No Limit Hold'em Poker Strategy - Low Stakes
First off, this strategy is specific to a particular game - online low stakes No Limit Holdem.
Because of the peculiar conditions in these games, I am going to question some of the traditional strategy advice you will read in books and on other strategy sites. Other strategies out there are technically superior and I make no apology for that. Where I believe this strategy is better for you, is that it acknowledges that we are not all perfect players, that we are prone to tilt when losing, and that many of us have limited bankrolls.
This strategy is therefore not optimal in terms of possible profit. It is designed to make a steady profit with a level of variance that small bankrolls can safely absorb, and which will not cause episodes of tilt.
To get the most from this strategy you need to have made a basic study of the game. You should understand the rules, and terms such as pot odds, implied odds, drawing hands, pocket pairs, sets, etc. If you do not know what any term in this strategy mean, then read the basic poker strategy sections of this website first.
Finally this is a strategy on which to base your game. It isn't the end of the story. You can adapt and improve upon it as you gain experience, and to fit your own skills and profile.
The Playing Conditions
The strategy depends on the game being loose, both pre-flop and post-flop. Pre-flop this means there are a number of people (generally four or more) seeing each flop. Post-flop this means people will bet or call with hands that are not winning and which do not have correct drawing odds.
In addition, the aggression factor is also important. The strategy works best where the game is broadly passive, although a degree of aggression on the turn and river can actually improve results. Where the strategy needs significant adaptation is if there is aggression pre-flop. Then, some of the hands I promote become redundant, and you may have to increase the range of premium hands with which you will make or call a significant raise.
The reality is there are plenty of games that meet the conditions, so my advice would be to move tables if your game has too much pre-flop aggression.
The playing conditions are important to this strategy because you must be paid off for the big hands that you hit. If the game is too aggressive pre-flop then the price of many of the hands becomes too high, and if it is too tight post-flop then you will not get the return needed to make the hands worthwhile.
At the time of writing the games with the best playing conditions for this strategy are PartyPoker.com's $25 and $50 buy-in tables. Sit down at games with an average pot over $10 (for $25 buy-in tables). However suitable games can be found on most sites, subject to minor adjustments to the strategy.
Some Basic Concepts
Before discussing detailed hands and situations, here are some key strategic concepts...
1. "No Mistakes"
This is the major principle behind this strategy. In these games everyone else is going to be making Mistakes left, right and centre. Some Mistakes will cost them money, some Mistakes will make them money, but only in the short term. Over a sufficient number of hands all Mistakes cost money. Your job is to capitalise on the biggest of other peoples' Mistakes while making as few as possible, of your own. To explain this thinking it is important to distinguish two concepts:
A Mistake is when you put money in the pot when you are behind, and you do not have correct drawing odds.
A Bad Beat is when you put money in a pot while you are ahead but get beaten by an opponent(s) who did not have correct drawing odds.
Bad Beats are OK. Well obviously they aren't "OK", they hurt like hell, but they are going to happen. Even 2-outers hit more than one time in 25 so you don't have to play that long before one is going to hit you. And most times you think you are ahead, your opponents have far more than 2 outs! But the bottom line is that you want to be in the situation to experience a Bad Beat as often as you can, because you are going to win more often than you lose and this is where you make your money. Another way of looking at this, is that this is where your opponent(s) are making their Mistakes.
Mistakes are most definitely not OK. You sit and watch other people get their premium hands beaten by rags and wheel straights, and its kind of amusing. But you have to learn from it. Just because you have AA, that doesn't mean the three fish to your left have suddenly grown a brain. If there is a hand that can beat you, you have to seriously consider it is in play, however poor that play would be. This is especially true of people hitting straights and flushes without correct odds. They don't care about odds. Don't let your knowledge blind you!
Being paranoid about being bluffed is a fertile breeding ground for Mistakes. If someone bluffs you off a $4 pot with a huge raise, its not good but its not a disaster. Take a note and when you feel you have a good read, maybe you can catch them next time. If someone traps you into calling his $50 bet when he has the nut hand, or any hand better than yours, that is a disaster. With the turnover of players on these tables, you will rarely have a good enough read to be confident calling a bluff, so let them win a few small ones and get it all back when they try just once too often. As a side effect, people may consider you to be a soft touch which will actually increase the size and regularity of bets against you - this is something you want because this brings your ability to slow play to the fore.
