Strategy Guide for No-Limit Texas Hold'em (Cash Game)
- Key Advice and Common Mistakes
- Pre-Flop Play
- Flop Play
- Specific Holdings at Flop Play
- On the Turn
- On the River
- Special Moves
The purpose of this article is to assist beginner/intermediate players to improve their game. The strategies and concepts suggested in this text relate to full-ring games (8-10 players).
No-Limit Texas Hold'em is most frequently played in tournaments, though it has gained a lot of ground in cash games in recent years due to the upswing in tournament play. Another reason for its increasing popularity is that online poker rooms are better positioned than casinos to host these games. This is because players go broke more often and need to be replaced so the total rake gets lower. For a casino this poses a problem, whereas for an online poker room the process of getting new players to the table is smoother and faster.
No-Limit Texas Hold'em is not suitable for beginners, as the game requires and places a much higher premium on tight/aggressive play than other variations of poker. As well, it involves considerably advanced reading skills that allow you to "play the players" rather than the cards. If you are interested in trying out No-Limit Texas Hold'em as a beginner, you should start out with low buy-in, No-Limit tournaments. This is because you will risk a modest amount per playing session and will more or less be forced to learn to play a tight/aggressive style (as this style is generally preferred in tournament play).
It should be noted that there exist several playing styles capable of winning the money in No-Limit Texas Hold'em. It is quite possible that, in a good game, a great player could win money in the long run by playing every hand, but that very same player might collect about as much by playing only 15% of the hands.
Differences Between Limit and No-Limit Texas Hold'em
The biggest differences between No-Limit Texas Hold'em and Limit Texas Hold'em involve position and hand value. Position is far more important in No-Limit because the decisions you make will have a greater impact on your stack. If you trap someone in No-Limit with the help of position, you can win your opponent's entire stack, as compared to collecting a few extra bets in Limit. Big connectors like AK, AQ and KQ decrease in value when you play No-Limit as you are more likely to win small pots and lose big pots with these types of hands. As well, all pairs increase in value when playing No-Limit since you are able to double through your opponents when you hit a set. The big pairs, AA and KK, also increase in value when playing No-Limit as you are again presented with an opportunity to trap someone for his whole stack.
In No-Limit it is important to keep track of the amount of money you and your opponents have on the table. The variation in stack size greatly affects how the game is played. Some examples are as follows:
- You have $500 and your opponent has $25, the blinds are $2-$4. You are sitting in the big blind with a JTs and your opponent moves all-in from first position (a position referred to as sitting under the gun). All other players fold. This is clearly a situation in which you should fold since you are most certainly the underdog and risking an additional $21 in order to win his last $25 is not a profitable play. If your opponent also has $500, then a call may be acceptable as you have a chance of winning $500 by risking another $21. The decision of whether to call or not depends on how well your opponent plays after the flop.
- You have $1000 and your opponent also has $1000, the blinds are $2-$4. You hold QQ and make it $20 to go. Your opponent, who is acting behind you, now moves all-in with his entire $1,000. You should fold unless you know your opponent does not have AA or KK. If your opponent made the same play with only $60 in front of him, you should call his all-in bet in the hopes that he does not hold AA or KK.
Key Skills to Becoming a Good No-Limit Texas Hold'em Player
- Strict hand selection (patience/discipline)
- Good table selection (very important in all poker games)
- Discipline (the ability to wait for a good hand and not chase)
- Ability to read opponents
- Courage to bet/raise/call down (aggressive with draws or perceived best hands)
- Lack of vulnerability to going on tilt
Key Strategy for No-Limit Texas Hold'em
- Be very selective of the starting hands you play: in a standard $2-$4 NL game you should have a 20-30% view of the flop percentage. This means folding AJ in first position, KT in middle position and QT in late position.
- Table selection: only play in games where you have an edge. You want at least a couple of weak players at the table when you sit down.
- "Playing the players": make sure to quickly assess the opposition: who plays inferior hands, who folds at aggression, who bets with draws, who calls big bets with weak hands and draws, who can be bluffed, who bluffs, etc.
- "Pump it or dump it": fold or bet/raise (if the odds are with you). You should avoid calling unless you have a good reason (like trapping an opponent).
- Respect most big bets and raises: this is particularly true on the turn and river as most players do not bluff.
