The Effects of Structure on No Limit (NL) Holdem

No Limit Texas Holdem

December 26, 2008

Last time I posted some general information on how game structure influences correct play.  I now want to apply that directly to no limit holdem.

I identified two factors about a game that influence how eager you should be to voluntarily enter the pot preflop.  The first was the size of the antes and forced bets.  It’s relevant to ask, especially in a NL game, “size relative to what?”.  That’s a good question.  I think for purposes of discussion, it’s reasonable to discuss their size relative to a reasonable 100 big blind buyin.  Obviously many games are played with larger or smaller buyins, but 100 big blinds is a good place to start discussion.

The standard NL holdem structure has no antes and two forced bets – a small blind and a big blind.  The small blind is typically half the size of the big blind, but in situations where the chips don’t facilitate that, it’s often slightly smaller than half the big blind (i.e. \$10/\$25).  Together the forced bets constitute 1.5 big blinds, or about 1/67th of your stack.  A good way to view the size of the antes and forced bets in any game is to ask yourself how many hands you could take without voluntarily putting money in the pot or accidentally winning one before a standard buyin would be gone.  At a standard 9-handed table, it would be in the neighborhood of 600 hands.  Or, at a rate of 30 hands per hour, 20 hours of play.  I suspect that’s much longer than many players would have guessed.  For perspective, during that period you would expect to see aces and every other pair almost 3 times each.

For sake of comparison, let’s compare a similar sized limit and no limit game.  The no limit game is \$2/5 with nine chairs at the table and a \$500 buyin.  Due to the undersized small blind, you could take almost 650 hands before exhausting your buyin at that game.  A similar sized limit game would be \$15/30 limit, 10 handed, with blinds of \$10 and \$15 and no ante.  A \$500 buyin would likewise be standard for that game.  There you could take 190 hands before being blinded out.  That’s less than 1/3 the hands you’d get in the no limit game.  The point of this comparison is that standard structure no limit has very little pressure from the forced bets compared to most other commonly played forms of poker (the exception would be deepstack PLO). Based on this comparison, the obvious conclusion is that one should be much more selective about entering the pot in NL holdem than in limit holdem.

The second factor that influences correct opening frequency is the size of relevant edges in the game.  While I’m not aware of any standard way of measuring the “size” of edges, I feel fairly confident in saying that the edges in NL holdem are bigger than in any other commonly played game (the uncommon exceptions would be pot limit holdem, no limit or pot limit 5 card draw variants and no limit five card stud). There are two main reasons I say this.  First off, the community card nature of the game makes it difficult for one hand to improve past another.  Second, the positional advantage is very strong in NL holdem.  What this means collectively is that in no limit holdem when you’ve got the best of it you’ve often got FAR the best of it.  Consider for example the situation where player 1, out of position, has KQ offsuit, and player 2 has a pair of kings in position.  It’s highly unlikely that player 1 will draw out or be able to outplay player 2 regardless of stack depth.  Player 1 is pretty much just screwed.

As previously discussed, big edges mean that correct opening strategy is to open selectively.  So in the case of no limit holdem, all of the factors say that selective preflop play is correct.  Note here that I didn’t necessarily say tight.  In fact I intentionally avoided the term, because there is a connotation with “tight” play that it means specifically being selective about your hole cards.  Now that’s clearly part of it, but just as important is being selective about the situations you insert yourself into.  That largely involves position, but also situations that stem from odd playing tendencies your opponents may have.

There’s some basic information about opening correctly that focuses mostly on hole cards and position here and here.  I’ll post more on some more advanced material on specific situations soon.