Things to Know About Cash Game No Limit (NL) Holdem

No Limit Texas Holdem, Strategy

October 2, 2007

A rather unusual situation has developed in US poker at the moment. Cash game no limit holdem has become by far the most popular form of casino poker in the country, but there is almost no good information on how to play it published in book form or on the web. In an effort to plug that gap, I’m going to publish a series of articles on the game that should contain sufficient information to take a player to at least the intermediate level.

To get started, I want to present some central concepts for NL holdem. The idea is to get you in the right frame of mind for thinking about NL play. These are in no particular order.

  • Stack size (measured in big blinds) is critical in determining correct NL strategy. Things that are a good idea when you and your opponents have one set of stack sizes become bad ideas when the stack sizes are different. The importance of this concept really cannot be overstated. Most of these articles are going to be targeted at games with average stack sizes of 100 big blinds or more (ie. medium to deepstack games) but I will talk about shorter stacks a bit. You can assume I’m talking about 100BB or deeper stacks unless I say otherwise.
  • There is very little overlap between correct NL tournament play and correct cash game play. There are several reasons, but the most important reason is that tournaments usually have much smaller stack sizes relative to the blinds.
  • Position is more important in NL holdem than it is in any commonly played form of limit poker. This is true any time there’s substantial money left to be bet in the stacks. The value of position is another concept that almost can’t be overstated.
  • The ratio of your stack size to the pot size determines the relative importance of winning the pot vs. protecting your stack or trying to get your opponent’s stack. This could be restated as follows: NL holdem is actually two games in one. The first (small) is a game of winning and losing small to medium pots. The second is a (big) game of winning and losing stacks. The small game depends very little on what cards you hold and instead focuses on position, bluffing, and pot control. The game for stacks depends almost entirely on having the best hand and backing it with all your money. Under most circumstances the large game is far more important than the small game – if you win at the small game but are frequently caught drawing dead for stacks, you cannot possibly make money. In contrast, if you lose lots of small pots but regularly stack your opponents without much risk (ie. they’re essentially drawing dead) you’ll win money even though you’re not winning many pots.
  • The majority of cash game NL holdem hands in typical games do not go to showdown – that’s the nature of the small game.
  • The winning hand at showdown in a NL game is far stronger on average than the winning hand in a limit holdem game. That’s because all the mediocre to weak hands didn’t get shown down.
  • Beginning NL holdem players almost always initially lose a lot of money making the “big mistake” – namely playing for stacks with too weak a hand. For example, one big pair with a good kicker is usually not a strong enough hand to back it with a big stack.
  • Since NL holdem allows players to move in for all their money at any time, you need to always be prepared for that eventuality. You should always know the answer to two questions when you make a play: “What would happen if I moved in here?” and “What would happen if my opponent moved in here?”. This doesn’t mean you should be moving in all the time, or even particularly frequently, but the spectre of a possible push hovers over every play and you want to be prepared.
  • Opening hand selection is less critical, more fluid, and more subject to individual whim in NL holdem than in most games. Successful players employ a number of fairly different strategies and yet achieve good results. The reason is simple – the amount of money spent entering the pot isn’t that high in NL oftentimes. A good opening strategy increases the chances you’ll win in the big game of stacks since the small game doesn’t really depend on what cards you hold.
  • Physical tells are more important in NL than in limit games since you have more ability to exploit the information gained.
  • Bluffing, which plays a limited role in many other poker formats, is central to NL holdem. A high percentage of hands are won when the best hand folds.
  • In NL it’s often better to have a strong draw than a mediocre made hand heads-up. The opposite is usually true in limit. The reason the draw is so strong in NL is that it plays acceptably in the big game since if it hits it will be the (near) nuts, but a mediocre made hand plays very poorly in the big game because if someone else will go in with you they’ve likely got you beat.
  • Semi-bluffing (ie. bluffing while on the draw) is very central to NL. This is essentially a fusion of the importance of bluffs with the strength of draws.

There are certainly additional ideas that are important in NL, but these are in my opinion the most critical. I’ll have a lot more to say about many of these topics.

This article is part of Project Cash Game No Limit Holdem - You can find more great strategy articles there.
Like this article? Subscribe to the CardSharp RSS Feed

Leave a Reply