Common Mistakes in No-Limit Texas Hold'em
- Not releasing a decent hand when beat, thus losing the whole stack on one hand.
- Calling with weak holdings when facing a bet.
- Playing too many starting hands.
- Not raising pre-flop with premium hands (putting pressure on limpers holding drawing hands) and then going too far with them after the flop.
- Over-/underbetting the pot (risking a lot to win small/not protecting hand).
Hand Ranking for No-Limit Texas Hold'em
The best starting hands for a beginner in NL are:
- The pairs AA-22.
- The big suited connectors AKs & AQs.
- The big connectors AK & AQ.
Starting hand requirements
These requirements work very well in a tight/aggressive style of play. For less experienced players this is a great way to start out.
Avoid playing marginal hands, as you will have to do a lot of guessing which will leave you vulnerable. If you have never played NL before, it is recommended that you restrict yourself to only playing pairs AA-22, AK and AQ. With these hands, you will not find yourself caught in many difficult situations and you can still win big pots.
Playing only these hands requires a great deal of discipline since you will not be involved in many pots. Playing with this strategy will provide you with a lot of time to study the game and observe the players as you play.
This table shows minimum required hands per position in a semi-tight/semi-aggressive game.
|Minimum required starting hand when facing un-raised pot|
|# Players left to act Non-pair Pairs|
|9 (under the gun)||AK||99|
|3 (cut off)||Axs, KJs||33|
|2 (button)||Axs, KTs, QJs, JTs||22|
|1 (SB)||Axs, K9s, QTs, J9s||22|
How to modify the table depending on the action before you:
- If there are a couple of limpers in front of you, you should only raise with the top hands, such as AK and AA-JJ, and be more inclined to call with the marginal hands since these hands play well in multi-way pots.
- If the pot has been raised, consider who raised and decide whether to call, re-raise or fold. If it was a strong player, re-raise/fold. If it was a weak player, your inclination should be to call, as you will be presented with a good chance of winning a big pot when you hit a great flop. Re-raise the strong players with AK and AA-JJ in an attempt to shut them out and win the pot immediately, otherwise fold. Be more inclined to just call raises from weaker players with all pairs, AK and AQ, but only if you have position and will likely end up heads-up. Otherwise re-raise. You do this in order to trap them on the flop when you hit a great hand instead of shutting them out pre-flop.
Limp or raise:
- Raise with AA-QQ, AK and AQs in any position.
- Basically, all other starting hands are limping hands. And though you might re-raise with them when you are defending your blinds, you might also raise with these hands when you are first in from a late position.
- Occasionally mix up your play by raising/calling/re-raising with hands you would not usually play. It is preferable to avoid becoming too predictable.
General pre-flop advice
- Most of the time you should raise/re-raise with top-pairs (AA-QQ) and top connectors (AK, AQs) in order to make low-pairs and various connectors pay to see flops against you. Remember, they will often have the opportunity to double up on you if they hit (although many beginners do not realize this and fold too often pre-flop).
- Stick to the premium hands (see table of minimum required hands). You will pay dearly to "chase" with second-best hands in NL.
- Keep most raises down to between 70% and 100% (making it 3x the big blind to go typically equals an 80% pot bet) in order to save money when you get re-raised or called by stronger holdings. If there are limpers in front of you, raise to about 4-6x the big blind.
- Have respect for strong tight players (for example, you should drop AQ if a strong player raises under the gun).
- When very weak players have entered the pot, be inclined to call and take flops with them.
Flop play is very important in No-Limit Texas Hold'em. The key is to determine the relative strength of your holding. Over time, it is crucial that you develop the ability to release good hands when you suspect them to be second best. You must determine your relative strength and release hands that face a serious risk of being second best. Betting is the natural move if you want to protect a good hand from being out-drawn or when you are presented with the opportunity to make your opponents fold their hands. You should usually "pump it or dump it" on the flop.
It is extremely important that you always evaluate the relative strength of your hand on the flop.
In order to decide the correct action it is very important to keep several factors in mind:
- What did you flop and what is your relative strength (straight draws, flush draws, set, paired board, etc)?
- Who, if anyone, raised before the flop (often expect another bet)? What kind of player is it?
- What position do you have relative to the raiser's?
