Limit to No-Limit: Making the Move

Phil Ivey
Phil Ivey was making a living off Limit Stud long before he was a force in the No-Limit world.

I'm a firm believer that everyone should learn cash-game poker at Limit tables before moving to No-Limit. Here are some things to know for when you do make the change.

It is possible to go back and forth from a Limit to a No-Limit environment and play both successfully. You never have to pick one game and alienate the other. But you need to understand the fundamental differences between the games, and how to adjust your play as you move from one game to the other.

Making Misstakes

Similarly to when you learn any new skill, when learning poker you're going to make a lot of mistakes. Making mistakes at a Limit table is going to cost you a few bets, while the same mistakes on a No-Limit table can cost you your whole stack. If you're going to make mistakes, you want to do it in a forum where it will cause the least amount of harm.

Pilots learn to land a plane on simulators, race car drivers start in a go-kart, Chuck Liddell spent years training before ever stepping into the octagon and you should make your first thousand mistakes at a Limit table.

Doyle Brunson
I doubt there is anyone with more poker experiance than Doyle Brunson.

The Hands You Play, or Don't

To be truly good at poker, perhaps nothing is more important than experience. The more hands you play and moves you make, the stronger a player you'll become. Reading all the poker advice ever written is nothing compared to hours logged when faced with a very difficult choice in a tough situation.

Limit is a drawing game. Pot odds are plentiful in most hands, allowing you play a very large amount of hands from most positions. In a No-Limit game, position and hand equity become more important, forcing you to cut back on the number of marginal hands you can afford to play.

Moving to No-Limit means cutting out the low suited connectors, naked or low suited aces and any other random junk hands from your repertoire. There are times to play some of these hands at a No-Limit game, but it requires position and a strong feel for the game. I don't recommend novices playing hands like this in most situations.

Any easily nuttable hand, such as a suited ace, can be played in position. But as an amateur playing a hand like this, you must be playing it for the flush, or two pair. Anything else and you risk getting yourself into trouble.

Having an ace top pair with a seven kicker is a bad place to be without the experience and ability not to lose your stack when out-kicked.

Once you accumulate many years and thousands of hands worth of experience, you can loosen these hand restrictions. The stronger psychological and read-based game you can play, the less important your hand strength becomes.

Reads, Bluffs, Odds and Ends

At an amateur level, you're not going to be getting as many strong, valid reads as would a professional. If you can't play a reads-based game, you have to revert to an odds-based game. Limit gives you far better consistent odds on the hands you play.

A large portion of the odds offered in a No-Limit game are implied odds. These odds are nearly impossible to gauge and figure correctly without the ability to make strong reads of hands and situations. It's the ability to read, create and exploit these situations that makes No-Limit so damn exciting.

Although you will bluff in both Limit and No-Limit, the bluffs made in a No-Limit game are usually much larger. Bluffing a raise in a Limit game will be a fraction of the total pot and your stack, while many bluffs in a No-Limit game can put your whole stack at risk.

The lack of odds in No-Limit makes bluffing more viable. In a Limit pot of $200, not many players are going to fold to a bluff bet of $20. The ability to make the same bluff for a $200 bet opens the doors for more frequent bluffing. But with increased bluffing comes increased risk.

I'm not saying it's impossible to bluff in a Limit game - that couldn't be further from the truth. Bluffing is very much a part of Limit, but it is simply not as easily pulled off in that context. Many situations will force players to call your bluff thinking they're beat, but unwilling to decline the odds being offered by the pot.

Poker Hall of Fame
Every one of the faces in the poker hall of fame cut their chops playing Limit.

Limit, and How It Fits into Your No-Limit World Domination Plan

I'm a No-Limit Hold'em player - it's the only game I really enjoy playing. Even as a strictly No-Limit Hold'em player, though, I still believe that all players should learn on Limit.

I played Limit exclusively for close to two years at 40 hours a week, and made countless mistakes in the process. Even with all those mistakes I made a steady, although small, profit.

If I had played No-Limit from the start, I would have been broke after the first week, unable to play again. Some people have said things like, "But Sean, you can't learn to play the guitar by playing bass! How can you learn to play No-Limit by playing Limit?"

The answer is you can't. But just as you would studying bass guitar, you will learn the fundamentals.

One of the most important skills in all of poker is reading the texture of the flop. You have to know when your hand is vulnerable. You can't just know the numbers; you have to feel the game. You have to be able to look at a flopped two pair and be able to understand if you're golden or vulnerable just by looking at the board.

Skills like this only come with experience. It makes no sense to have to pay multiple buy-ins for these lessons. The more experience you have with cards in front of your seat, the better versed you'll be at poker.

When you do make the switch, you will be learning how to play No-Limit, but you won't be learning how to play poker at the same time.

Learn poker, and everything to do with the game, first; then learn the intricacies of No-Limit. I'll end this article with an old cliché: "Poker takes a night to learn, but a lifetime to master."

Call your local cardroom, or log in to your favorite site, and get yourself a seat at some lower-limit Limit game. $20 online on a micro-stakes Limit table can last even a losing player a very long time.

Go pour your foundation. When you figure it's robust enough to support the weight, start building your game on top of it. A house built without a foundation is guaranteed to fall over - don't trick yourself into thinking poker is any different.

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