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How to Beat Live $1/$2 No-Limit Hold'em Poker Cash Games
$1/$2 No-Limit Texas Hold'em is by far the most popular poker game being played in live poker rooms around the country.
$1/$2 No-Limit Texas Hold'em is by far the most popular poker game being played in live poker rooms around the country.
For the average poker player $1/$2 cash games are the bread-and-butter of their weekly poker fix. For someone who's up to speed on the basics of good cash-game strategy, it's also the main source of their poker profit.
From Vegas to Atlantic City and everywhere in between, the average live $1/$2 No-Limit Cash Game table features a motley crew of fish waiting to give their money away.
With a little help from this article, you'll get your fair share of it.
Note: $1/$2 No-Limit Holdem strategy has changed A LOT over the course of the last decade or so but some basic principles will always hold true. Take this advice with a grain of salt and realize it won't apply to the toughest $1/$2 games you can find.
But ... you can still find plenty of $1/$2 games that play very similarly to what's described below. This is a simplified, easy-to-follow guide for beginners to use and improve their odds of making a profit in a single $1/$2 cash game session.
The Chevy Cavalier of Poker
The game is $1/$2 No-Limit Texas Hold'em, the Chevy Cavalier of poker. The minimum buy-in is $40 and the max $200. $1/$2 is the smallest No-Limit game run in most casinos and for that reason the games are very, very soft.
$1/$2 games are inhabited by everyone from 60-year-old nits to first timers to gamboolers who raise every hand to young, sunglasses-wearing wannabe pros.
Some of these players are actually good; most are not. They're first-level thinkers, thinking only of their two cards and nothing else.
They're clueless to the fact that you've folded the last 30 hands and are now betting hard into them.
What they're thinking is, "I has a pair of jacks; how much?" and then pushing the required chips into the pot. These players are your targets and the source of the bulk of your winnings.
Loose-passive $1/$2 cash-game players have two major weaknesses:
- They call too often before the flop
- They take their hands too far after the flop
You'll often hear new players lament about how it's impossible to beat fish because all they do is call. This sort of thinking is so fundamentally wrong it's laughable.
Players who call too much are the ATMs of the poker world, readily dispensing money to whoever has the patience to wait for a good hand.
Your Ideal $1/$2 No-Limit Hold'em Strategy
You play tight, you make top pair or better and you bet! Not exactly groundbreaking stuff. Play ABC poker, make your good hands and bet them.
Loose-passive calling stations will do what they do best: call. So let them call, stop bluffing them, and value bet your good hands relentlessly.
When you play tight before the flop you make your post-flop decisions easier. By playing solid hands before the flop you will make solid hands after the flop.
When you eliminate marginal hands from your repertoire you'll find yourself with fewer difficult decisions after the flop. Your goal is to flop top pair with a good kicker or better. You have to avoid getting caught up in the table flow.
Just because half the table is limping in up front with K♥ 3♠ doesn't mean you have to. Stick to playing tight and focus on playing hands that can flop big.
- How Not to Suck at Poker: Play Fewer Hands
- How Playing Tight in Poker makes Your Decisions Easier
- The Value Bet for Poker Beginners
Playable Hands in $1/$2 No-Limit Cash Games
Big Pocket Pairs (AA - TT)
These hands are already made for you. A single pair is often good enough to win at showdown so when you start with one you're ahead of the game.
Big pocket pairs are such big favorites that you should always raise them for value when nobody has raised in front of you. With aces, kings, queens and even jacks you should often even reraise.
The profit in these hands comes from when you flop an overpair to the board or a set. When you do, bet.
Your loose-passive opponents will be more than happy to call three streets with worse hands.
Good Top-Pair Hands (A-K - A-J, K-Q)
Top-pair hands are hands that make top pair and when they do so, do it with a good kicker.
In a game where most of your opponents are loose-passive your kicker will make you a lot of money.
For example, if you have K♣ Q♣ and the board comes king-high, you can bet three streets for value against a loose-passive player.
He will be more than happy to call all the way down with K♦ 9♠ only to find his kicker is no good.
Good top-pair hands are good enough for a raise when the pot has not been raised before you.
Top-pair hands do better against one opponent than many so keep that in mind when choosing your bet sizes.
- How to Play A-K: The Best Drawing Hand
- How to Play A-Q: The Worst Best Hand
- How to Play High, Marginal Hands in Poker
These are hands that are rarely going to win at showdown unimproved but when they hit they make big-pot hands.