- How many players are at the table (it is hard to bluff facing 3 or more opponents and there is a greater chance of someone hitting a strong hand)?
- What is your and your opponents' stack size?
When facing a bet you should fold unless you have good reason to doubt the strength of your opponent. As they are "setting the odds", it is crucial that you make the appropriate decision. Remember, your opponent can be holding anything from the stone cold nuts down to nothing - if your hand is decent it may very well be an underdog to a lot of likely holdings.
Of course, you will not always fold. In fact, every now and again you should play back with a raise when you have a good chance of taking the lead or if you think your opponent is weak. Consequently, you will be "setting the odds" and forcing your opponent to make a decision (and a possible mistake).
Try to save your calls unless you have very good reason not to (like slow-playing a monster or drawing to the nuts in a multi-way pot). You will rarely get the odds for chasing "outs" by calling in NL, unless your opponents bet too small or give free cards. By calling with mediocre holdings you will set yourself up for a "guessing game", in which it is necessary to read opponents well and "make moves" in order to be successful.
Typical situations on the flop
Here are four typical situations on the flop:
Very Strong Hand (top two pair, set)
- Often slow-play on an uncoordinated board to lure opponents in, to induce bluffs or let them make second-best hands.
- However, if the board is coordinated and several players are in, you will need to overbet the pot in order to make them pay for attempting to out-draw you. The bigger the bet they call, the greater their mistake. And that is how you make money in poker: letting other players pay to chase you.
Strong Hand (overpair, top pair with A kicker, etc.)
- Generally, bet about the size of the pot in order to protect it (for example, pushing out overcards and making draws pay).
- However, you might have to release this type of hand when facing an overbet or a raise. In such cases, someone could hold a bigger overpair, a set or connectors that hit the flop for a two pair. Usually you should not back top pair with your whole stack!
- If you bet and are called in several spots you have to decide whether your hand is the best or not, as it is unlikely that all of your opponents are drawing.
Medium Hand (top pair with a weak kicker, middle pair with A kicker, second pocket pair, etc.)
- Most of the time, you should avoid betting this hand when you are in early position, facing several opponents or facing tricky players who slow-play a lot. You want to get a free card to hit one of your pocket cards on the turn or maybe call/raise an opponent who bets from last position.
- However, if you are in late position and it is checked to you then you should bet.
- If you are facing a bet (or get raised) you should fold. You have no initiative and are probably chasing 2-5 outs.
Drawing Hands (nut flush or nut straight)
- If you have 11 outs or more and are drawing to the nut flush or straight, which requires at least one overcard (higher than any board card), you can mix up your game by betting/check-raising/raising in order to win the pot immediately or draw out on later rounds.
- If you are playing with "calling stations" this strategy has much lower equity as you will not be able to win a lot of pots with semi-bluffs. With this type of hand, one option is to check-raise/raise all-in if you have a short stack and the pot is fairly large. Then you have two ways to win, either by forcing your opponents to fold or by out-drawing them. You have between a 33-53% chance of doing so if the outs are between 8 and 14.
- Sometimes it is correct to call a bet on the flop because of the existing implicit odds. This play is directed by the size of your and your opponent's stacks and also by the size of the bet. If a weak player with a lot of money bets and you too have a large sum of money, a call would be good since you might double-up if you hit on the turn.
Specific holdings at flop play
Non-Vulnerable "Monsters" (four of a kind, nut full house, nut flush, nut straight)
- With this type of flop your main concern is how to play in order to get the maximum pay-off.
- Build the pot if no one is taking initiative (often with small bets/raises to give pot odds). When betting 30-50% of the pot in multi-way pots, a lot of players will call/raise with draws and other weaker holdings.
- If you need to be active to build the pot, be sure to leave ample room for opponents to make a move/bluff.
Vulnerable "Monsters" (low full house, non-nut flush, non-nut straight)
- This hand can be played profitably either by slow-playing until the turn (if the turn card still leaves you with a great hand) or by "jamming it" on the flop.
- If you decide to jam it on the flop be prepared to back the hand with your whole stack.
- Sometimes a better strategy is to wait until the turn card and see if a blank hits. If so, you reveal the true strength of your hand on the turn. A disadvantage with this play is that you allow people to out-draw you on the turn by hitting a bigger flush, straight or full house. Also, the action dries up quickly when a fourth suited card hits or it is only one card to a straight on the turn. Therefore, it is important not to get "married to the hand" in case a bad card hits on the turn.
