Out of the Kitchen and Into the Spotlight: Limit & Pot-limit Hold'em

This is the final article in a series dedicated to games of the inaugural Dealer’s Choice event at the 2014 World Series of Poker (WSOP).

Whew! We made it!

Roughly three months ago, I introduced the series “Out of the Kitchen and Into the Spotlight” after the WSOP announced it would be hosting its first ever Dealer’s Choice official bracelet event as part of the 2014 schedule. In it, players would be required to choose games from a predetermined list, including no less than 16 poker variants, with all but a handful featuring in at least one other WSOP bracelet event. The structure sheet for Event #41 identifies all the games available for selection.

Over the last 10 weeks, we explored some of the lesser-known games of this unique event. While most players are more likely familiar with No-limit Hold’em and Pot-limit Omaha, many of the other games in the Dealer’s Choice are not as well known or widely played. I began the series with an introduction to draw games, likely the least familiar though particularly important for aspiring mixed-game players to study; it is no surprise they make up almost half the games among the Dealer’s Choice mix which includes the following pool of games (with links to past articles provided):

Draw Games
2-7 Triple Draw
A-5 Triple Draw
No-limit 2-7 Single Draw
Five-Card Draw High

Stud Games
Seven-Card Stud
Stud Hi/Lo

Flop Games
Pot-limit Omaha Hi/Lo
Limit Omaha Hi/Lo
• Limit Hold’em
• Pot-limit Hold’em
• No-limit Hold’em
• Pot-limit Omaha

I hope this series has motivated some of you to try these variants in your home game or at least encouraged you to learn more about mixed games. I firmly believe learning new games to be beneficial because it serves to expand one’s poker repertoire, making for a more well-rounded player.

And what a great time it is to begin learning mixed games! As you can see from this year’s schedule, the WSOP has introduced a brand-new two-tiered track for a wide variety of mixed games: ten different non-NLHE poker variants are being offered at both low ($1,500) and high ($10,000) buy-ins. Alongside the offering of the first-ever Dealer’s Choice bracelet event, this may mark the beginning of an exciting trend for mixed-game enthusiasts.

Similarly, outside the WSOP, Neil Johnson of PokerStars Live Events has also confirmed in the upcoming 2014-15 season of the European Poker Tour (EPT11) a coordinated championship series featuring non-NLHE games will be offered at buy-ins accessible to the amateur player. For example, EPT Barcelona will play host to three different Omaha Hi/Lo variants; EPT London will offer three multi-variant mixes (e.g. HORSE, 8-game); and EPT Prague will hold championships for three different Omaha High variants. Two other stops on the tournament circuit are to be announced shortly with three Stud and three Draw variants to be run as championship events at those stops, respectively.

Even the October WSOP Asia-Pacific event, to be held in Melbourne, Australia, will be hosting an 8-game Dealer’s Choice event this year, in addition to its 8-game mixed bracelet event! Admittedly, being able to choose from only eight games would appear significantly less interesting compared to the set of 18 games for Event #41.

All of these initiatives suggest to me that poker is about to experience its second wind through mixed games. Daniel Negreanu said it best recently:

Now you certainly don’t have to play the stakes Daniel does to have fun with mixed games. Low buy-in tournaments and other opportunities are becoming more accessible to the amateur player, both live and online, and it’s a great time to get in at the ground level!

In my view, it is regrettable there has not (yet) been an easy way to learn many of these games beyond trial and error. In particular, few books cover most of the contemporary variants being played, and the most popular that do cover multiple games are now over five or ten years old. I am confident that is about to change. Mixed games – they won’t be just for pros anymore!

I hope you enjoyed this series, and best of luck at the tables!

Limit and Pot-limit Hold’em

This series concludes with a brief discussion on the other two Hold’em variations found in the Dealer’s Choice mix.

Limit Hold’em is played in the same manner as No-limit Hold’em with one key difference: the betting is fixed-limit, so for any given wager, the amount you can bet or raise is restricted. The concept of fixed-limit betting has been thoroughly discussed in previous articles (as many games in modern mixes are played with a fixed-limit betting structure).

