Learning to Win at Low Stakes Fixed-Limit Hold'em

Learning to Win at Low Stakes Fixed-Limit Hold'em

Since stumbling towards retirement nine years ago, Andrei Joseph has played low limit hold'em in more than 100 poker rooms across 20 states. He would be $37,000 ahead — if there were no rake! Here's the second of two articles from Joseph in which he continues to explore some of the attractions and challenges of what for many poker players is a favorite variant.

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Here are some painful lessons from the bottom end of the poker food chain: low stakes, fixed-limit hold'em.

Last time I discussed some of the reasons I enjoy low limit hold'em (i.e, $4/$8 and below). This time, let's talk a little strategy. If you follow the basic advice outlined below, you will distinguish yourself from the majority of your opponents and dramatically increase your chances of success.

First, and most importantly, listen to Archie Bell & the Drells: "Do the tighten up, come on and tighten up, you can do it now."

Throw away {a-Spades}{7-Hearts}, throw away {k-Clubs}{9-Hearts}, throw away {4-Spades}{3-Spades}. If you are dealt pocket jacks and there are two raises in front of you, fold. If you hit the low end of the flop and there is action, get out.

This advice is tough to follow. You want to play. I want to play. I want the action. You may have driven hours to get to the darn casino. Play! Play! The bozo across the table just won playing {q-Clubs}{7-Diamonds}. It is my turn for a big blind special.

No! It is your turn to fold and be patient.

Learn to distinguish between bad play and bad luck. This requires both some knowledge of poker and sober self-assessment. Learn some odds — it will contribute to a positive outcome.

I have played enough poker to have been dealt pocket aces many times (220-to-1). Only once have I been dealt pocket aces at the same time as someone else.

Many low limit players will automatically call preflop with any two suited cards. What are your odds of making a flush by the river with that starting hand? The answer is around once every 15 hands. Compare those odds to your preflop call with {k-Hearts}{q-Hearts} and a flop containing two more hearts. Now what are your odds to make a flush on the turn or river? The answer is a little more than once every three times.

How much are you required to bet? How much will you win? Do you see why it is called "competitive algebra"?

Learning to play LHE well also sometimes appears to contain elements of psychotherapy. Look at your behavior, assess it accurately, and change the parts that are hurting you.

The default mechanism that is prevalent among many losing players includes a tendency towards superstition ("oh, seat 8 is hot"), blindness ("he hit runner-runner again" while not recognizing the times that happened in your own favor), and nonsense ("if you hadn't gotten up to go to the bathroom, those would have been my cards") — not science, statistics or rationality.

But you will spurn fake news and instead embrace rationality, empiricism, and a brutally honest assessment of the factors impacting your results.

Learn what the rake is and understand its importance. Few players actually calculate this. Some don't even notice the money going down the rabbit hole. A typical low limit game will deal around 35 hands per hour. If you don't believe this ask the dealers how many hands they get out in a 30-minute shift. Particularly if they keep their own tokes, they are trying to move the game along.

For simplicity's sake, let's assume a rake of up to $5 (and perhaps a dollar more for jackpots and/or promotions). Not every pot is raked to the maximum, but even if the average is a total of $4 per hand (for example), that means that $140 is coming off the table every hour. If the table is full with 10 players, then it is costing you at least $14/hour to play.

Add tokes when you win a pot, and you need to win at least $17/hour to break even. Difficult yes, but possible. Especially in Las Vegas late at night with less than sober tourists.

Which brings us to table selection. Some broad generalizations include that tight retirees dominate daytime versions of low limit. As evening approaches more liquor and younger players appear. If you are playing at a vacation destination, the play will be looser. Your opponents will include those who have already decided to lose hundreds of dollars as "the price of entertainment." Fine by me!

That's when you will see and hear the most amazing stuff at the table. Someone calling your preflop raise with {9-Clubs}{4-Hearts} will crack your pocket aces. Resist the impulse to berate your opponent. Quietly tell yourself that you want players like this at the table. That money is coming back. You just hope it comes back to you!

If you are running bad, don't imitate your opponents' poor play. Patience. More patience. If you are playing blackjack, you must play the cards you are dealt. Here, unless you are in a blind, you can toss away poor cards — and at no cost. Take advantage of this. Patience.

Read a book. Almost no one else has. I recommend Winning Low Limit Hold'em by Lee Jones or Small Stakes Hold'em by Ed Miller, David Sklansky, and Mason Malmuth.

Read these and you will gain insight into the value of position and timely aggression. You will learn when to play big pairs and when to play suited connectors. You will learn when to let go of your hand, how to deal with maniacs, and why your opponents really will hit their lucky card on the river more than you will (because by only playing premium hands, you will win more often without having to hit that two-outer). The money invested on these books will be recovered in your next session.

Finally, keep an accurate tally of what has happened. Saying to your pals, "I win sometimes, I lose sometimes" or "I had a good session" or "wow, I really got beat last Friday" can be a thin attempt to delude yourself. Especially given the impact of variance, having accurate, sober statistics over a period of time is the true measure of whether you are making progress.

(Thanks to my pal Ashley for being my mentor and for driving.)

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