Resurrecting the Poker No Limit vs Limit Argument

Posted by Steve Ruddock, September 1, 2014

No Limit Hold'em is the current king of the poker world; it supplanted Limit Hold'em during the Poker Boom and became the most popular poker format out there. But is No Limit a better format than the one it replaced? It's back to the poker no limit vs limit argument.

"Duel with Cudgels" by Francisco Goya

My feeling is no. In my opinion (which is the only one that matters in this column) No Limit Hold'em is bad for the long term ecology of poker.

There has been a lot of talk about "good for poker" and "bad for poker" recently, partially thanks to Daniel Colman's decision to shun the press following his win in the $1,000,000 buy-in Big One for One Drop tournament, and I've done my fair share of speaking of mind on this topic.

Well, get ready because I'm about to toss out another thought grenade, this time on the topic of No Limit games vs. Limit games, and why certain structures are bad for poker.


What makes a GOOD poker format?

A good poker format is one where skill wins out in the long run, but there is still enough of an element of luck involved to keep the fish happy.

What I mean by this is, the best players will win enough in the long-run to overcome the rake and make a decent living, but the game itself has enough variance that the fish will win enough to not think the game is hopelessly unbeatable.

In my estimation, No limit Hold'em does not offer this balance.

As mentioned in the opening, No Limit Hold'em supplanted Limit Hold'em, which supplanted games like Seven Card Stud, Five Card Stud, Five Card Draw, and somewhat remarkably, No Limit Hold'em.

The reason most of these games went out of favor was that they were either not skillful enough or too skillful --in my opinion only Limit Hold'em and Seven Card Stud have the right balance.


The rise of No limit Hold'em

Before the Poker Boom, poker was by and large a casual, fast-moving game, where you'd have a professional or two at a table and a bunch of kitchen table poker players rounding out the lineup, who frankly didn't care if they won or lost.

It was a time when Limit betting structure predominated and mistakes were merely minor hiccups that cost you a big bet or two, not your entire stack.

In addition to the structure being different, the stakes were also relatively small (nobody outside an exclusive group of pros and a pigeon or two were playing $25/$50 No Limit or above $20/$40 Limit) and only the biggest fish needed to reload their initial buy-in more than once.

Basically, no matter your skill level you got a lot of play and a lot of banter out of your initial stake money.

Even if you were playing $10/$20 Limit Hold'em, and were terrible at the game you could make $1,000 last several hours.

Then along came No Limit, which required players to adapt to poker No Limit Hold'em rules and poker No Limit strategy.

The problem with a No Limit betting structure in cash games is that it magnifies every bad beat, and turns even the most minor lapse in judgment into a serious blunder. As an aside, it's the perfect tournament structure, and No Limit poker tournament strategy is a different animal altogether, and in my opinion and we shouldn't confuse the two.

No Limit as the predominant structure in poker rooms has removed the casualness of each decision ("it's only one more bet" is a common refrain in Limit games), and replaced it with what amounts to non-stop anxiety and a corrosive feeling of dread.




The psychology of playing No Limit

I'm not the first person to bring this up. Nolan Dalla once controversially blogged about this very topic and it's something I agreed with wholeheartedly in a previous column.

I said it then and I'll say it now: No Limit is not a game amateurs should be playing.

amateurs should not play no limit holdem

I was reminded of this on my most recent trip to Foxwoods where I saw players move in and out of a $1/$2 No limit Hold'em game faster than the waitress could bring their drink orders to the table.

Amateurs playing No Limit poker games is a lot like a weekend warrior golfer playing on a golf course prepped for the US Open. They simply have no chance. The game is the most popular and everyone wants to play it because of its popularity, but they don't realize that it's going to lead to frustration and a higher likelihood of them losing their interest in poker.

Whenever I have this conversation with people I'm always reminded of a certain movie scene: It's one of the most famous and quoted lines from "Rounders": "You can shear a sheep many times but skin him only once." Not only do players get skinned in No Limit games, they get skinned so fast they don't even know what happened.

Frankly, it's not so much the amount you can bet that makes No Limit a bad structure, or that No Limit poker cash game strategy is so monumentally different, it's the sheer anxiety over every hand, and the nonstop mental focus needed to play the game that burns people out.

The Code of Honor--A Duel In The Bois De Boulogne, Near Paris by G. Durand

Think of it this way:

A $5/$10 Limit Hold'em game requires roughly the same buy-in as $1/$2 No Limit game, about $200 to $300.