Obviously some Mistakes are inevitable, especially in the earlier betting rounds where there is less information available to you. You can't throw KK away to every large pre-flop raise, because even though you might be up against AA, more often than not you won't be. But in many other pre-flop situations, things are more marginal. What you need to do is to control these Mistakes so that they are cheap, until you have more information available to you.
An example. If someone raises your QQ $2, you can call and play from there. If someone raises your QQ $25, do you want to gamble this much money with imperfect information? My advice is no - a better opportunity will come if you are patient. Also, of the range of cards that someone will bet this hard for the blinds, or a small pot, how many of those hands are you a clear favourite against? Just because other people want to gamble blind, doesn't mean you have to.
During every session, take a look at your worst Mistakes and see what effect eliminating them would have had on your session. I guarantee it will surprise you. I also suspect that you will have lost more money on your top two or three Mistakes, than you lost by laying down hands that were winning at the time you folded. If that is not the case, then you have progressed beyond this strategy and probably beyond the table limits this applies to.
2. Set or Above
This is your aim. Hands that are the nuts or likely to finish up being the nuts by the river. You are going to make most of your money from these hands. You are looking at pocket pairs, decent sized connectors or one-gaps, and good suited cards.
Note the qualifications there -
- Suited cards must be good! This means either they are connected (so can win as a straight or flush), or that they drawing to the nut flush (or near) - Axs or Kxs. It is not a question of playing any two suited cards. T4 suited is a dog of a hand in any game, however loose.
- Connectors must be a decent size. 23 is not a good connector because it does not have maximum possible straights and it can only be the nuts in one situation. JT by contrast can hit the maximum number of possible straights and will always be the nuts when it hits.
Obviously this does not mean that you shouldn't play the premium hands which are so key to other strategies. You just aren't going to play them as aggressively. AKo is still a good hand!!
3. Cheap Flops
You want to see as many flops as possible where if you hit you can be confident of winning, as per the Set and Above strategy. You also don't want to invest too much up front in hands that you may be forced to walk away from.
The basic reason for this, is that at this level you can start calling big bets with confidence. Yes there will be times that you will lose to a higher set or better flush. Again, that is part of poker. And of course, a Bad Beat still can't be discounted. But in general terms you are now beating three very lucrative opposing hands:
- TPTK - we know how much people love this one, especially people who are slaves to beginners strategy advice;
- Overpairs - again a favourite of many a player - some wrongly slow play them, and most can't lay them down;
- Random Two Pairs - another non-nut hand that players will overbet - this time probably players who haven't read any strategy.
Unfortunately, these hands aren't going to hit that often, so you cannot afford to start calling raises with Axs or pocket three's. If the game will not allow you to limp with these hands on a reasonable number of occasions then you probably need to move tables.
This is a controversial statement but in some ways 22 is an easier hand in these games than AA. AA wins more, but often it wins smaller pots because there are less people in the pot with a playable hand. If you hit a set of aces then there is only one more person out there who can think they have top pair. AA is great if all the money goes in pre-flop, but after the flop its difficult to know when you are ahead and when you are behind. 22 on the other hand will win far fewer pots, but most of the time you can spot which ones they are, and you have a great chance of ambushing someone who thinks they have a great hand. Of course I'd prefer AA every time, but you get the point...
4. Beware TPTK
Top Pair Top Kicker ("TPTK") is a great hand, to start with. In certain games, it's enough on its own. But not in low stakes no limit. In my opinion this is where the majority of traditional strategies fall down.
In these games you may be ahead, but you may not. And even if you are, you don't know who is chasing you down. Not only do these games attract people who don't have a coherent strategy and therefore are virtually impossible to read with any degree of certainty, they also attract other players like yourself. People looking for Cheap Flops with hands that will give them a Set or Above. Even if you dodge all the fish, there will be a number of other chasers playing a considered strategy who could easily have hit a set.
