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Hold'em Edges

In Game Selection and Your Best Game, we went over factors that will help you choose a poker game. Hopefully, these ideas will help you find games where you are more skilled than your opponents. But in addition to the relative skill level of you and your opponents, the types of poker games will lend themselves to certain edges.

Limit Hold'em lends itself to a smaller edge. You are limited by how much you can bet, so fish are protected against making blatantly idiotic moves like calling all-in with bottom pair when you hold top set. Think about it mathematically. The bets are a mere fraction of the pot. So most of the time people call with a solid draw, they have good odds for the draw. Suppose you are playing a $1-$2 limit game (with no rake).


Three players besides you and your opponent see the flop. You bet and he calls through the river. How much did your opponent expect to lose? Excluding the expected preflop loss, your opponent did not expect to lose that much. The pot going into the flop was $5. He called $1 so the pot was $7 after the flop. He then called $2 so the pot was $9 going into the river. Let's see how much your opponent lost in terms of expected value on each of the postflop streets. His expected value is his expected win (chance of winning * pot) minus his bet.

Flop: $-.55
Turn: -$1.41
River: -$2

Total: -$3.96
While he actually lost $5 on postflop betting, he only expected to lose $3.96. So essentially, for every dollar he bet, he lost $0.79. Keep in mind this is one of the worst possible situations in fixed-limit Hold'em. Rarely is one dominated in a small pot. Most of the time when people make incorrect bets in limit hold'em, their losing edge is much smaller.

If this hand was played in a no-limit hold'em game, your opponent would have lost a lot more money. Your edge over him in terms of expected value would also have been greater. This is because your bets are a larger fraction of the pot. Assuming pot-sized bets were made beginning at the flop, this is the amount in terms of expected value that your opponent would lose:

Flop: (bet of $5):-$4.04
Turn: (bet of $15): -$12.06
River: (bet of $45): -$45

Total: -$61.10
This time, he made bets totaling $65 and expected to lose $61.10. Not only did he lose more money, he expected to lose an even higher percentage. For every dollar he bet, he expected to lose $0.94! That's a much bigger edge than the one in fixed-limit hold'em simply because the bets are a larger fraction of the pot. Please note that this example did not include implied odds. In that sense, it is an imperfect example. However, it illustrates the point that when you play no-limit, the edges can be huge under certain situations, whereas in fixed-limit they generally are not nearly as huge.

Does this mean that no-limit ring games are superior to fixed-limit ring games? Not necessarily. Because the edges can be so huge in no-limit games, most players tend to stay away from them unless they are good at playing no-limit hold'em, especially at higher stakes. Also, even poor no-limit players are wary of betting their money in situations like the one above. People will not throw their money away in situations where they expect to lose 94 cents on every dollar they bet, whereas they would lose 79 cents on the dollar in a Limit game. At no-limit hold'em, being caught as a huge underdog in a big pot is disastrous, so few people who survive to play no-limit hold'em make such critical errors. However, poor players will tend to stay at limit hold'em and continue to bleed their money away slowly.

Basically, a few big fish can greatly raise the expected value of a no-limit hold'em game. You will be able to find yourself in a few situations where your edge is huge and you can win a huge pot. It is possible to make huge, disastrous mistakes at no-limit whereas it is very hard to do so in a limit game. People tend to make more common, smaller mistakes at limit, so one cannot take too great of advantage of an opponent's huge error. Obviously a soft game is preferable, but the addition of one huge fish will alter the expected value of a No-Limit game much more than it will a limit game.

So when you think about your edge in a limit or no-limit game, realize that one's edge at a mo-limit game is much more dynamic. A player's edge at limit tends to stay in a certain general area, while a no-limit hold'em edge can vary greatly depending on the play of a few players. In the example of the K4 versus AK hand, you will more than likely win money in situations like those at limit (unless you play in a tough game). However, you may or may not win any money from your opponent in no-limit games. If you are able to extract huge bets from players with top pair and no kicker in no-limit hold'em games, then you may be able to retire from your day job a little earlier. But sometimes people will not pay you off at all,so your expected gain is contracted. Basically, the really big mistakes your opponents can make are either bigger in no-limit or they do not exist at all, and this will greatly determine your expected win or loss from a game.

Nonetheless, there is the possibility of a more general edge at low-stakes no-limit hold'em games. This is because these games attract so many poor players that the addition of one or two more poor players does not significantly alter the ecosystem of the game.

Next Article: Advanced Game Selection

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