Top/Middle/Low Set (trips using pocket pair)
- If the board is highly coordinated (2/3 cards in same suit and/or 2/3 connected cards), you have to make a stand and try to shut people out immediately, as almost any card on the turn will be a scare card. Several players may be chasing, so overbetting the pot at 200-300% is not wrong. If someone has already flopped a straight or flush you still have an approximate 34% chance of improving to at least a full house.
- If the board is uncoordinated you can set up a slow-play by calling or betting modestly and attempting to lure people in. Betting modestly works best if some cards are in the "playing zone" (for example, 9 and up) as someone usually has a decent holding.
- Remember, with a "monster" hand you want to leave room for players to try to bluff you as long as you are not in great jeopardy of being out-drawn. Always consider which types of opponents remain in the pot.
Top Two Pair or Top and Bottom Pair (pairing both hole cards)
- Play is quite similar to playing flopped sets.
- Slow-play this hand often with a modest bet or call (you might get well paid off on later betting rounds).
- If the board is highly coordinated (2/3 cards in same suit and/or 2/3 connected cards), you usually want to punish the drawing hands. Over-betting the pot is not wrong if there are several opponents
- If you have hit with a "weak" Ace, let AK and AQ pay to chase.
Bottom Two Pair
- You need to protect this pot by betting and raising. This hand looks strong but is in the vulnerable position of being out-drawn. Generally, you hit this type of hand with connected cards, which always make at least a straight-draw possible. For example, if you hold 98s and the flop is K-9-8, any K, Q, J, T, 7, 5 that hits on the turn will be a scare card and, if you add a flush draw, it becomes even worse.
- Watch out if the board pairs on the turn (and you do not make a full house) as someone holding an overpair has made a better two pair than yours or it could give someone trips.
Overpair (pocket pair above highest card on the flop)
- To extract more money in an aggressive game, often look to slow-play high overpairs (AA-KK) by limping, calling or making modest bets in the hopes of re-raising someone before the flop. With the big pairs, you want to avoid taking flops with more than one or two opponents.
- If the board is uncoordinated and you are up against one or two opponents, consider slow-playing your overpair.
- If you have a medium overpair the situation is quite different. You want to win the pot on the flop, as your hand is vulnerable to overcards hitting on the turn.
- Watch out for flops like 9-8-7, T-9-8 and J-10-9, especially if they come with flush draws. Anyone who gives you a lot of action on this kind of flop is likely to either have you beat or is about even-money to out-draw you.
Top Pair, Ace Kicker
- Most of the time bet on the flop (and continue on turn) as you often have weaker players staying in with weaker kickers or worse hands. Make sure to bet about the same amount as the pot if the board is coordinated in order to protect your hand.
- Again, there is a huge difference between a flop like K-7-3 rainbow and K-J-9 with a flush draw when you hold AK. In the first case you should consider slow-playing the hand and, in the second case, you have to give action on the flop as almost any card on the turn will be a scare card.
- For instance, you hold AT and the flop is T-7-2. You want win the pot on the flop or force hands like 89, T9, JT, QT and KT pay to chase you. In addition, any 6, J, Q or K on the turn will be a scare card.
Top Pair, Weak Kicker
- In an un-raised pot, make a normal bet to take the pot if your hand is the best. If there are four players or more involved in the pot, consider giving it up without a fight.
- Generally, you should fold when facing a pot-sized bet from a tight player if there is a decent chance that you are out-kicked or (sometimes) facing an overpair. Be extra cautious to call if there are many players left to act, as you cannot afford to take any heat.
- Avoid getting heavily involved with this type of hand unless you have a lot of additional value, like a straight draw and a flush draw. For instance, you are holding 89s and the flop is 6-7-8 with two cards of your suit. Although you only have top pair with a weak kicker, be prepared to back your hand with your entire stack. This hand gives you 20 outs (!) to out-draw someone holding AA, thus making you the favorite to win.
Second Pair (pocket pair between the flop's high and middle card)
- Typical fold or bet hand.
- If you have late/last position with no more than two opponents who checked the flop, you should bet an un-raised pot. Weak/loose players who chase could chase on middle pairs or draws. Tight players might fold weak top pairs or other non-made hands.
