Brunson: Switching between limit and no-limit poker

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

Sometimes I just smile and shake my head. I figure a man either can choose to do that way or become exasperated when confronted with some of bad logic.

One of the things that has made me smile is the pronouncement by some that limit poker is actually a more skillful game than no-limit. Not being a man to use illegal drugs, I’d just as soon stay clear of what they’re smoking. I think with claims like that, even the secondhand smoke could make you crazy as a loon run over by a beached rowboat.

Let me set the record straight. No-limit poker requires a lot more skill. In limit games, you can afford to be right most of the time, make a few terrible errors along the way, and still come out on top. The penalty for a bad call is just the cost of a fixed-limit bet.

In no-limit, bad judgment gets you roasted like a pig on a spit at a down-South barbeque. I can’t count the number of men I’ve seen stride proudly up to a no-limit poker table, big as life, looking mean, and soon wilt away, whimpering and whining, because a single bad decision trashed their whole bankroll. They’ve tasted the truth. No-limit takes skill beyond what some people come prepared to provide. It’s a skill beyond just the routine guesswork of call or don’t call, fold or play, raise or just call. No-limit poker is a game that terrifies you if you’re not prepared, twists you beyond your ability to recognize yourself, and kicks you goodbye in the butt as you hasten from the card floor.

Inner instincts

No-limit will test your inner instincts. As I’ve stressed in my book Super/System II – A Course in Power Poker, no-limit players who lack this conviction to stick with their instincts or whose instincts are faulty are going to have a rough time playing no-limit. In limit poker, a bad decision is just a bad decision – a small bet or two among hundreds that you will win or lose in a few hours. But, in no-limit, get it wrong and there goes your whole stack. So, like I said, when some would-be experts claim that limit is more complex than no-limit, I just shake my head and smile politely.

Many players specialize in either limit or no-limit. But I think you need to be able to handle both. You’ll switch back and forth, depending on where the best profit is on a given night. If you restrict yourself to just one of those forms of poker, you’re apt to miss out on some big money when the action is taking place in a game you’re not equipped to play. If you’re just not able to master no-limit or limit, then I guess you’ll just have to do your best in the other. But that’s sad.

So, I’m telling you not to force yourself to play both types of poker if you’re not good enough; but I’m also telling you to try to get good enough. And, now, here’s the biggest secret about switching back and forth between limit and no-limit.

Big secret to switching

In limit poker, condition yourself to call most of the time with hands you think are beat. The pot will be paying you many times the cost of that call, so you don’t need the best hand often to win overall – you just need to have the best hand sometimes.

But in no-limit, you need to have the best hand frequently. When you’re faced with a big bet, you need to be right. You don’t call nearly as frivolously in no-limit. And not knowing that simple secret can ruin inexperienced players. I’ve seen great no-limit players destroyed when switching to limit games, simply because they’re accustomed to making calls based on a high probability of having the best hand. They’re not prepared to throw money out there when they’re pretty sure they’re beaten. But you have to be willing to do that in limit games. You call because the price is right.

And I’ve seen solid, sensible limit players get destroyed when they switch to no-limit, mostly because they’re conditioned to call too often. In short, a call is a routine thing in limit poker, unless there are strong reasons not to. But you should fold almost routinely against a large bets in no-limit games — unless you have the conviction to call, are right, and have the courage to capitalize on that conviction.

Call more in limit games; call less in no-limit games. Get it backwards and lose. — DB

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