Live No-Limit Hold ‘Em Games
Part I of II
by Corwin Cole
Game availability, structure, and selection
For a live-game player, it’s necessary to live in the proximity of a hub of casinos, or at least near one large one with a lot of games. Major hubs that exist in the U.S. are found in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Los Angeles. While the Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos are full-scale resorts with the whole spectrum of gambling options – from slots to roulette to poker to sports betting – the Los Angeles casinos are just card rooms, where various forms of poker and competitive card games are played. But in all three of these locations, a huge array of poker games are spread, over a vast number of tables – far too many tables for any one professional to dominate.
When going to a brick-and-mortar poker room, game structure is a major issue for a no-limit hold ‘em player. At many casinos, including the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles, the biggest poker room in the world, the low-stakes NLHE games have a fixed buy-in amount, in the neighborhood of 40-60 big blinds. This means that a $5/10 NLHE game, for example, might have a buy-in of $400 with no flexibility. In these formats, compared to a 100 big blind buy-in, there is little room for maneuverability after the flop, so preflop and flop edges must be pushed dramatically. On the other hand, some casinos, including The Venetian, Caesar’s Palace, and Wynn in Las Vegas, spread low-stakes NLHE games with uncapped buy-ins! This means that you could, if you wanted to and had the money, sit with $100,000 at a $1/3 game. Furthermore, almost all casinos have an uncapped buy-in structure for their higher-limit NLHE games, generally $10/20 and up.
There are other major monetary leaks that occur in a live-game setting as well. In the US, it is considered proper etiquette to tip the dealer when you win a pot. It’s not necessary to make large, ridiculous tips, but just toss them a few dollars when they push the chips toward you. On top of that, you have to tip drink and food servers, again just a dollar or so whenever they bring you something. And if you ask a floor manager to get you a top-priority seat at a very soft table you’ve scouted out, you had better tip that manager, otherwise you aren’t getting anything.
Lastly, the rake is generally quite high in live games, compared to online play, and there is often an additional rake taken from every pot for the “bad beat” or “high hand” jackpot. For instance, at the $1/2 NLHE game at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, the rake is capped at $4, with an additional $1 taken from every pot for the high hand jackpot. Furthermore, rake is taken from the pot even if no flop is dealt! This kind of rake structure is not uncommon, and when 2.5 big blinds are taken from all of the large pots you win, that’s a pretty significant detriment to your winrate.
So, what can you do to optimize your experience playing live, given all of these issues? One of the most important things you must do is to find uncapped games to play in. When you play with deeper stacks, the percent of your winrate that is affected by rake is decreased, because there is more money for you to win relative to the blinds. Furthermore, deep-stacked structure is more conducive to really crushing the game. Another good practice is not to over-tip. You will often see people tipping dealers up to $20 after winning a pot worth over $200. This is excessive, and when you tip a dealer, it should be $1 or $2. The same goes with food and drink servers. However, you should use floor people to your advantage. They know where the soft games are, with the deepest stacks and the most action. Meet them, shake their hands, tip them $10-20, and ask them to get you a seat at the best table they have, as soon as possible. If you make friends with your floor managers in this way, you can nurture this friendship to the point where they will even call you at home to come play in particularly profitable games when they are running.
Finally, try and play at a casino with a membership rewards program and/or a low rake. If you can get entries into freeroll tournaments, or VIP points that allow you to purchase free chips, or whatever benefit is possible, then you essentially have signed up for a form of rakeback. Think carefully, when playing live, about how many ways you can just use your general intelligence to improve your game selection and winrate, aside from your poker knowledge. These little things will make a huge difference in your overall profitability.
In addition, you should go to your local casino on days when high-action, highly profitable players tend to frequent it. However, you should go during slow hours, before the crowd arrives. When you are playing live, your hourly winrate is by far the most important issue in evaluating your play, and this will be affected significantly by the amount of time you spend waiting to get a game. If you go in the mid-afternoon, and get on a table after being on the waitlist for only 15 minutes, then you will waste little time just sitting around unable to play.