- Fold if a strong player bets in front of you, especially if players behind you are left to act.
- When betting, in most cases you should release your hand if you get raised. The only exception is when you strongly suspect that a weak/aggressive player is drawing. You should then re-raise or call and wait to see what unfolds on the turn.
Middle Pair, Ace Kicker
- Bet out or check-fold, depending on the board, players and number of opponents.
- If you are last to act and it is checked to you, consider betting.
- This situation arises quite frequently when you are playing the Axs hands. It is important not to get heavily involved on this type of flop.
- With the Axs hands you want to hit two pair, trips, a pair and the nut flush draw, etc. Then you can trap weaker flushes, AK (when you hold two pair) and trips with a weaker kicker than the ace.
Middle Pair, Weak Kicker
- When there are only two or three players in the pot either check-fold or make a position bet when checked to you.
- Sometimes take a free card when it is checked to you in the hopes that you hit at least two pair.
- Fold if an opponent bets.
Third Pair (pocket pair below the flop's second card)
- Either check-fold or make a position bet when checked to you and there are only two or three players in the pot.
- Sometimes take a free card when checked to you in the hopes that you hit at least two pair.
- Fold if an opponent bets.
Low Pair, Ace Kicker
- Fold to any action. You might be chasing two outs (for trips) as the ace can make an opponent a higher two pair. Either way, you only have 5 outs at best.
- If you decide to bet, it should be solely on "bluff merits" (few players, position, no face cards on the flop, etc.).
Low Pair with Low Kicker
- Fold to any action.
- Do not position bet.
- Bet or check when checked to you in last position depending on the circumstances.
Nut Draws with Nine Outs or More (ace flush draw, two over-cards and a straight draw, straight flush draw)
- Instead of calling, always consider putting pressure on your opponent by betting, raising or check-raising. An aggressive move is preferred against only one or two opponents who can fold decent hands. With 12 outs (such as a flush draw with an Ace kicker, giving you 9 nut outs and 3 top pair outs), you will have an almost 50% chance to hit on turn and river combined. By putting an opponent all-in on the flop, you will often make money as you are almost even-money if called and you have a good chance of winning the pot on the flop. But remember to set your opponent all-in and do not call all-in.
- Late position gives extra advantage with this type of hand, as you can decide whether to re-raise, bet, check, call or fold depending on the action in front of you.
- If you are short-stacked and the pot is decent sized consider moving all-in, even if you are the first to act.
- Note: to call a 75% pot bet heads-up, pot odds of over 30% (14-15 outs) are required. Even counting "implicit pot odds" with potential extra winnings on the river, you still do not like a heads-up bet of more than 80%.
- Remember to draw for the nuts. Be certain not to "draw dead" against the nuts.
Non-Nut Draw with Nine Outs or More
- Be prepared to fold your non-nut draw, particularly in raised multi-way pots. You do not want to chase and end up losing your entire stack if you hit.
- For the most part you should avoid betting or chasing on a second- or third-best draw, especially on flush draws where you may frequently find yourself up against a suited ace.
- With a second-best draw you can make a decent bet in an un-raised pot by trying to win it right away.
Non-Nut Draws with Eight Outs or Fewer
- Do not chase, as you have low pot odds and might be "drawing dead". You want to see the turn as cheaply as possible and find out if you make your hand.
- Raise, bet or fold depending on the board, players, actions and number of opponents. Do not call off your money.
Overcards - AK, AQ, KQs, AJs
- These hands should be played with caution against both strong and weak opposition. Strong players know that you, as a tight player, will often be holding overcards when the flop comes with low cards. This makes you susceptible to steal-raises from the good players and the weak players will call/chase down with mediocre holdings.
- If the board comes with no face cards (ace, king, queen or jack), you can bet about 70-80% of the pot as a bluff/semi-bluff, representing an overpair. In particular, you should follow through as the pre-flop raiser against no more than two opponents.
- Avoid making it a (expensive!) habit to bet this hand against suited/connected flops with no face cards and several opponents. You will lose money and "bluff equity" to be used when better served.
- Remember that your overcards might still be the best hand against one or two opponents with a flop of rags.
On the Turn
- As a general rule you still want to have the lead and build the pot.