A big-pot hand is a hand like a set, a full house, a straight or a flush. Holding these hands, no matter what the action, you're ready to put your stack on the line at $1-$2 cash games.
They are speculative hands because they have to hit before they'll be worth anything. They rely on the implied odds that you win your opponent's stack when you do hit.
Ideally you would like to see the flop as cheaply as possible with these hands. Speculative hands do best when played in position, so be wary about playing them from up front.
Pocket Pairs (99-22)
Pocket pairs make huge hands when they flop sets. Sets are often hidden and you can easily stack someone who has top pair or an overpair. For that reason it's OK to limp pocket pairs from any position.
When facing a raise you have to think about your opponent. If he's a tight player and unlikely to pay you off when you hit, you're best off folding.
If, however, he's a loose player (or you're multiway with more than one loose player), you can call a reasonably sized raise to play for "set value."
The main thing about pocket pairs is that when you hit a set you should almost always be looking for the best way to get all your money into the pot.
Suited Connectors, Suited One-Gappers (Q-Js - 67s, K-Js - T-8s)
Suited connectors are great hands -- played within reason. They do make both straights and flushes which are both big-pot hands.
The problem is they don't do it nearly as often as you might think.
When you're in early position you're best off folding low suited connectors. If your table hasn't been seeing too many raises before the flop you can limp the best suited connectors like J♥ T♥ or Q♠ J♠. All others should be folded.
Suited connectors are hands that play well in position. More often than not you're going to miss the flop or hit a weak one-pair hand. Playing them from out of position, in contrast, is going to put you in too many marginal spots after the flop.
Suited connectors should rarely be played versus a raise unless you're on the button and it is a multiway pot or the raise is very small. (Note: This can definitely change depending on the game you're in. Suited connectors have much more value these days and are a viable hand to play from more positions and facing raises.)
Suited Aces (A-9s - A-2s)
Suited aces are decent speculative hands because they can flop the nut-flush draw and they do have some high-card strength with the ace. Nut-flush draws obviously have value because you can stack smaller flushes.
The problem with flushes though is that they are right there in the open. Everyone is always aware when a flush draw comes in and as such it's sometimes difficult to get paid.
Suited aces are good hands but not good enough to limp in from any position. You should be more willing to limp the closer to the button you get.
Against a raise suited aces should seldom be played. You're not going to flop a flush nearly as often as you flop a pair of aces with a weak kicker.
A weak pair of aces can be a curse. You feel like you have top pair and should see a showdown but by the time you get there you find yourself outkicked and half a stack short.
Weak Top Pair Hands (K-Jo, Q-To, etc.)
These are hands that you want to steer clear of for the most part. They are dominated hands and should be avoided at all costs unless you can get in cheap from late position.
From early position and/or against a raise they should not be played at all.
They don't make many straights or flushes and when they hit a pair you'll find yourself on the losing end of the kicker battle more often than not.
Everything else is trash and should not be played even if it is suited. Suited trash is still trash. $1/$2 No-Limit Holdem players get themselves into trouble all the time playing weak suited trash because they think they're going to make a flush.
You don't make a flush with weak hands nearly as often as you may expect (See our Beginners Guide to Equity in Standard No-Limit Holdem Situations) and the rest of the time you're bleeding money. Stop playing them.
Position, Position and Position
The importance of position can't be overstated. Many people think they understand the concept of playing in position but they routinely call raises with marginal hands only to play the rest of the hand out of position.
This is a leak that costs you money. When you're out of position you're playing a guessing game - you have to anticipate what your opponent may do.
They dictate the flow of the hand: if they don't want to put more money in, they don't; if they want to bet three streets, they do.
Which is why being in position is so important: it puts you firmly in the driver's seat. You get last say on everything.
If you want to see a free showdown you do; if you want to value-town someone, you do. Your opponents will be guessing, just as you are when you're out of position.
As the better player, with the advantage of being in position, you'll ensure that they're guessing wrong more often than right.
Can I Really Crush Live $1/$2 No-Limit Hold'em with This Strategy?
Yes, likely. While the average $1/$2 live cash game has evolved tremendously since the early days of the poker boom the essence of this strategy is still relevant.
The most important skill you can have at $1/$2 is patience. Sit back and wait for a good hand. You should still be folding 80% of your hands.
Most $1/$2 No-Limit Hold'em players are still prone to playing too many bad hands and playing them way too far.