You should also take full advantage of your right to change seats and change tables. If your table has died and the action has left, talk to your favorite floor person, and use what you know from the above paragraph to get a better table. Also, if your seat is in a bad spot relative to the high-action players (namely, they are to your left), then move to their left if you can. And if your opponents are all the same type, so it doesn’t matter where you sit, then move to an open seat where you can see the players better, if one becomes available.
Typical live games and strategies to beat them
Live players, just like online players, come in all forms from bad to terrible. It is important to note that good players, just like in online play, essentially do not exist unless you are playing the highest limits available. And if you do encounter them, they will be mostly irrelevant, because they are not so good that they have an edge over you. Here are some common game types, and my advice for how you should go about crushing them.
1. The table full of ultra loose-passives
It is very common to find an entire table with 8 or 9 opponents, all of whom are extremely loose, trying to see almost every flop, but are also extraordinarily passive and weak. These players are only trying to make the best hands possible, but are also taking every single opportunity – with any two cards preflop or any draw postflop – to make those hands. It should be clear already how to crush this game. First, be wary of raises. When your opponents have an enormous tendency to just see the flop cheaply, they are not raising speculative or weak hands, just premium holdings. Second, punish loose limping when you have position as hard as you can. A big raise before the flop will take the pot down very often, and the profitability of these steal moves is enormous given the large size of the pot, inflated by all the limpers.
Third, and most importantly, punish people for their draws postflop as much as possible. In live games, people have no concept of pot odds and definitely do not know how to calculate them, even if they are familiar with the term. So if you bet full-pot, you will get called by gutshot straight draws. And much of the time, you can overbet as well. Don’t be afraid to bet three times the size of the pot if your opponent is likely to call that amount. And if you can determine that your opponent is very unlikely to call a large bet, use that information to bluff when you can’t value bet. Overall, your play should be very tight out of position, playing only premium cards and the best speculative hands that tend to hit harder than your opponents’ more junky speculative holdings, and quite aggressive in position, punishing people for their loose-weak tendencies as much as possible.
2. The table full of weak-tight super nits
When I was recently in Los Angeles with Daut, he told me an interesting story about a hand he played at a $10/20 uncapped buy-in NLHE game. Everyone at the table had been extremely tight and very weak, reading their opponents for the nuts every time. Taking advantage of this, Daut had been raising quite a bit, and taking down pot after pot uncontested. At one point, sitting fairly deep-stacked with over $3,000, he raised under the gun with 54s. The action folded to the big blind, who folded 88 face-up, despite having a lot of money in front of him. We can see why this is unbelievably weak-tight, and how a game full of players like this lends itself to being bulldozed by you.
Fortunately, in live games, you can be a very aggressive “bully” and really keep driving it home. Show some good hands when you make them, and also show some laydowns of strong hands when you know you’re beaten. You’ll continue to get respect and take down tons of pots with your aggression. Use scare cards to your advantage. Abuse position as hard as you can. Never assume you have good implied odds to hit a draw, but always remember that you have good implied bluff equity to push people out of the pot on scare cards.
3. Super deep-stacked games with bad opponents
Use the leverage of your deep stack to its full potential. Play a ton of pots cheaply preflop, and raise preflop with a lot of mix-it-up hands. Every now and then, do something genuinely non-standard, that is not a solid play, and try your best to advertise it. If you win the pot with a bluff, show it; if you get caught bluffing, show that, just until everyone starts to hate you a little bit. Make value bets that are a touch too thin, and when you show your hand at the end, show it as if you’re confident that it’s best. Don’t spend much money building this image; one silly move is more than enough, and you definitely should never make an image-building play in a large or even medium pot. Keep the price of your image as small as possible.