- If you were betting a draw on the flop, you must use your best judgment and decide whether to fire again. Remember to always re-evaluate your hand as the play progresses.
- Do not call down big bets with a medium holding, unless you play with a habitual bluffer or a player who is quite obviously on tilt.
- You can make a steal-raise/steal-bet against tight players if you smell a semi-bluff and you have some kind of draw, but you have to wait for the moment when you have a good read on your opponent. For example, you hold KQs and the flop came 10-9-3. You called a small bet from a lone opponent and now a 6 hits, which also gives you a flush draw. If you sense weakness in your opponent, who bets again, it is appropriate to raise as a semi-bluff. You are likely to have at least 12 outs (any J or flush card) to a better hand than your opponent and possibly as many as 18 outs (if a K or Q will win the pot for you).
On the River
- Avoid betting unless you are quite sure to win a showdown, especially when facing tough opponents. You have little to win and a lot to lose (as 90% of the time you will only get calls from players who believe they have your made hand beat).
- Try to figure out your opponents' most likely holdings and bet the amount you suspect they might call.
- Sometimes check a good hand in order to induce a bluff from someone who you think missed a draw, since they will not call your bet anyway.
- Often you should bet small when having the best hand (and no scare card hits on the river). This amount will entice players to call with a weaker hand.
- When you have hit your (nut) draw, often bet 80-120% of the pot to make it clear that either you made the draw or you are bluffing. This kind of bet generates almost as many calls as a small bet.
The free card
When you are in late position or last to act, you can raise with a drawing hand on the flop. This will likely make your opponents check to you on the turn, thus giving you the opportunity to check (if your hand does not improve) or bet (if you hit your draw). This will save you money if you do not improve and will reward you with profit if you hit. However, this move will backfire when you are re-raised on the flop. In these situations, it will cost you money but it remains a good play since you obtained information and have a good draw to a better hand.
When you posses a good hand and it is your turn to act, check in the hopes that an opponent will bet so that you can raise when your turn comes again. For example, you are in early position and have AQ. The flop is AQ6. You check and two players in middle position also check. A player in late position bets and you then raise. The reason for check-raising is to create a situation in which you can potentially hit a better hand, like a straight, but where it is too expensive for your opponents to call since, in this case, they do not have the correct pot odds with hands like gut-shot straight draws. If they still call, at least you have obtained information regarding the strength of their hands and forced them to pay as much as possible for trying to out-draw you.
Semi-bluffing is when you bet or raise with a hand that is not likely to be the best (at the moment) but you have many outs to out-draw your opponents if you get called or raised, although you are actually hoping to win the pot right there. For example, you are in late position holding J10 and the flop shows K62, thus giving you a flush draw with 9 outs. There are three other players in the pot and they all check to you. You bet without having the best hand but since they all checked, they indicated weakness and might fold pocket pairs, a pair of 6's or 2's. Even if you do get called, you have 9 outs to the flush and maybe an additional 6 outs to win if you hit a J or a T, 15 outs in total. If called and it is checked to you on the turn, you have the option of taking a free card in case your hand did not improve.
Pot odds are what you use to calculate whether a certain play has a positive expected value. It is defined as the relationship between the size of the pot and the bet. For instance, if the pot is $100 and you bet $10, the pot odds are 10 to 1. In order to calculate your pot odds, you must know how many outs your hand has at that moment. For example, if you flop a heart flush draw you then have 9 outs to make your hand. There are 13 hearts in total. You hold 2 and the flop came with 2, which leaves 9 hearts unseen.
If you refer to the table below, you will notice that you have a 35% chance of hitting a hand with 9 outs on the turn and river combined. This is slightly better than 1 in 3 times, which means that if it costs you $10 to win $30 or more, drawing for a flush is the correct move.
A rule of thumb: every out gives you about a 4% chance of hitting on the turn and river combined. For example, 5 outs gives you about a 20% chance of improving, 6 outs about 24%, etc.
|Outs for specific draws|
|Flush draw with two overcards or a straight flush draw||15 outs|
|Flush draw with one overcard||12 outs|
|Flush draw||9 outs|
|Open-ended straight draw||8 outs|
|Two overcards||6 outs|
|Gut-shot straight draw||4 outs|
|Drawing outs from a deck of 47 unseen cards|
|Number of outs||% on River|