So I think you need to adjust your expectation. A pair is small hand and should bring down small pots. Don't look to these cards to produce monster pots.
I have lost count of the number of times I have seen people go all in on the flop with TPTK, only to see it their opponent turn over a set, or a random two pair.
Alternatively, you will also see so many occasions where a more moderate bet is made, a decent size pot is built only for someone to hit a draw on the river. You can't seem to win!
Of the two scenarios, although the pot lost may be the same size, there is one key difference. In the first situation, you are putting in 50% of the money. In the second situation you are putting in a much smaller share. Of course allowing multiple callers increases your chances of being caught, but I still maintain that you can't know you are ahead in the first place.
One final point on big pairs and other non-nut hands. You are not the only one who has worked out that slow playing sets and above is a goldmine. Do not bet the river if someone has just called flop and turn. If they check to you, check it out. Why? If they were drawing and missed they won't call you anyway. If they were slow playing, or drawing and hit, or just feel like a bluff, you've upped the pot and given them the ability to come over the top of you.
5. Win Big Pots, Lose Small Ones
And to summarize the whole thing, win big pots and lose small ones. It sounds obvious, but it is achievable in these games.
Where this strategy differs from others is that it does not advocate pushing every edge. To do this, you need a perfect read in every situation and if you are that good then you aren't playing in these games or reading my strategy!! We aren't that good, and some of the small edges we think we've seen, are actually traps where we can lose big pots with very few outs.
I'm proposing avoiding marginal situations and clever plays, and picking spots when your advantage is the greatest. Against a good player, or a table of good players, this will not work. They won't let you draw to many of the hands this strategy revolves around, because they will sense you are passive and bully you. And when you do have a monster, they will simply walk away leaving you with a small pot.
But against unobservant players who are passive pre-flop, this strategy should make any newbie or intermediate player more than enough profit to satisfy them, without the frustration of major variance.
Rather than the normal process of identifying a list of Pre-flop starting hands, and then moving on to Post Flop play I'm going to run through a number of groups of hands from start to finish. Whilst I see why other strategies organise themselves in terms of betting rounds, any fixed strategy of this nature misses the fundamental opportunity that loose NL games give you - the ability to pick and choose your fights. Obviously I haven't covered every hand in every situation but the aim of this section is to set the mentality you need for this strategy to work.
If a hand isn't mentioned below, then you shouldn't be playing it as a matter of routine. Feel free to mix it up from time to time, but creativity is not essential to beat games this weak.
Throughout this strategy I refer to "small" and "medium" and "large" bets. I deliberately don't refer to a set amount of big blinds, because I think this is dependent on the table. If the table is really loose, then a bet of 6 times the big blind is going to be small, but in a tighter game this is going to be medium, and pre-flop it could even be big if it is unusual. What is important is how the bet is viewed by the table generally. Obviously when you are calling with a draw then the bet size is linked to the pot odds, but otherwise, try and fit in with the table. It is the reaction to the bet that is important, not the actual size.
AA and KK
These are the only two hands with which you are willing to gamble pre-flop. Obviously you can be up against AA with your cowboys, but you can't worry about that. They dominate a wide range of hands which other players will put a large chunk of cash in pre-flop. If you call every time someone goes all-in with these cards there is no way you can end up losing money.
So the real trick is how to get the most amount of money in the pot pre-flop. As a secondary aim, its nice to limit the field, but your odds of winning are so good, that even if 5 players are all willing to put $25 in with you, then although your odds of winning fall, the pot has become so huge this is still a great situation for you. The likelihood is that with multiple callers, their own hands will overlap and so your equity in the pot has risen with the extra calls.
There is no rule of thumb for getting money in the pot pre-flop. If the game has lots of raisers in it, I will normally check from early or middle position, and hope for a raise. If a raise comes you can then come over the top for a worthwhile amount of money, not just the blinds.