The patient $1/$2 player will still win the most over the long term! Don't get involved just because you're bored. Start with solid holdings and make solid hands after the flop.
When you're card-dead, don't sit around watching TV. Pay attention to the game and your opponents. Profile them in your mind; identify who the weak players are and what their tendencies are.
If you know who the loose players are and who the tight players are, you'll be able to understand their bets and raises and what they mean.
Once you figure out your opponents' tendencies the rest is just a waiting game. Make your big hand and value bet. Exploit the calling stations and force them to put their money in with worse hands.
More Tips for Beating Live $1/$2 No-Limit Hold'em
In a typical live $1/$2 No-Limit Hold'em game it's still common for 3-8 players to see a flop regardless of the pre-flop action.
Having four or five players all call a 10BB raise is not only possible but almost common. But rarely, if ever, will you play with a $1/$2 player strong enough to make "real" bluffs.
You will, occasionally, come across a player making simple dark-tunnel bluffs. But for the most part you can still assume that many players at your table bet when they simply have a strong hand.
Yes, it's true people will bluff you at $1/$2. But the bluffs are rare enough to pretend as if bluffing isn't the most likely option.
If you make the call every time you think your opponent is bluffing you will lose far more money than you will make in the game.
Drawing with Bad Odds at $1/$2 is Contagious
When you're stuck in the middle of a run of cold cards you can find yourself sitting for hours, folding hands and watching the other players play pots. Many of these pots will be large-sized pots won by players calling off their stacks on a draw.
After watching other players double and triple up, and seeing your own stack slowly shrink, you can start yearning to win a big juicy pot. If you're still running cold on cards it's easy to jump on the bandwagon and push your stack in on a draw.
Just because everyone else is doing it that doesn't mean it's the correct thing to do! Unless you have the odds to draw, or you have some other reason for making the play, you want to avoid chunking off your stack on a 30% shot.
An Important Thing to Remember: this article is based on live $1/$2 No-Limit against average to weak players. If you're playing online or sitting with a table of professionals, all the rules change.
Making Sense of Your True Out Value
Before you can begin to assign values to your outs you need to have a handle on three concepts:
These concepts are fundamental to understanding how to put value on your outs. Once you're comfortable with the ideas in the above articles, read on.
An Odd Relationship with Odds at $1/$2
Beginners - and even most intermediate poker players - have a very one-dimensional view of outs. In this view outs are very black or white.
You hit the out to win the hand or you don't hit and lose. Some poker players will never progress beyond this simplistic view.
The next step in thinking about outs comes with the understanding of pot odds and implied odds.
In the early stages of poker thought these will do nothing more for a player than to allow a logical reason for when and why to chase outs and a basic understanding of when to fold. The truth is, not all outs are made the same.
The Value of Outs
Take a look at the following hand:
In this hand you held 17 outs to the best hand:
- Flush draw: 9 outs
- Over cards: 6 outs
- Gutshot: 3 outs (we counted one of them already for the flush draw)
As you can see this adds up to 18 outs. Subtract the one club in our opponents hand and we're left with a total of 17 outs. Thinking one dimensionally we can say your 17 outs gives you a 59% chance of winning the pot ( (17*4)-(17-8)=59% ).
The only question worth asking at this point is how the 59% translates into $. If we assume our opponent is a tight-aggressive "decent" player, and we're seen as being about the same, we can make the following assumptions:
- If we hit the flush draw, our opponent will check/fold the following streets.
- If we hit a pair, we might get one or two small bets out of our opponent.
- If we hit our gutshot, we stand to make a lot of money.
Once the outs are broken out like that you can see that in #1, the flush draw must be played exclusively on pot odds. Our opponent will not put in a single dollar after we make the flush, meaning our implied odds are effectively zero.
If we hit a pair as in #2, we have a chance at making a little bit of money, but not much at all. No tight-aggressive player is going to commit large amounts of money to a pot with nothing but second pair.
We need pot odds, since our implied odds are small. But this makes #2 applicable to both types of odds.
Finally, #3 is our meal ticket. If we hit the nine for a straight, there is a good chance that we will get one or two medium to large bets out of our opponent.
There's even a chance they'll assume we're bluffing after a raise, giving us a large pot - or even his stack. Situation #3 will almost never have pot odds involved, but the implied odds can be through the roof.
In this hand you're hoping to hit your gutshot. This is one of the only scenarios in which you can draw at a gutshot since you have the pot odds on your other draws to make the long shot gamble profitable.