But for anyone who has ever participated in both they know this is pretty much where the similarities end.

A bad beat on the river in a $5/$10 Limit Hold'em game is likely to cost you somewhere from $30 to $50 AFTER you get sucked out on.

You know the drill: You have AA, flop a set and your opponent rivers a gutshot straight. Your opponent bets, you figure he can't be stupid enough to have chased a gutshot and raise, he re-raises and you either call or perhaps raise again.

When the cards are flipped your luckbox opponent has just extracted $30-$50 from you: That bastard!

But when the same hand plays out in a No Limit game your opponent ends up raising you all-in after you bet the river and that same beat ends up costing you a couple hundred dollars, which causes you to forego calling him a lucky bastard in favor of calling him, A Piece of S**T Lucky BASTARD!!!!

no limit is the player's enemy

Theoretically the losses have the same long-term EV, and some people argue that Limit is higher variance than No Limit, but the impact of the two different betting structures on amateur players who probably won't reach the long-run and don't understand variance is the difference between shaking your head during a minute of tilt, and full blown monkey tilt that sees you hitting up the ATM a few times.

And we all know, when you've hit full blown monkey tilt it means you're about to lose a lot more money. The difference between being rivered in Limit and No Limit is very pronounced when you see it in action.

Essentially, the constant anxiety of your entire stack being at risk every single moment, coupled with the cruel and unusual punishment the poker gods like to hand out is a recipe for emotional ruin and burnout and leads to many "poker is rigged" and "you can't win playing poker" comments.

Regular players simply aren't prepared for this type of nonstop mental strain and because they are overmatched to begin with (No Limit is an extremely nuanced game) their losses also tend to pile up much faster.

Recreational players don't mind losing, but they do mind losing their entire budget in 10 minutes.


Bigger swings stick in the memory banks longer

Furthermore, because they are anxious and tend to tilt, for some players their sessions continue on long after they have hit their stop-loss limit, so they tend to lose more money and these over-their-budget losses tend to make them jaded.

This speed with which they are losing, and the potentially high amounts they are losing in a session, make the losses more noticeable as well.

As I said earlier, it's uncommon for an okay player to lose two full buy-ins playing Limit poker, but it's not uncommon at all for an okay player to lose four or five buy-ins playing No Limit.




Over fishing

While each individual player's mental well being is important, No limit Hold'em presents a second and far larger problem to the poker ecology.

Remember above when I said a good format has a good balance between luck and skill? This is also what is needed for a good poker ecology, where outgoing players are replaced by new players is balance, and this balance requires pros to accept moderation.

In poker terms this means finding games, stakes, and structures that allow you to still earn a living, but also keeps the fish populations at a level where new fish can take their place and more importantly are happy to do so.

The poker economy needs a constant flow of new money coming or the only winner is the rake collected by the house. This is why No Limit is the house's friend but the player's enemy.

It's not just that No Limit is killing the fish faster than they are being replaced either.

For every fish you bust that's one less person who will tell his fish friends about poker. Losing all one's money in a single poorly played hand is, humiliating, frustrating, unsatisfying or a combination of all of these things.

Losing $200 in 15 minutes is tough to stomach, whereas losing $200 after 3 hours of Limit Hold'em is something you can deal with, and you might talk a few of your friends into joining you next time.

Think of it this way: You might get in shape faster if your personal trainer worked you out until you puked every time, but I doubt you'd enjoy the experience or tell your friends about how great he or she is. In fact, you'd probably quit before you saw any results and tell everyone you know how it didn't help and just made you sick.

The same logic needs to be applied to poker by poker pros. They need to ask themselves if giving up a little short term expectation is good for poker in the long run and more importantly, good for their peace of mind.

Does letting a player leave the casino with 1/2 their buy-in in their pocket make it more likely for them to return? Perhaps many, many more times and with an assortment of friends!

As poker players we need to realize it's much, much better to win $50 100-times than to win $5000 all at once.


Steve Ruddock

Steve Ruddock is a veteran writer in the poker and iGaming industry who covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. Follow Steve on Twitter at @SteveRuddock



Further Reading:  

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Texas Hold'em Poker Guide

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Previous articles by Steve Ruddock:

Pulling Back the Curtain on the Poker Media

Are Online Poker Players Really Better Than Live Poker Players?

Poker Tournament Changes Are Chasing Away Amateur Players

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