In general, develop an image that makes it seem like you have little understanding of hand strength. Make some cheap bluffs when they are available postflop. Show some bluffs, and generally carry yourself as if you have come to dominate the table, projecting an image that makes your opponents want to re-establish their dominance over you. When they get annoyed with you, because you are playing many pots and being tricky and aggressive (but never getting out of line for large sums, remember), they will pay off your completed draws and big hands. And when your stack is very deep, the payoff potential is enormous, and the value of developing this image is staggering.
4. Short-stacked games with no room for turn and river play
Exploit your preflop and flop edges as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to make a slight overbet push preflop to pick up multi-way limped pots when you are extremely unlikely to get action, and have a decent hand anyway. When you will be pot committed on the flop by making any preflop raise to begin with, sometimes you should just go all-in now and discourage potentially multi-way action. It is impressive how many times, even in a game with a fixed buy-in of 30 big blinds, you will be sitting on the button and see six players limp in front of you. When this happens, and you shove preflop, you are only risking 30 big blinds to win 7.5. That’s not a terrible result when your hand is alright anyway, because it’s extremely common for everyone to fold. And best of all, you can keep doing this whenever you have a decent hand in position, and people will continue to limp and keep on folding as well.
Moreover, semi-bluffing the flop is great in this setting, because you can safely go all-in, getting good pot odds to do so, and have no extra risk on the turn or river to make a desperate second bluff or be pushed off of your draw when it doesn’t hit. Finally, it is very easy to pot commit people in a game where the stacks are short, and you should do it as much as possible, by sizing your bets appropriately. For instance, suppose somebody loves to see the flop for almost any amount, but he is only 30 big blinds deep. He raises to three big blinds, and you have a good hand with which you want to get him all-in. If you re-raise to 12 big blinds, now he will only have 18 remaining when the flop comes! If he gets any piece of it, even a gutshot draw, he is very unlikely to let go of his hand.
Greater information available in live games
When playing live, there is a lot more you can learn about people compared to online play, even without playing hands against them. You get to see their body language and facial expressions, you can talk to your opponents, and you can gain information before it is your turn to act. Furthermore, you can convey information about yourself that may influence your opponents’ decisions. There are several extremely powerful benefits to this facet of live games, but also some important pitfalls to avoid.
Reading body language is a deadly weapon and a delicate trap at the same time. When you observe somebody’s posture, you will generally have a good idea of how she feels about her hand. If she is hunched over, not alert, and not sitting in a manner that expresses a desire for action, she probably doesn’t have much. If she is sitting up straight, focusing intently on the action around her, and seeming like this is the moment she’s been waiting for, she probably feels great about her hand.
But more important than these absolute terms of posture – which signal whether somebody is weak or strong – is that you should look for changes in your opponent’s posture during the course of play. If you observe somebody who always tends to sit very upright and alert, and in general looks very nervous at all times, then his upright posture and excited appearance don’t give you any clues about his hand! However, if he suddenly becomes very fidgety and is sitting even more upright, adjusting himself in his seat, looking very uncomfortable in his position, then now you can see that his posture changed, and he probably has a big hand, or maybe there’s a small chance he’s trying a big bluff! Alternatively, if a blank card comes out on the river, and he seems to slouch down, his posture less upright and less alert, seeming sad like a disappointed child, then you can be confident that he has missed a draw. Everyone naturally has a different posture, and when it changes, you know that something about their emotional state changed. Use the information you have to decide what changed, and then respond appropriately.
Verbal language is quite different and much more dangerous to use. While body language tends to be a very good and easily understood indicator of emotions, words are much more deceptive. It is always difficult to determine whether a person is lying or not, and, if they are lying, in which way. Some people like to tell you that they have a good hand when they have a weak hand, and vice versa. Others like to tell you exactly what they have, because they “know” you won’t believe them. And some people even like to tell you they have a strong hand, but one which is different from what they actually have, because they think you won’t believe that!