Post-flop, remember this is no limit and you just have a pair (I'm not going to talk about what to do if you hit a set or aces or kings - you know what to do with them!). In these games people do silly things, that's why you're playing here, so you have to accept you might be beaten right now. I will normally try to take control of the pot at this point, unless the flop is really scary. This means a middle size bet, high enough to make any draws a mistake, but not so much that you can't walk away from the pot. If someone re-raises in a major way, you have to be prepared to fold. Note that I'm saying be prepared to fold. This is where the skill in poker comes in. There are a lot of players I play against that I would re-raise all in or call against. People who play good cards aggressively.
An example - I have AA and, after my medium sized pre-flop raise has been called, the flop comes K x x. A guy in early position, who I have a note for as being tight aggressive, puts in a medium size raise. Here I might go over the top, especially if no-one is to act after me. Why? If he had KK he would have gone for it pre-flop. He's tight so he is unlikely to have K rag. Most likely he has AK, or KQs. But if he is a fish, he could have been playing Kx suited and I have no idea what he has so how can I call such a big bet? If you don't have the nuts you need a reason to call, not a reason to fold.
If people are still with you on the turn and river, you have to slow down. You only have a pair. This is no foldem holdem. A single pair is probably not enough, even if it is an over-pair. Make an assessment as to how much is in the pot relative to how much you have left to call, and decide whether it is a bigger Mistake to call or to walk away.
QQ to TT
There are two ways to play these hands, depending on your tolerance for variance.
Some people recommend raising with these hands, either to take down the blinds or to get into a heads up situation where these hands perform best. I'm certainly not going to say that those people are wrong.
My problem is that whenever I do this, there always seems to be an ace or a king on the flop, at which point I inevitably end up folding. I appreciate this may be weakness on my part, but I suspect that lots of other low stakes players share this weakness.
So if you fall into that category, my advice is to treat these hands the same as small pocket pairs (see the next section) and limp in, with the sole exception of when they are overcards to the flop. If there are callers and an ace or king hits the board, you pretty much know you are behind - at least it didn't cost you much to find out. Otherwise you have a good chance of being ahead. Having said that, I still don't like big pots here, and if you don't raise you let everyone else draw against you. I tend to put in a medium raise for information purposes but remain prepared to fold to aggression.
Sometimes, I will fall into a middle ground. I will put in a moderate pre-flop raise to test the water. If someone calls I figure they have an ace or a king and I will be aggressive with a rag flop, but to be honest they could still have a set or maybe become married to their AK.
If you don't like difficult decisions, remember the Set and Above rule. QQ is not more likely to reach a set than 22 is, so treat them broadly the same.
Pocket Pairs 99 to 22
These are easy to play in this strategy. Limp or call a small raise if you can from any position. Call a medium small raise if there are four or more other people in the pot (the odds aren't quite right but the implied odds are huge so its worth seeing a flop). Otherwise fold to any serious betting.
On the flop you want a set, or you fold.
Hitting a low set is one of the areas where I am prepared to gamble in this strategy. Yes you could be losing to a higher set or full house and that does happen. But it doesn't happen often enough to discourage you from getting as much money in the pot as quickly as you can. I will normally slow play if I expect a raise behind me (especially if there is an ace or a king on the board), but otherwise I'll put out a medium size raise. If the board is threatening flush or straight draws, then I will always bet out.
If you have a set but the board allows a straight or a flush, test the water with a middle size bet but be prepared to walk away from major action. Remember in this situation that you still have a decent drawing hand to the full house, so if there are multiple players you still might have good odds to call.
Nothing changes on the turn or the river. If there is no straight or flush possible, assume you have best hand and use your feel to get the most money in the pot possible. If there is a straight or a flush available, you must accept that someone might have it and avoid major confrontation. Don't fold for a dollar, but don't call with your whole stack either. You are in big Mistake territory here.
The dream hand here is a paired and suited board - your full house against a nut flush. If you flop the full house, be prepared to wait until the river to bet, and allow straights and flushes the maximum chance of materialising.
AKs to ATs
These big suited hands are nice to have because they play three ways. They can hit good pairs, straights and flushes.
