Brunson: Obeying poker speed limits

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in the London Telegraph in 2005.

Doyle Brunson index.

Historical note: The following explanatory note didn’t appear in the series, but was sent with each column as submitted.

Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson stands unchallenged as the most celebrated poker player who ever lived. In 2005, at age 72, he won an unprecedented 10th championship gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. He is among the few living members of the Poker Hall of Fame, and his books  are the bibles for poker professionals.. Through and, Brunson has teamed with Mike Caro, today’s premiere poker educator, to offer a free learning experience to players worldwide. This column is founded on  those collaborative teachings.

Doyle Brunson

If you come to a curve in the road and a sign advises you to slow to 60, you need to consider doing so. If you’re driving along a residential area marked 40, you’d be well advised to obey that speed limit. If you fail to heed these signs, you might be putting yourself and others who depend on your judgment in jeopardy.

Poker’s the same. If  you fail to pay attention to the poker speed limits, you might be putting your bankroll and others who depend on it in jeopardy.

Speed limit signs

In limit poker games, those where the amount of each bet is specified by rules, you only need to look at the antes or blinds. Remember, antes are an amount that each player must put into the pot before looking at any cards. And blinds are used as an alternative or an addition to antes, wherein one or more early acting players must wager before looking at any cards. Either of these mechanisms – the antes or the blinds (or both if used together) – are at the soul of every poker war ever waged.

In no-limit poker games, bets should be in proportion to the size of the blinds. That’s how fast you should play. Smaller blinds mean a smaller game; bigger blinds mean a bigger game. It’s just that simple, but it doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes in games with small blinds, opponents bet way too much on average. They’re “speeding.” You can make money by simply obeying the speed limits that they’re ignoring.

Here’s how poker speed limits work. If nothing got put into the pot before the hand were dealt, there would be no reason to wager without a hand that was positively guaranteed to be the best at the moment. At least that’s what mathematicians tell me, and it makes sense logically. But you could probably play in a game with no antes and no blind bets and win by betting, raising, and calling without a perfect hand. I don’t mean to burst the mathematicians bubbles, but I’ve been around real, living, breathing poker players all my life and I swear, as certainly as a calf will be born tomorrow in Texas, most of them are going to gamble whether or not it makes sense.

Bad theory

The theory says that if you begin a hold ’em hand with a pair of kings, the second best possible starting hand, you can’t bet. That’s because if you did, your wise opponents would always fold unless they had a pair of aces. Every logical bet would come from a pair of aces, which could only be called or raised by another pair of aces. Nobody would ever start off by bluffing, because there would be nothing in the pot to win. Without something out there worth squabbling about before the cards are dealt, there’s no incentive to wager. It makes sense in a statistics laboratory, I guess.

But, I disagree with the recommended tactics, because players travel to a poker game with the intention of gambling and aren’t going to sit and wait for a perfect hand. I’m guessing that if there were no antes or blinds, players would see to it that there was action, anyway. They just couldn’t help themselves.

Still, in the real world of poker, there are antes and there are blind bets. And these two devices serve a common purpose. They are speed limit signs. They help determine how much to bet and how often to bet. They tell us, also, how many hands to play.

The smaller the sum of the antes or blinds in proportion to the pre-established size of opening bets, the fewer hands you should play. The question isn’t whether you should raise the blind in hold ’em with Ac 10d in an early position, it’s how much you stand to gain for your risk. The larger the pot, the more tempted I am to pursue it  — in limit games or no-limit games. If I’m playing in an eight-handed seven-card stud game where bets and raises are $2,000 and the antes are only $100 per player, I’m going to slow down. There’s only $800 out there. I’m only going to play premium hands. And I’m going to bluff less often, because the amount of money I’m chasing doesn’t justify many risks.

But if  eight stud players anted $500 each, then I’d look at that $4,000 target and it would be very appealing. I’d speed up my play. Doesn’t everyone do that?

Actually, no. In over half a century of playing poker, I’ve found that average opponents pay little attention to the speed limit signs. They often play almost the same hands no matter what. That’s why it’s often a good idea to play in a game that doesn’t require big antes, as long as opponents don’t slow down enough. Or you can profit from a game where players are betting too littlie or too seldom. They’re driving too slow for the speed limits. A great deal of your profit in poker comes from opponents who fail to honor those signs.

When you consider the speed limits and drive appropriately at the poker table, you’re eventually going to win against opponents who don’t. — DB

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  1. OK. So if the game is NL Hold ’em, 9 seated (as I’m used to), antes are $1M, and blinds are 1/2, the speed limit is 7-2 off under the gun. Pokerstove was interesting here:
    a: 7-2o = about 4% all-in equity
    b: AA < 25%
    c: KK
    d: QQ
    e: ATC
    f: TT
    g: AKs
    h: 22
    j: 54s

    So in this (already silly) scenario, despite your Ungarian read, you're mathematically correct to call b's Aces when his 360,000 shove comes back to you uncalled. If b raises, and the bet gets called around to you and your 4.75M stack you're correct to get all-in regardless. There's probably a chart in a notebook belonging to Andy Bloch or Ferguson with those speed limits mapped out already, but it sounds like an amusing exercise. Granted, I am a nerd. Fortunately for my opponents, I'm also lazy.

    You're making my head swim, Doyle. Not for the first time, I suppose. Thanks for the brain candy.

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