Essentially, there are two levels of deception that people employ in their table talk: first-level, which is to talk strong when weak and weak when strong, or second-level, which is to act like you are using first-level deception. In my experience, it’s basically impossible to determine which kind of deception somebody uses, and some people will use both randomly. So be very wary of information you gather from verbal cues, because it is dangerous.
Fortunately, though, the physical and verbal information you get can usually be obtained at the instant your opponent knows what his or her hand is. So, when the flush scare hits on the turn, you can often make a good read immediately whether your opponent hit a flush – you don’t have to bet or check first to find out. To illustrate how important it is to know this kind of information ahead of time, let me provide an example from a hand I played a few months ago.
I was playing live $2/5 NL, a game with a $300 buy-in. There were two complete nits (who were friends) in seats 7 and 8, and I was in seat 2. After a while, seat 7 moved to seat 4, and these two guys were sometimes talking to each other across the table. I was getting a ton of respect throughout the night. In this hand, I raised AKo from MP1 to $25, and a somewhat tight but very bad player on the button called, and the nit in seat 8 called as well. The flop came Ad Kd 4d. The nit in seat 8 saw the flop and immediately looked at his friend in seat 4, then looked back down at his chips and checked. I checked my top two pair, the button bet $50, and seat 8 thought for a bit and flat called. I folded. At showdown, the big blind in seat 8 had -- obviously -- QdJd for the nut flush on the flop. My interpretation of his excited glance on the flop saved me a significant bet, because I would have bet $60 there if this was an online game or I had not been looking at him when the flop was dealt.
But there is an important danger about reading opponents that you must keep in mind. Never forget that in a live game, people tend to have very little sense for the real strength and value of their hands. So, you will often make highly accurate natural reads about a player’s feelings about his hand. You will know that he thinks he is strong, or that he thinks he is weak, and these reads, after only a few dozen hours of careful playing, will become spot-on. But you must then ask, what does he define as “strong”? What does he define as “weak”? Also, even if he thinks he is strong, can he be pushed off of his hand anyway? And even if he thinks he is weak, is he still a station who cannot be bluffed? You must remember to ask yourself these questions, because otherwise you may start to rely far too much on "tells" and forget about pure logic and betting patterns, which are always important no matter how much physical information you have.
Moreover, you must always consider everyone in the hand to be important, when you are making your decision. While this is not a strange concept, or much different from online play, it is necessary to emphasize. If you try to make a play at somebody, particularly one based on a read, then you must always consider whether that play is viable given the other players involved in the hand. For instance, if you want to bluff somebody off of an obvious weak hand, can you do that safely even though there is somebody else in the pot? Also, if you want to pick on loose limpers, can you really do that with total air when some of the limpers call a lot of raises preflop?
Even if somebody has not yet acted on their hand, never assume that they are tight players who will respect your raise and only give you action with strong hands. Usually, in online play, it is a reasonable assumption that only very strong hands will play against your raises, from people who have not yet acted. But in live games you will far more often get action in very strange spots from people with completely unpredictable hands.
Finally, you have to consider your own tells, and the signals you give at the poker table, in addition to those of your opponents. Even though people mostly don’t have a clue how to play proper poker, they are still watching you, and still may sometimes detect something in your body language that allows them to outplay you. Your feelings can betray your cards. When you feel differently about the plays you make and the cards you have, you can easily have a different posture, tone of voice, or other nervous tics. Just remember that, emotionally, everything in poker is the same. Bluffing and value betting are no different -- they both have some EV attached to them, and you make your decision right now so that your EV is positive, or you fold if you figure there is no +EV thing to do. Whether you hold AA or 27, whether your decision is difficult or easy, your heart should focus on nothing except the pure fact that you’re playing poker. Train yourself to feel exactly the same in all situations, no matter what's happening.
Stay tuned for the next installment of this two-part article, coming up next week! The second part will contain the following sections:
Common "tells" you will find in live games
Managing your table relationships
Tips for improving your live game
The "big-picture" contrast to online play