In Pot-limit Hold’em, the amounts of bets or raises are not fixed. However, unlike No-limit Hold’em, the maximum amount a player can wager at any point in the hand is dynamic, and depends on the size of the pot when the wager is made. This tends to prevent the pot from growing too quickly preflop; however, it can certainly grow at an exponential rate whenever betting becomes heavy, particularly on later betting rounds. For an explanation of pot-limit betting, refer to the previous article on Pot-limit Five-Card Draw.

Given these two variants are similar to No-limit Hold’em in many other aspects aside from the betting structure (e.g. number of hole cards dealt, hand rankings, etc.), they may not seem as interesting compared to a completely new variant, such as a Draw or Stud game. It is, therefore, unsurprising these two variants are generally quite unpopular among many mixed-game enthusiasts. Nonetheless, Limit Hold’em remains a key component of most major multi-variant mixes (e.g. H.O.R.S.E, 8-game, 10-game, etc.).

Further, with so much about Limit Hold’em written and widely available in books and online (before No-limit Hold’em became popular, Limit Hold’em was the game of choice in many poker rooms), I won’t go into considerable detail here. However, there are several key points I think warrant special consideration.

  1. Speculative hands decrease in playability, especially in Limit Hold’em.

    Most of the premium hands in Limit Hold’em include big pairs and hands with high cards. Suited high cards are especially valuable given their flexibility and ability to flop both strong flushes and straights.

    These hands are generally excellent starting hands in No-limit Hold’em as well; however, the weaker, more speculative hands that are still considered decently playable in No-limit Hold’em (primarily with the prospect of making a very strong, well-disguised hand that could potentially stack an opponent) will often be less playable in Limit Hold’em.

    For example, mid-ranked offsuit connectors lose a lot of value in these games; very rarely will they connect strongly with the flop. Even when they do, it is difficult to profit from them given the betting restrictions on each round. This also assumes when they do flop a made hand, that hand will still be best by showdown. Unfortunately, marginal made hands on the flop (e.g. mid-ranked straights) are very vulnerable and often overtaken, particularly since it is difficult to force opponents who are still drawing (e.g. to a higher straight, flush, or full house) out of the pot with a large bet.

    Suited hands, including both mid-ranked suited connectors and big flush-oriented hands such as {a-Hearts}{x-Hearts} or {k-Spades}{x-Spades} also tend to lose some degree of playability, especially in Limit Hold’em. It is extremely rare to flop a flush, so the best flop you can typically hope for is one offering a flush draw (possibly along with a straight draw or a pair if you’re lucky). However, this will quite rarely occur. Even if you do flop a flush draw and subsequently make your flush, your reward will be limited, given the restrictions on bet sizes in Limit Hold’em and because even the most aggressive of opponents are likely to slow down considerably when the obvious flush possibility appears on the board. Drawing to flushes can be particularly problematic when you are not drawing to the nut flush; it can be very disheartening to chase down a flush, only to make it and lose to a stronger one.

    Furthermore, although the potential reward is greater if you are drawing to and subsequently make your flush in Pot-limit Hold’em, chasing the flush becomes more dangerous as you could end up putting a lot of chips into the pot only to miss your draw. Vulnerable made hands are often protected by pot-sized bets on the flop in Pot-limit Hold’em; unless there are numerous callers, you will not usually have the odds to correctly make the call if you are purely on a flush draw that must make to win.

    Similar issues arise with small pairs. Unless faced with a field of numerous limpers or callers, or defending against what is likely to be a steal while in the big blind position, small pairs do not win often enough to justify playing them preflop in Limit Hold’em. They are particularly unprofitable to call with them when facing a raise and a reraise, primarily with the hope of flopping a set. This fact is very difficult for many No-limit Hold’em players to accept, since “set mining” is such a common and lucrative practice in that game. Unfortunately, in Limit Hold’em, even when you do hit a set, it will be difficult to substantially profit from them since the sizes of the bets are fixed.