Basically you're subsidizing your gamble at an infrequent big pot with the semi-regular small-to-medium pots you'll win from your other outs.
- Flush draw: 8 outs: 26%: Small pot
- Over cards: 6 outs: 20%: Small-to-medium pot
- Gutshot: 4 outs: 13%: Medium-to-large pot
41% of the time you lose money but if you have pot odds for the call you make a small amount of money in the long run by hitting your flush.
Every time you hit an overcard for the win you win a little bit more money. Finally, when you hit your gutshot, you get paid. This is the biggest secret to a poker professional's success in cash games.
Although it may seem like players are getting lucky chasing gutshot draws they're actually putting you on a specific hand and counting all of their outs to beat that hand.
Simply put, once you understand how each out helps you and to what degree, you'll be able to make stronger decisions in your play and more acute value bets when you hit.
You Play Poker with Chips Not $1 or $2
To be successful at poker you need to come to terms with the idea that you're playing for chips. Chips are worthless pieces of clay (or plastic), their only purpose that of keeping score.
Deviating from this simple idea is the catalyst for the majority of money-based mistakes at the lower levels of poker like $1/$2 No-Limit Hold'em.
As soon as you start to worry about how the current pot will affect the weight of your wallet you're almost certain to make serious mistakes in your play at the table.
You must separate yourself from the money you use to buy in to the table before you even sit down. Whether you win or lose in this single session should be absolutely irrelevant to your immediate financial situation.
Your buy-in is an investment in your own skill and competency - nothing more.
Make Little Goals at $1/$2
If you make a full $200 buy in to a $1/$2 No Limit Hold 'em game you'll be sitting with two stacks of $5 chips. You post for your first hand and this becomes one stack and change.
Say you hit a few hands, make a few bucks, and are now sitting with $450. You're now sitting with four 20-chip stacks making a symmetrical square with some change on top.
This looks good to you, and when your own stack looks good, you feel good. Everything is going well.
Now the next pot you play you lose $60. You're still sitting with $390, up almost a full buy-in. You're technically doing really well but now your square of chips has turned into three stacks and change.
Even though you're still up, and you haven't taken much of a loss, your chips don't look as good any more.
Typically humans like to set goals and continually advance toward them. For this reason most No-Limit poker players are hoping to double up and make a buy-in.
Once you build your stack to over $400 you've reached your first little goal. You now want to make another buy-in to get to $600. You're feeling great because you've completed a little goal and are working toward the next.
Once you lose enough chips to put your stack below your first goal you start to feel bad. You now have to work just to get back to where you already were before you can even think about completing your $600 goal again.
These sorts of mental traps can force a player to try and "force the action." Once you start trying to make things happen, instead of letting the game progress naturally, you are almost certain to make mistakes, letting your lust for chips blind you.
Don't Separate the Profit!
Typically after being stuck a buy-in or more, players will be almost overwhelmed with a sense of pride/relief once they become unstuck and grind a standing profit.
The feeling of being stuck is not one that any player enjoys; it's something we all go to great lengths to avoid. When a player finally gets out of the hole and sheds the feeling of being stuck the very last thing they will want to do is to let the feeling return.
To avoid it players will separate, either mentally or physically, their chips into two piles: buy-ins and profit.
A player with this mentality will make their choices based on the relation of the current bet to their profit-only pile. If they think raising is the correct play but raising would cost them more than the profit pile can allow, these players may opt to just call instead.
If you're not willing to put all of your chips across the line at any time you should stand up from the table - simple as that.
It's All One Big $1/$2 Session
Mike Caro preaches this point constantly: all the sessions of poker you play are just segments of one long, lifetime poker session.
Your results from any single $1/$2 session are completely irrelevant. This means your play should not change regardless of whether you're stuck or up.
The cards, odds and (you hope) the other players don't have any idea if you've won or lost your last 20 sessions. And they don't care.
Play Mistake-Free Poker Regardless of Outside Factors!
One of the byproducts of thinking about poker on a per-session basis is "manufacturing wins." This is when a player wants to finish "up" on a session so they will play only to that end.
Players like this may leave a good game prematurely for fear of suffering a loss. Or, worse yet, they may rebuy multiple times into a game they can't beat.
To be successful in poker you have to think of the chips as nothing more than a scorecard. You need to make the best decisions you can in every situation without ever letting the thought of money impede your thought process.
Save your thoughts of money for the drive home. Until then you play to win, one pot at a time.
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