But at the moment, they are nothing but potential. A raise from late position is not a bad move, building a pot in which you have positive expected value. But you don't want a big confrontation, because you could also be dominated by a premium pair, or in some cases an ace with better kicker. So call small or medium raises, limp from Early and Middle positions and raise (medium) from late position.
After the flop, remember the golden rule - win big pots and lose small ones. Yes a pair is nice and you have a good kicker. But this is low stakes poker. Top pair is not the money hand. By all means raise but don't get carried away. If you have a straight or flush draw, check the odds and play if correct. If you have a good read, then you may factor in overcards, but I think this is dangerous. Often the bettor will have a set or two pair and you are over-counting your outs. You want the nuts, and your opponents entire stack, not a tricky top pair decision on the river.
As with all of the big hands, when you hit you have to decide how best to get money in the pot. Personally I slow play an unbelievable percentage of these hands because the other players rarely disappoint me - and if they don't have enough to fire at the pot on the river, they wouldn't have called my raise either.
Axs and Kxs
Nice and simple. You are looking at 4 to the flush draw, with decent pot odds. If you miss the flop, don't start looking at backdoor flushes. Similarly, if you hit top pair, remember you are compromised by your kicker. By all means call small bets, but don't get into any showdowns here - if someone bets big you will be losing.
If there are multiple callers and no action in front of you, consider a small raise with your draw. Sometimes this will result in someone coming over the top of you, but often it will build the pot odds for the turn (if multiple people call) and get you a free card on river.
Otherwise, you sit there quietly waiting to hit your flush and for someone to bet at you.
Suited connectors are good cards in lots of ways, but they are slightly out of place in this strategy. They can hit big hands, but rarely nut hands, and so they aren't always what you want when someone has put you all in.
I will still play them, if I can see a cheap flop from middle or late position. I just accept that they are hands to take down a mid size pot, not a monster.
Limp to the flop, and look for four to flush and four to straight draws with decent pot odds. If you hit, call medium sized bets but be prepared to walk away from confrontation.
Big Unsuited Cards and Large Connectors
Big unsuited cards and large connectors play the same as AKs to ATs, except without the flush potential (obviously). You can win big pots with the nut straight, and small to medium pots with pairs and two pairs, but these are not hands to get into major confrontations with. Limp or call small from middle and late position. Of this group of hands Ako or Kqo are the strongest and with these I will limp from early position and make small raises from late position.
Bottom line is these hands look pretty, but they can be dominated and produce very few nut hands. Good hands on a table of expert players but hugely overvalued by 90% of your weaker opponents. I find hands like AQo in early position, and Ajo and ATo generally, so easy to make big Mistakes with, that I regularly toss them away. Personally I prefer the simplicity of a low pocket pair.
Big Blinds and Small Blinds
This is your best opportunity to get creative and to "advertise" to other players that you aren't actually rock tight. You can play pretty much anything if there are no raises, or if the raise is small, as long as you are willing to acknowledge the limitations of the hands you are likely to get.
First off, remember that a rag two pair is easily beaten and can never be the nut hand. Even in the most un-coordinated board, a set can still beat you. It's a good hand, but don't get carried away. Win a small to medium pot and play up to any snide comments about the crap hands you will play, but don't think "here is my opportunity to make a big profit". Also beware of big pots with low flushes - these can lose you a lot of money.
What you really want here is a low wheel straight or something similarly unlikely. That is pretty much the only time these rag hands can give you the nuts and let you bet with impunity.
These kinds of miracle straights are pretty rare. The real reason you play rubbish from the blinds is to set up people for big hands in other positions. Keep this in mind at all times. I've had session where I've seen less than 20% of flops but because of decent advertising from the blinds I've been on the receiving end of abuse about all of the rags I keep playing. Heaven!
Problems and Solutions
Like every strategy in poker, this one brings some problems with it. Here are some that you are likely to encounter and my suggested solutions:
This is not a strategy that generates a lot of action. You are going to be doing lots of folding, not only pre-flop but also post-flop with hands that other more aggressive strategies might advocate you raising with. If you get bored easily this strategy is not for you.
