No Limit Holdem’s Days Are Numbered

No Russian PokerLast week Nolan Dalla penned an interesting blog post about the differences between No Limit and Limit games. The blog caused a minor social media kerfuffle as advocates for both forms of poker offered up their two cents.

Well, yours truly left a couple pennies on Nolan’s Facebook page, and a couple more on longtime Cardplayer Magazine columnist Roy Cooke’s, but as I still have nearly a dollar worth of change in my pocket here are some more thoughts on the matter.

If you don’t follow social media, I pretty much agree entirely with Nolan’s comments. No Limit is a poor choice to maintain a thriving poker room (for cash games anyway, it’s great for tournaments) and is likely keeping a lot of potential players on the sidelines.

In my opinion, No Limit Holdem (deep-stacked anyway) is far more skillful and stressful than Limit poker games. In fact, I’m of the opinion that it is too skillful to maintain a thriving poker economy.

Here is why.

The level of “Skillfulness”

There is a fine line between a skillful game and a game where the lesser skilled player has no chance. When lesser skilled players have no chance to win they don’t play, or don’t play for a substantial amount of money. The ones that continue to play tend to be students of the game and they get better.

A perfect example of this is Chess. If I were to play 100 games of chess against a Grand Master I wouldn’t win a single game. Even if we were only betting $1 a game I wouldn’t want to play.

On the other hand, pit me against a superior backgammon player and I would still get my ass handed to me, but even me, a backgammon hack, would win a few games. If we were still betting $1 I’d probably keep playing if I liked backgammon enough, even if I only expected to win 20 games out of 100. The enjoyment and the thrill of the game would keep me interested enough that losing a few dollars whenever we got together wouldn’t matter.

Taking the skillfulness argument a step further, I would not bet even $5 a game with an obviously superior backgammon player, never-mind $20, and I wouldn’t play a single game for $100 even though I had the same ROI as 100 games at $1 a game.

We are already seeing this same mentality play out in poker.

Most of the action is either at the low and micro-stakes tables, and then there is a boatload of money playing uber-high-stakes where edges are razor thin and the hope is a whale will come along that everyone can eat off for a while.

New players realize they are at a distinct disadvantage and have decided to either play for small stakes because they like poker, or play super-high because they are wealthy. There aren’t very many soft-spots in mid-stakes games anymore, especially online, which is why you see people who use to crush the $5/$10 to $25/$50 games now multi-tabling $2/$4 and $3/$6 games.

Why the size of the bet matters

This is why No Limit Holdem doesn’t work as the game du jour for cash-games. The game is not only too skillful but it also requires wagering amounts that can make people quite uncomfortable.

Sure you can lose the same $500 playing Limit Holdem, but you at least know you’re going to get your money’s worth; nobody is, as Doyle says, “putting you to a decision for all your chips.”

In limit Holdem you can guess wrong and not have to reload.

The counterargument I hear is “then you’re playing too high.” Yes, if you’re a pro, or have aspirations of becoming a pro, but the average Joe in a casino has no interest in bankroll management. He is there with a certain amount to gamble with on that night.

No Limit Holdem is akin to buying an old Mike Tyson fight on pay-per-view; chances were the fight would be over quick and you’d be left with an extremely unsatisfied feeling, and feeling like you got cheated. Limit Holdem is more like a lightweight fight, even if you lose at least you know the fight is going to go to the judges most of the time.

Think of it this way; the average casino-goer might head out the door to play some blackjack with $500. Now make no mistake about it, he is under no illusions that he might come home with nothing. What this guy won’t do is sit down and bet the full $500 on the first hand. Even though it doesn’t change his odds it would be to anxious and has the potential to ruin his night in two seconds –like a Mike Tyson pay-per-view fight.

If he’s going to lose $500 he’s going to make it last.

Limit vs. No Limit

So will the poker world return to Limit Holdem? I doubt it.

Fortunately, there are other games waiting in the wings that don’t skin players in a single hand, and I would personally argue that anything split pot is the best form of poker going forward. Of course there is an added layer of complexity to the rules in these games, but I’ve seen drunken idiots figure it out in a single orbit before, so it’s not that hard.

Sure the rules are a little trickier, and the pace of play can be a little slower, but poor players can back into more luckbox hands by hitting a high or a low. This allows them to get their reward when they chase; far more often than they do in No Limit or even high-only Limit games, and their stack dwindles at a much slower rate.

More importantly, and anyone who plays split pot games knows this, scooping one big hand can send you home a big winner, so a poor player only need to back into that one hand every so often to go home a winner. Even in Limit Holdem it takes several key wins for this to happen.

Final thoughts

This is the most important part of this whole debate: When a player knows they are at a disadvantage the trick to getting them to play is to allow them to play longer which has the appearance of giving them more chances to “get lucky.”

This is why the price of a lottery ticket is usually just $1 and drawings are held every day; do we really think a person prefers buying one lottery ticket per year at $365 even if their ROI is the same? Well, the same rationale holds true for poker games.

No Limit may be the king, but it’s a lot like the problem that will plague Social Security down the road, it’s no longer bringing in more money than it is taking out.



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