100 rack. You may have a few $5 chips (often red) involved in the game as well.
While choosing the amount of chips you sit with in NLHE is of paramount importance (something we will discuss more specifically later on), in the lowest level LHE games it is doesn’t matter too greatly how much you start with as long as you have enough chips to comfortably play through to the end of a few hands. It is standard at a $3/$6 to begin with a single rack ($100), although you can start with more or less and you can always buy more chips after a hand has concluded.
Since the betting is fixed players are restricted to betting or raising in increments of $3 before the flop and on the flop, then $6 on the turn and river. There are no “all-in” bets or raises (unless a player is running out of chips and has to go all in to make the required bet), nor can “big stacks” pressure “short stacks” with large raises as can happen in NLHE. Nor does the capped betting of LHE does allow for a lot of bluffing or floating which makes having a deep stack advantageous in NLHE.
Call, Call, Call (Like Clockwork)
Once the dealer pitches each player a hand and the small blind ($1) and big blind ($3) both pony up, LHE action often is a matter of clockwork. Rather than there being lengthy pauses to make decisions as will happen in NLHE games, players tend to act quickly, often telegraphing their plays by having either calling chips or folding cards in hand and at the ready.
Knowing that the flop will cost only $3 if people limp in, or just $6 if somebody raises, LHE preflop plays are therefore often almost perfunctory in nature. With a decent holding (two face cards, suited connectors, or just your favourite hand), you will likely be entering the pot, and it isn’t unusual in low-stakes LHE games to see 5-7 players taking the flop.
Another phenomenon in low-stakes LHE games is something I like to call the “lemming effect,” as players will usually follow the lead of those who have acted before them. If the first player in the pot limps for $3, you can expect the blue chips to be tossed around like confetti, but when an opening raise forces the first fold, players left to act usually follow suit.
The Sky’s the Limit
Those who have grasped the sometimes stilted structure of LHE play often begin to anticipate how certain hands will play out — foresight that can be used to gain an edge over opponents who are playing on autopilot. A prime example of this idea occurs when you flop a drawing hand, as knowing how to manipulate your opponent’s tendencies can provide an opportunity to see both the turn and the river for the cheapest possible price.
Consider the following example: You are holding on the button and head to the flop four-handed. The dealer spreads across the felt, and you improve to the nut flush draw. After an opponent bets the customary $3, and the others come along (which again, will be standard for most LHE pots), you can now exploit the game’s predictable structure to your advantage. By raising to $6 on a semi-bluff, you can take control of the hand with a single bet. Your opponents are most likely either to call or fold in this scenario, bringing us to the turn.
A drawing hand like your nut-flush possibility is obviously strongest when you can take two cards rather than one. By raising to $6 on the flop, despite not having a hand, you have effectively tied your opponent’s hands, as they will rightfully hesitate in making another continuation bet out of fear that you will raise again. The sizable jump in betting (doubling from $3 to $6 increments) makes many low-stakes LHE players clam up on the turn and river, so your raise to $6 on the flop gives opponents something to think about.
So if the turn does not complete your flush and your opponents check to you on the button, you are free to check behind and get a free card on the river. You’ve gotten to see two community cards more cheaply than if you had called the flop and then called another bet on the turn, giving you a chance to score a significant return on your investment if your draw comes through.
The Only Limits are the Ones You Set Yourself
While the higher stakes LHE games can involve a level of skill and strategy on par with NLHE play, the fact remains that $3/$6 tables are often basic in terms of the manoeuvres you can make as well as those you’ll often encounter being made by others. Nonetheless, there are avenues available for creative plays, as illustrated by the example above, and LHE can provide a solid foundation in terms of poker experience.
However, if you are planning to make the jump from LHE to NLHE, it is essential that you avoid the autopilot mentality that can easily creep in during a long session of fixed-limit hold’em. Learning lessons one bet at a time may seem like slow going, but by staying alert and on the lookout for spots to employ strategy, you can set yourself up for a successful transition to the land of no limits.
Next time we'll discuss some nuances of LHE vs. NLHE play and some of the significant differences those making the transition should anticipate.
Photo: Robert Woolley.