2020 WSOP Main Event

Transitioning from Limit to No-Limit Hold’em, Pt. 2: Making the Move

Transitioning from Limit to No-Limit Hold’em

[This is the second 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.]

In Part 1 of this series, we examined the game of fixed-limit hold’em from an introductory standpoint. Here in Part 2 let’s start to bridge the gap between LHE and its more volatile cousin, no-limit hold’em.

After a few sessions playing low-stakes fixed-limit hold’em at your local casino, you will come to realize a few immutable truths about the game:

1. Bad beats are the rule, not the exception. The inability to raise more than a few dollars at a time often makes the standard LHE game a proverbial crapshoot. There aren’t many worse feelings in poker than finally peeking down at pocket aces in a $3/$6 LHE game, raising the action to $6, then watching the entire table come along for the ride. And even with just the river card to come, it’s pretty difficult to move an opponent off a flush or straight draw with just a single $6 bet or raise, especially when the pot already contains enough bets for them to justify a call. Having a made hand hold up through all five board cards in LHE is exceedingly difficult in comparison to NLHE play.

2. Without a heater, you’re often headed home even at best. The structured betting of LHE dictates that you will rarely win a truly massive pot. You aren’t going to be doubling a $100 starting stack in one hand, for example. Thus to book a winning session at LHE you need to sandwich a bunch of small wins around the few big wins that will come your way. Unfortunately, the first truth described above necessitates that bad beats will follow you in relation to the amount of pots you contest. So unless you happen to enjoy a rare spell of run good, hitting every draw and fading your opponent’s outs, hours of play will likely result in meager wins and losses.

3. The party’s over there. After a few sessions of LHE, you are sure to hear occasional outbursts of excitement emanating from the NLHE side of the poker room. While the game is the same, LHE and NLHE provide vastly divergent in-game experiences, with the former typified by the expression “grinding,” and the latter known best for that signature “go big or go home” all-in moment. No matter how proficient a LHE player you may be, there is no substitute for the adrenaline rush which accompanies an all-in move, and the thrill of doubling your stack with the arrival of a single card is unrivalled in all of poker.

It may take a few sessions of low-stakes LHE to realize these truths about how that game typically plays. Some players dabble in LHE for only a session or two before moving on, while others patiently try to master the fundamentals first. In any case, you’ll know on an instinctive level when it’s time to take your shot. And when you do sit for your first taste of no-limit action, it is important to differentiate between certain aspects of LHE and NLHE.

Size Does Matter

As previously discussed in Part 1, the standard starting stack for a LHE game with stakes of $3/$6 is $100, and this amount of ammunition is enough to make the requisite plays. When it comes to NLHE, however, determining the size of your starting stack is a fundamental choice which affects every aspect of the session to come.

Often experienced NLHE players recommend buying in for the maximum allowed, although not everyone goes that route. Robert Woolley’s article “The 3 Factors That Should Determine Your Cash Game Buy-In” does a good job breaking down what matters when it comes to deciding how much to start with when sitting down for a session of NLHE.

Whatever you buy in for, the thing to remember is that a player’s stack size before a hand begins in NLHE will dictate much of the subsequent action. Short-stacked players are easier to chase off before the flop, but are also more likely to shove all in if they connect with the board, while big stacks are free to play a loose-aggressive style if they choose, or to raise often with substandard holdings.

Knowing how to recognize and exploit the dynamics of stack sizes is something we will save for Part 3, but as you make the transition from LHE to NLHE, pay close attention to where you stand chip-wise in relation to your opponents, and observe how this interplay impacts each and every hand.

Bring Your Poker Face

Another key element of NLHE to consider is the role that reading and bluffing play in determining success. While you may have grown accustomed to players telegraphing their plays in LHE games — e.g., smiling when you make a bet or even talking about the cards they need when drawing — you’ll soon discover NLHE players to be far less revealing.

This is because exhibiting physical tells at a LHE table doesn’t often give opponents that great advantage. Even when you know an opponent is drawing based on his facial expression or body language, you can only raise a single fixed-limit bet after gaining that edge, often an insufficient amount if you hope to force a fold.

In NLHE, however, the slightest clue as to your opponent’s holding can be especially advantageous — and potentially profitable — as you can size your bets accordingly to achieve the desired result. Conversely, your opponent’s will be scanning your side of the table for tells, hoping that certain tendencies from the limit tables have left you vulnerable. These include picking up a stack of calling or betting chips before it is your turn to act, or uncapping your cards in preparation of folding. Both of these actions are common in LHE games, but less so in NLHE where players are generally less generous when it comes to giving away information.

Be Selective, for Starters

Finally, as you begin to transition away from LHE and into the world of NLHE, you must focus on refining your starting hand selection. A loose LHE game often rewards drawing hands (even undesirable draws like gutshots to a straight and overcards-to-the-board possibilities), because you are more than likely to encounter preferable pot odds when faced with a single bet. Hands like {a-}{q-}, {j-}{10-}, and {5-}{4-}-suited are often more playable in LHE than they are in NLHE, because at any point in a no-limit hand your opponent can size a bet to price your draw out of the pot.

The nuances of hand selection in NLHE will be saved for Part 3, but for now, all you need to know is “less is more.” By removing questionable holdings from your preflop arsenal, you can lessen the risk to your stack posed by opponents who know the ins and outs of NLHE betting. Until your game develops, concentrate on treading lightly with (or avoiding) hands that, while playable in an average LHE game, are likely to be outkicked at the conclusion of an NLHE pot — hands like {a-}{q-}, {a-}{j-}, {a-}{10-}, {k-}{q-}, {k-}{j-}, {q-}{j-}, and {q-}{10-}. By narrowing your range of hands during your NLHE development, you can spend more time observing game play at your table, while also setting yourself up for success when you do enter the pot.

Coming up in Part 3 of this series, we will discuss the complexities of NLHE in comparison to LHE while moving on to more advanced strategies which are applicable only in the land of no limits.

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