No-Limit Hold'em: BSS - Introduction

No-limit hold'em (NLHE) is THE current poker variant. We see it everywhere - in TV shows and books, even in films.

One reason for this success is perhaps the complexity and wide range this game offers to players. Mike Sexton, a well-known poker player and commentator, coined the phrase: "No-limit Texas Hold'em takes a minute to learn and a lifetime to master".

No Limit

In no-limit hold'em, the bet sizes have no upper limit, meaning that a player can bet all of his chips at any time. While in limit hold'em only a certain fixed amount can be won or lost in a single hand, in NL a wrong decision can cost you your entire stack..


Risk versus profit

Since the bet sizes are variable in no-limit hold'em and the pots generally become bigger with each round of betting, it is important that we always compare the risk to the potential profit.

A gutshot straight draw e.g. can be played profitably under certain circumstances, a flush draw maybe not. It always depends on the pot size, on the amount we would have to call and on our remaining stack size. Each hand requires a certain, individual ratio between these factors in order to be played profitably.

This ratio has to be determined again and again to become a winning player.

"It depends."

One of the most common phrases spoken by successful no-limit players is: "It depends." In almost any professional NL hand discussion or guide there are often restrictions such as "usually" or "in general". Let's look at an example – we have an absolute trash hand on the turn and all of the other players check to us in late position. Usually it is not possible to make any money with trash hands and we should check – usually! But we maybe can win the hand with a well-timed bluff without having a good hand. Whether a bluff is in fact a good idea or not does not depend on our own hand – it depends on the kind of opponent we are up against, how big our stack is in relation to the pot or how the betting behavior of our opponents was in the previous rounds. So our decisions always have to be adapted to the current situation.

  • A good No Limit Hold'em player permanently questions information.

A key skill of a good player is to constantly question information. He tries to include all of the available information in his decision-making process. Whether it's his own position, the opponents' betting behaviour, his own image, possible tells or similar – all of this information will be absorbed and will influence the result and provide what is hopefully the correct decision.

Correct decisions

This leads us to another important concept in no-limit hold'em: It's not about winning the most pots, to be able to read opponents or even to be the best bluffer – it's all about making the right decisions.

  • NLHE is all about making the right decisions.

When we make mostly correct decisions while our opponent often make bad ones, we play profitable poker. A player may win ten smaller pots on one evening, for example, because we had to fold our hand. We, on the other hand, won just three pots, but these were above-average pots since our opponents weren't able to give up their hand and we therefore finished the evening with a profit. Thus, we won far fewer pots, but made the right decisions – and that's what it's all about. We are always in a kind of race: Whoever makes the most right decisions in the long run will win.

Correspondingly, we only have a chance of winning if our opponents make mistakes, which leads us to another concept:

Aggression is the key to succesful poker

Let's assume that our game is based on checking or calling. The only way to win a hand would be to go to the showdown and have the best hand. If we also include the options "bet" and "raise", we have two ways of winning: Either we have the best hand at the end or our opponents fold their (perhaps better) hand, before it comes to a showdown.

Betting or raising puts pressure on our opponents, i.e. they are forced to make a decision and possibly make a mistake by calling with a worse hand or folding a better one.

  • Good players put pressure on their opponents in order to force them to make mistakes.

Sometimes it's quite difficult to exert pressure on opponents. Our position plays an important role in achieving this.

The importance of position

If we are "in position", i.e. the last player left to act in a hand, we have three decisive advantages that make it easier for us to put pressure on our opponents:

  1. We know how the players in front of us have reacted.
  2. As we are last to act, we have the opportunity to bluff.
  3. It is easier to maximize profit.

Big stack, big opportunities

The size of the stack is another way of exerting pressure on opponents. The following applies in general:

  • It's easier for players with big stacks to exert pressure.

If a player with a lot of chips is up against a second player with only a few chips, it is easy for him to exert pressure. With every action the player with only a few chips knows that he may have to play for his entire stack since the other player has him well covered. Correspondingly, the player with a lot of chips only plays for a fraction of his stack, so it is difficult to put pressure on him.

Planning a hand

After having internalized all or as many NLHE concepts as possible, we now need to merge them. This merger is part of the thought process that we should always go through before the hand. We should try to bring future events (i.e. those that may happen in later betting rounds) into the present and therefore protect ourselves against awkward situations where we may even make incorrect decisions in the end.

Thus, we have to plan our hand correctly and play cautiously. This statement seems obvious, but it is often underestimated or neglected.

  • No-limit hold'em hands are planned in advance.

Every move we make should be part of a plan. We have to be able to answer questions such as "How do I react to a raise?" or "What should I do on the turn if it's checked to me?" before we make a bet. This allows us to avoid mistakes before they happen.

Strategic basics are of course required in order to plan and play a hand. Pre-flop and flop play as well as turn and river play require different strategies that are described in more detail in the following articles on the NLHE big stack strategy (BSS).