In Praise of Fixed Limit Poker

Guest Post by Jason Kirk, April 27, 2014

I first began playing poker in the early 2000s, at the beginning of the online poker boom, after seeing an ad on television during a program I'd stumbled across while flipping through the channels. Living nowhere near a card room myself, I assumed that the game people played in them was probably the same one that I saw on that first episode of the World Poker Tour that I caught on the Travel Channel: no-limit hold'em. Made today, such a guess by a newcomer would be correct; back then my assumption couldn't have been further from the truth. Fixed limit poker was the king of the hill.

limit poker

Limit hold'em was easily the most popular game around at the time. It dominated poker rooms in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Atlantic City, with most professional players earning their living at the mid-stakes tables and higher. New Jersey was still the stronghold of seven-card Stud's popularity, and at least a handful of Omaha hi-lo games could be found in most locales. But no-limit hold'em, christened “the Cadillac of Poker” by two-time world champion Doyle Brunson in his seminal strategy volume Super/System, was played primarily in tournaments and small-stakes cash games were essentially non-existent. Surprise, surprise: the TV was full of lies.


What is Fixed Limit Texas Hold'em?

In Fixed Limit Poker, you can only bet a fixed amount at any one time, and can only raise a set number of times per street. This limits your betting range but also the size of your potential loss.


It turned out that I wouldn't be moving all-in on anybody anytime soon because online poker, being the new kid on the block at the time, simply emulated the live poker world when it came to its cash game offerings. All the innovations that we take for granted today when it comes to game variety had yet to be implemented. Limit hold'em and seven-card Stud were the two constants across all the sites, with at least half of them offering limit Omaha hi-lo and a handful still featuring five-card Stud and Draw. Most sites had only just begun to offer tournaments at this point, and even those were mostly limit hold'em games. If you were going to learn to play proper poker, it was paramount that you learn how to win at a fixed limit game of some kind. I chose to begin my education in poker fundamentals with limit hold'em.

Things are so different today that telling this tale of my start in recreational poker to someone who's new to the game would probably elicit a blank stare of disbelief. No-limit became the king once the online poker rooms began offering it, and that popularity bled over into live poker. Once omnipresent, $2/$4 and $4/$8 limit hold'em games have mostly dried up. Seven-card Stud is nearly impossible to find, particularly at small stakes. Limit Omaha hi-lo remains a niche game in live rooms, and online O/8 is now mostly played as a pot-limit game. In the place of these games - and in far greater numbers than they were ever able to draw before the poker boom - are the $1/$2 and $2/$5 no-limit tables and their smaller-stakes online counterparts that for years have constituted the overwhelming majority of live games running in American casinos.

I have nothing against no-limit games, but it's a shame that their fixed limit cousins have mostly been put out to pasture. While they aren't for everyone, they do offer some distinct advantages over big-bet games that make them worth playing. I'm not going to lie to you - fixed limit Hold'em poker isn't for everybody. If your eyes glaze over at all of these suggestions, the big-bet games are clearly your thing. More power to you for knowing what you like! But if you're just beginning to play poker, or are still trying to find your niche, you should give limit poker some serious consideration.



Early advantages in playing fixed limit poker

A more forgiving learning curve

Beating any poker game means making good decisions with regularity, but a limit poker player sees more streets more often, making it a great place to learn strong fundamental poker skills. Calculating pot odds is of prime importance in fixed limit poker, giving new players who memorize a few basic bits of math a precise method of figuring out whether they should be in a given hand - a much easier situation to be in for a newcomer than trying to figure out the implied odds that are so important in no-limit. And stealing is far less important than in no-limit, since it's much harder to do when your opponent only has to call a single fixed bet. With fewer high-pressure decisions and the knowledge that your opponents usually have some kind of hand, it's relatively easy to learn how to read the strength of those hands as well as gauge the strength of your own hand. Those are skills that translate to any poker game you'll ever play, regardless of the betting structure.

Your good decisions won't earn you as much

This probably sounds like a bad thing to anybody who plays no-limit, where you can maximize the value of good decisions by taking an opponent's entire stack. The number of decisions you have to make is far greater in limit poker, where you see more streets more often, so you'll have to make them with regularity to beat the game. And often the good decision you're making in limit poker is a fold that saves a single bet, which doesn't on the surface look all that good a thing at all. But there are some upsides earning more incrementally than you can in those big-bet games.

For starters, you can't win too big too fast, think you belong at a bigger game, and sit down with your whole bankroll only to be eaten by some shark for lunch. On a more practical level, spending more time at the table at a lower level, building up a proper bankroll for the next limit up, means seeing more hands and becoming more comfortable in the game. It also means more chances to analyze your own game for mistakes and learn how to fix them before you step up to a higher level. Just don't be too conservative in moving up if you do well with the assumption that higher stakes automatically mean better players. Wait too long and the rake, which is a greater factor at small-stakes fixed limit tables, will take a big chunk of your profits. Moving up as quickly as your bankroll will support it is the best way to stay ahead of this problem.


build your bankroll

Your mistakes won't cost you as much

Mistakes in limit games will definitely cost you - if you play a game full of holes, you'll leak your bankroll dry pretty quickly even without being allowed to move all-in. But the fixed nature of the betting means that the game's learning curve is much more forgiving than its no-limit cousin (assuming, of course, that you're playing within your bankroll). A misstep that might see you lose your stack in a no-limit game will usually take just a few big bets out of your stack in a limit game. The loss still stings, but you get to stay at the table and keep playing and that's highly valuable in and of itself when you're learning to play.