There is an easy solution to this one - multi-tabling. With some practice you can play 4 tables at a time and that should be enough to keep you fully occupied.
Obviously if anyone is paying attention, this strategy shouldn't work. The moment you leap into a pot people should be wary. Of course most of the time they aren't but there will be occasions where your image will be picked up on. The first implication of this is patience, as set out above. Get used to waiting 2 hours for a monster hand and then only making a few big bets out of it. That's ok - another day you'll have three hands all day but each time win a massive pot. But this is something you can do something about without deviating too far from the strategy. Find a few cheap opportunities to play rags (I normally do this from the blinds), or make small bluffs at a few pots. My favourite is to raise into someone I know is holding a monster. A small raise. Tempt them to come over the top and then fold. Do this a couple of times and then do exactly the same next time you have the monster yourself. For 3 small bets you can win an entire stack on a good day.
This concept is called "advertising" by some authors. Believe me, advertising works. The secret is to advertise for cheap, and to advertise the same message each time. People are a bit slow on the up take so you need to make your "weakness" as consistent and obvious as possible in order for the set-up to work. Use the same amounts in the same situations, and if possible openly joke, or complain, about it on chat.
If the game is too aggressive pre-flop the strategy won't work. Easy solution - move games.
The really big issue with this strategy is it will only work up to a certain level of stakes. At some point, the shark to fish ratio changes sufficiently that you aren't going to get the pay-offs you need. I sincerely hope that each person reading this strategy has enough success to get to this point, and if you do, then you need to move things up a notch. There is a finite amount of profit you can make from any game and that is largely set by the table stakes. My recommendation for advanced NL play is without question Doyle Brunson's Super System (original or edition II). I would not suggest trying my strategy in a $2/$4 online NL table.
My approach to being bluffed is that if someone bets $50 at a $5 pot, you can afford to fold to 10 bluffs for every time you make a wrong call. I recognise that this is illogical on a theoretical level. You can perfectly well argue that each time you fail to call this bluff, you have made the Mistake of missing the opportunity to take an easy $50.
I agree with that logic, but feel that it misses a couple of fundamental human characteristics. The first is that I believe that the amount of people capable of making this bluff (as a stone cold bluff) is limited. Its impossible to produce data, but I believe that it is far more frequent for these bets to be semi-bluffs or value bets with hidden hands (such as low sets and rag two pairs) than it is for someone to just want a $5 pot. Online, people want you to think these are bluffs and they often want you to call. The second characteristic is your own ability to respond to your own mistakes. If you get bluffed off a $5 pot, you can often respond positively. If you get suckered into a $50 pot, most people will go on one form of tilt or another.
The key to this strategy is to minimise your own mistakes. Other players make enough mistakes that you do not need to capitalise on every one - if you are good enough to do this then fine, but personally, despite being a consistent winning player, I know I am not this good. That does not stop me making money!
The way to capitalise on other peoples mistakes is to look for cheap flops with hands that will, when they hit, make a set or above so that you can call big bets and bluffs with a decent degree of confidence. Of course you won't win every time, but you should be able to count the losses from memory at the end of every session and you hope that most of these were Bad Beats and not Mistakes.
You will notice I've ignored bluffing by you. This is because I don't think this is necessary to beat this game, although I appreciate it is critical part of many tougher poker games.
As stated above, this is a starting point. If you feel that you have a read on an opponent such that you can make a call or a bluff that isn't covered in this strategy, go ahead and do it. Just keep track of whether you were right or wrong and if you are wrong, be honest and record this as a Mistake. As you get better, you will undoubtedly find yourself adding plays, especially bluffs where you represent a strong hand you do not have - a side effect of always turning over a winning hand at showdowns is that people start to expect you to have big hands.
If you play this strategy right, players will start saying to you, "You always get lucky when it's a big pot." But you know its not luck, its choice. You only get involved in big pots when you are confident you are going to win them.
Finally, a piece of advice that is frequently found elsewhere. If you are following this poker strategy you should always buy-in for the table maximum. You aren't going to make a mistake for your whole stack, but you want the maximum profit when someone else does.