How No Limit Hold ’em works

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Ted’s quick No Limit Hold ‘em primer: for those unfamiliar with “No Limit Hold ‘em”, here is how it works. This is just a guide to the basic elements of play for this one version of poker. When I was in high school and part of our chess club turned into a Poker Club, we played “dealer’s choice” which included crazy games like Baseball, Guts etc. These all had wild cards to make the play more exciting. When I first started going to Vegas the most common game was 7 Card Stud and I played that for several years. A typical poker room might have 5 tables of 7 card stud and one table of Texas hold ’em (and this table was often a lot louder than the 7 card stud games). Over the past 10-15 years the game has shifted so that No Limit Hold ’em is by far the most popular game played and almost the only one you see on tv. But in larger casinos Omaha and some other versions can be found.

In No Limit Hold ’em, players must make the “best 5-card hand” out of any combination of their two “hole cards” (which only they see) and the 5 “community cards” which everyone sees. There are two compulsory bets called the “small blind” (SB) and the “big blind” (BB) which move clockwise around the table. In a poker tournament these “blinds” get larger and larger as time goes by–if they did not, then everyone could fold their bad cards and the tournament could last days, or weeks! Blinds “force the action” and they get their name from the fact that you must put in your chips “blind”, before you even see your two hole cards.

N.B. for tournaments that last only one evening the blinds increase every 15, 20 or 30 minutes. For the $1500 tournament I played they increase every hour and for the $10,000 “main event” it is every 2 hours.

After everyone is dealt two hole cards the action starts on the first person that is in “front” of the big blind and moves clockwise around the table. This first player (called “under the gun”) has a choice to “call” (i.e. match the amount of the big blind), “raise” (put in a bet larger than the big blind) or “fold” (throw away their cards). Let’s say the small blind (SB) is 50, big blind (BB) is 100 and the “under the gun” (UTG) player raises to 300. Now if anyone wants to keep playing this hand they must at least match 300 (“call”) or they could raise.

Raising: The original BB is 100 and UTG raised to 300. That is a raise of 200 so if another player wanted to re-raise they would have to at least double the 200 chip raise therefore betting 500.

N.B. It is called “no limit” hold ‘em because there is no limit to how many chips you can bet during your turn. Anyone can move “all in” with their remaining chips when betting. There are many “limit” versions of poker as well.  

In our example, let’s say there are 9 players and 3 additional players have good enough hole cards that they “call” the 300 bet. You now have 4 players left in the hand and at least 1200 chips in the pot (if the SB and BB folded then you have 1350 (300 x 4 + 150), but if the SB and BB are 2 of the 4 players, you only have 1200 chips). Now the dealer deals 3 cards called the “flop”. At this point the players have seen 5 of the 7 total cards possible and have a decent idea about the value of their hand. The second round of betting begins with the SB (if they are still in the hand), BB (if they are still in the hand) or UTG player and continues clockwise. Let’s say the SB and BB are 2 of the 3 players who called and they “check” (they are not forced to bet at this point) . UTG bets 600, one other person calls 600 and the SB and BB fold. There are now 2 people left “in the hand” and the pot contains 2400 chips.

The dealer deals another card called “the turn” so the players have now seen 6 of the 7 cards possible. UTG “checks”, other player “checks”. The dealer deals “the river” (the final card). UTG bets 1000 and the other player folds so the UTG player wins 2400 chips!

Some things to consider regarding strategy:

  • The power of position. It is better to be in late position, after other people have acted, than early. Having good cards is great, but putting in a big raise (after players have just called the big blind) can get people to fold. The more “information” you can gather, the better.
  • “Putting people on a hand”. If someone raises you have to think about their range. In early position it will be something like AK, AQ, AJ, AA, KK, QQ, JJ, 10 10, 99 etc. But in later position, if no one has raised, it might be “any two cards” within reason (e.g. K 10, Q 10, J 10 etc.)
  • Putting together the story: the fascinating part of poker is trying to figure out what other people have, and acting accordingly. Poker has been described as “like playing chess but only seeing half of the chess board”. Even when you are not playing in a hand you should be observing what other players are doing. How often do they raise? Do they “check raise”? If you do get to see their cards at the end of a hand you should memorize them  (“wow, he raised in early position with Q 10, that is a really wide range”).
  • Paying attention is important: In the above scenario (blinds are 50 and 100) if 4 people just “call” the big blind and it gets back to the SB and that person folds, you know they are a weak player. They would only have to put another 50 chips in to have a chance at winning 600. So they are getting “12 to 1” on their money (e.g. they only need to win the pot slightly more than 10% of the time for this to be profitable). So they should be playing “any two cards”. If a player folds then you know they don’t understand “pot odds” very well and are weak. You can “exploit” that later on.
  • Aggression is often a good idea. Why bet when you can raise? It’s hard to make a pair. Most hands are won by a higher pair, or two pairs. But sometimes things get much more complicated!
  • David Sklansky is one of the earlier writers on poker theory and he presented a detailed and complex analysis of the topic. This is his “fundamental theorem”. “Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.”

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