Then there's the paradoxical truth that making more mistakes can actually make you a more profitable player. As the late, great poker coach, player, and author Lou Krieger said it many years ago: “Very cautious players, who never call unless certain of winning, will avoid calling with a lesser hand, but will often relinquish a pot they would have won. Players who call all the time will capture just about every pot they could possibly win, but will find themselves holding the short straw far too often when the hands are shown down. The paradox is that good players will make both kinds of errors some of the time, in order to avoid being a predictable player at one or the other end of the bluffing-calling spectrum.” These mistakes cost you much less in limit poker, so they're less of a burden to make in pursuit of playing your best overall game.


utilize the advantages of playing fixed limit poker


Later advantages in playing fixed limit poker

Once you've been at poker for a while, the advantages of playing fixed limit games change a bit - but they're definitely still there. In fact, they're even more valuable once you're playing with the big boys.

Getting action

Gigantic no-limit games aren't non-existent, but when you go broke in them it's pretty difficult to get another stake together unless you're already so wealthy that reading articles like this would never even occur to you. And if somehow you become the one guy who beats them consistently, nobody's going to want to play against you. If you want to get big action, you'll need to be willing to play fixed limit games - preferably a variety of them, since many of the world's biggest cash games are played in a mixed format. When everyone is willing to give up a small edge in one or two games in order to gain a small edge in one or two others, it's a lot easier to get action. Plus, if you make up a new as high rollers sometimes do), it'll be easier to convince people to play it with you if they're not risking their entire stacks on a given hand.

Bling potential

If you want to win a WSOP bracelet, or a side event at a major tournament festival, you can do a lot worse than playing in a fixed limit tournament. For starters, the fields are smaller. For instance, last year's $5,000 No Limit Hold'em drew 784 players, but the field for the $5,000 Limit Hold'em was just 170. The $5K HORSE and $5K Omaha Hi-Lo events were also on the small side, at 261 and 241. This certainly isn't meant to say that winning a fixed limit bracelet is easy - at this level, basically everyone in the tournament is a high-level player. But as long as you belong at the table, your chances are certainly better than if you were taking on a few thousand players instead.

Fixed limit bracelets are a constant in the bios of many of the game's biggest names. Six of the legendary Johnny Moss' nine bracelets came in limit games. Likewise, six of Phil Ivey's nine career bracelets have come in fixed-limit events, including all three that he won at the 2002 WSOP. Half of Doyle Brunson's 10 bracelets were won in limit games, as were four of Phil Hellmuth's 13. Daniel Negreanu has three bracelets from fixed limit games, two in limit hold'em and one in SHOE (stud/hold'em/Omaha hi-lo/Stud hi-lo). And the first three bracelets that eight-time winner Erik Seidel earned came in limit hold'em and Omaha hi-lo.

There are plenty of other players who are lesser-known to the world at large but have still collected quite a bit of gold thanks to fixed limit Hold'em poker. The 2008 WSOP Player of the Year, Tom Schneider, has won four bracelets in his career, one in a Stud hi-lo/Omaha hi-lo event and three in HORSE, including a sweep of last year's two HORSE events. Jeffrey Lisandro owns five, all from Stud games, including one in each major Stud discipline (Stud, Stud hi-lo, and Razz) to win the WSOP POY award back in 2009. And all seven of the bracelets won by Men “The Master” Nguyen have come in limit games.


What is a kill game?

A kill game is a variation of fixed limit poker's betting rules. In kill games, when the same player wins two pots in a row, the table stakes are doubled until another player wins a hand. Variants include a half kill game.


To the moon

The largest-stakes cash games ever played were part of a limit hold'em match arranged between a coalition of Las Vegas professionals and a math genius from Texas named Andy Beal. A banker by trade and billionaire by net worth, Beal took on The Corporation - a group that included a rotating cast of players including Ted Forrest, Chip Reese, Barry Greenstein, Doyle Brunson, and Jennifer Harman, among others - at the Bellagio in Las Vegas back in 2004. The stakes started at $10,000/$20,000 - twice as big as any other game ever played at the time - and reached as high as $100,000/$200,000, with Beal winning $11.7 million on a single hand at one point. The Corporation won the early matches before Beal came roaring back in 2006 to take them for $13.6 million. But then he dropped $16.6 million to Phil Ivey in a three-day session and cried uncle to end the saga, which was chronicled by writer Michael Craig in a book - The Professor, The Banker, and The Suicide King - and a series of articles for BLUFF Magazine.


play limit poker

As you can see, whether you're just beginning to step into the world of fixed limit poker or a veteran with lots of experience, there's plenty of money to be made without moving all-in. Far from slow or boring, limit games pack a punch all their own no matter what stakes you're playing. They make a great complement to big-bet poker and anyone who knows how to play them well will find an edge at the table more often than not.


Further Reading:  

Titan Poker Benefits
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Poker and the Bible

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Texas Hold'em Poker Guide

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Why Poker Is Better than Sex


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