    These small pairs, however, do play much better as speculative hands in Pot-limit Hold’em. You would be more likely to win an opponent’s entire stack if they are unaware you’ve made a set. There is also a difference between the playability of a small pair and suited connectors in Pot-limit Hold’em, despite both being drawing hands: while they can both be played relatively cheaply preflop and potentially evolve into very strong, well-disguised hands, with small pairs you can quickly tell whether the board is likely to be favourable or not. You will be able to determine whether you’ve flopped a set immediately without needing to invest more chips to see the turn. In contrast, with suited connectors, even if you are drawing to a hand as strong as a nut flush on an unpaired board, there is still a good chance you may miss your draw completely, and chasing that draw to the river in order to find that out may well cost you your entire stack.

  2. It will usually be correct to defend from the big blind position against a probable steal more often in Limit Hold’em.

    While position is generally important for all poker forms, the fact that betting limits are fixed in Limit Hold’em negates holding a positional advantage somewhat; since players cannot make big bets to muscle their opponents out of pots, potentially with the weaker holding, more frequent showdowns are to expected, putting a greater emphasis on simply making the best hand. Starting-hand selection is particularly important, and you want to play the cards that can make strong hands with a high likelihood of winning a showdown.

    Conversely, in No-limit Hold’em, having the positional advantage and ability to make big bets can often make up for deficiencies in the quality of a starting hand.

    Also, because a player in position can make big bets and raises and put their opponents into difficult spots in No-limit Hold’em, it will usually be defensible to fold somewhat marginal or speculative hands from the blinds to this player’s raise, even if the player might be stealing with a marginal or poor hand. Opponents who call from the blinds will be forced to play out of position for the rest of the hand; thus, cautious play will be warranted especially if the opponent is tough and aggressive.

    In Limit Hold’em, nevertheless, a raise from a player in late position can, at most, be to twice the big blind (i.e. a “min-raise”); if you are in the big blind position, you would have excellent odds to defend with a relatively wider variety of hands. If you play too tight from the big blind position in Limit Hold’em, experienced opponents will take advantage of this tendency by attempting to steal frequently from late position, knowing a steal does not have to succeed often to be profitable. On the flipside, if you are playing against blinds who appear to be playing very tight, you should attempt a steal more often, with a wider variety of hands, until they adjust.

    Also note that in blind defense situations, which are usually heads-up contests, it will be difficult for either player to flop strong hands. Often, even a hand as weak as flopped bottom pair may be in the lead after the flop, unless the player “stealing” is showing aggression and is known to play tight. Therefore, it can also be a mistake to play too cautiously postflop against aggressive opponents; it will often be correct for them to try to take the pot down with a continuation bet if there is even a small chance you may fold. You may need to be prepared to call down these types of opponents, at least occasionally, with weak made hands to avoid being exploited. While it would be quite dangerous – and usually costly – to do this in No-limit Hold’em, being just as cautious when playing Limit Hold’em against stronger opponents can often be a mistake.

  3. If you do happen to flop a decent draw, it will usually be correct to call at least one bet to see the turn.

    You will likely face many situations where it will only cost one low-limit bet to call in order to pursue some type of draw. This means a wide variety of draws can be profitably pursued to at least the turn in Limit Hold’em (although you should be less inclined to continue if your draw is so weak that it might complete and still lose at showdown).

    In fact, the strongest of draws (e.g. open-ended straight draws, top pair with a flush draw, etc.) can usually be played aggressively on the flop despite not yet having a made hand.

    With weaker draws, even if you hold only two overcards on an unpaired flop or an overcard and a gutshot straight draw, you may have the odds to call one bet at the small bet, and try to beat a hand that is most likely to have flopped only a pair at best. While calling with these types of draws when out of position and facing an aggressive opponent would normally be frowned upon in No-limit Hold’em, the fixed-limit structure of Limit Hold’em can make it more correct to “chase” these types of draws.

    On the flipside, this also means if you have flopped a hand that you expect to be best and wish to protect (e.g. top pair or better), you should play aggressively by raising and reraising on the flop if it might force players out of the pot after being faced with a double bet - particularly if these players would otherwise be tempted to call and try to potentially outdraw you with their more marginal holdings.

Ken Lo is the author of A Poker Player’s Guide to Mixed Games: Core Strategies for HORSE, Eight-Game, Ten-Game, and Twelve-Game Mixes, which is scheduled for public release in late Spring 2014. He currently resides in Toronto, Canada.

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