Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2004) in Poker Player newspaper.
Sometimes no-limit poker seems closer to being an art form than a science. It’s about trying to grasp what your opponents’ are thinking. It’s about making decisions in harmony with whatever weirdness dances in their heads right now.
So, how is that different from playing limit poker? Good question. And here’s the answer: In limit poker any weirdness dancing around in your opponents’ heads concerns whether to check, bet, fold, call, or raise. But in no-limit poker, there’s additional weirdness. There’s emotionally based thinking about how much to bet or raise and whether your bet or raise is too much for them to call.
A silly argument
Now, for years there’s been a controversy regarding which form of poker wagering is more complex and skillful, limit or no-limit. At first you’re tempted to blurt out: “What kind of argument is that? Of course, no-limit is more complex and obviously more skillful.” And that turns out to be the right answer – the one I’ve always told you was correct.
But, lo and behold, others have come up with convoluted reasons why limit poker is more complex. They say that in no-limit, the correct decision is often to go all-in, and that simple solution takes complexity out of the game. They also say that you play fewer hands in no-limit, therefore there aren’t as many critical decisions. And, also, they argue that the luck factor is greatly increased in no-limit, because you can get all or a lot of your money in play on just a few hands that will be determined by luck.
Let me address these widely accepted arguments one at a time, in reverse order. It’s true that short-term results in no-limit poker often center on a few key hands. And, in that context, luck does seem to dominate. But, so what? Someone has an edge on these hands, whether they win the particular pot or lose it. That’s what no-limit is about – key hands. You’re not just going to play no-limit one night, but many nights – and over time, your skill in making the right decisions involving key hands will secure your success. So, yes, the argument that you can get unlucky at no-limit and lose lots of money on a few key hands is true. Duh! That does not make no-limit less skillful – it only makes is more volatile.
What about the argument that you play fewer hands in no-limit? That’s also true, but why does that make no-limit poker less skillful? You still need to decide which hands to play and when, and those decisions are less obvious than in limit poker. I could provide a set of guidelines for limit poker – a basic strategy – that you could use to beat most weak or medium-strong games. It would tell you which hands to fold in early positions when you’re first to enter the pot, and which ones to call or raise with. Then it would tell you which hands to play in various positions when one or more opponents have already entered the pot. Perhaps, I’d subdivide this by the number of opponents, the position of the original caller or raiser, and a few other factors. I might even recommend some adjustments for whether opponents are aggressive or timid. Viola! Instant strategy!
But, it isn’t so easy with no-limit. You need to consider the size of an opponent’s stack, his tendencies, his attitude at the moment, and especially the size of the wager.
When I say, “size of the wager,” I’m not talking about the size of just your wager or just your opponent’s wager, but the whole exchange. If a hold ’em opponent bets $7,000 into a $3,000 pot and you hold ace-ace with a flop of A-K-5, should you just call, raise $7,000, raise $10,000, raise $20,000, raise $72,415, move all-in, what? Each of those responses is vastly different and invites significantly different consequences.
So, when you put it all together, the argument that no-limit is less complex and requires less skill than limit poker because you’re involved in fewer hands doesn’t make sense. Even the decision about which of those fewer hands to play can be complicated and your success depends on the answer. I can’t just hand you a profit-making chart that tells you when to check, bet, fold, call, or raise in no-limit poker. That’s because, I would have to tell you how much. And I would also need to present separate charts that took into consideration the approximate sizes of the wagers you’re responding to and stack sizes. To say that mathematically no-limit poker is hundreds of times more complex than limit poker is a monumental understatement.
The big mistake
Look, I’ve programmed no-limit poker, going way back to 1983 when I introduced Orac (Caro spelled backwards), my first artificially intelligent computer poker player, to the World Series of Poker and to national television. I’m proud that I succeeded – way back then — in creating an artificially intelligent poker player that was able to compete at a world-class level. Science and computer magazines at that time talked about how complicated the challenge had been. And they were right! Despite what others may have told you about limit poker actually requiring more skill, I know for sure that no-limit poker is more complicated and requires more skill. How do I know? Here’s the answer, and I’ll whisper it, so come close: I know because when I programmed Orac 21 years ago, I first taught it to play straight limit poker, and then I embarked on the long task of adding the sophistication that enabled it to play no-limit.
Get it? Limit = simpler; No-limit = more complicated. Simpler = less skill; more complicated = more skill. Now, it’s theoretically possible that something could be more complicated and still require less skill to beat. But no-limit poker doesn’t fit that description. And, even if it did and required less skill to beat, it would still require more skill to play perfectly.
You see, despite stubborn arguments to the contrary, it’s impossible for limit poker to be more complex than no-limit. No-limit is just limit with a lot more options added.
But, the biggest mistake people make when they argue that limit poker is more skillful is this: They claim that just moving all-in when you have an advantage simplifies no-limit poker. Again, the argument is true, but the conclusion is wrong. Moving all-in with an advantage would simplify no-limit, but it’s not the right thing to do. And next time, I’ll explain why. — MC