Yesterday I was in a crazy $2-$5 no-limit game. I could tell it was a crazy game even before I watched one hand. The maximum buy-in was $500, but at least $8,000 was on the table. Four players each had over $1,500. Either the game had been going with the same lineup for a very long time, or people were playing a lot of all-in pots, sloshing money around to one another (and rebuying over and over).
While not completely reliable, the amount of money on the table is a reasonable indicator of how aggressive the game is. If all the stacks are short and medium, expect a quiet, perhaps even weak-tight game. If everyone is deep, then you should probably expect fireworks. If one player is really deep, and everyone else has a normal-sized stack, there’s a good chance the deep player is loose and aggressive. It’s not always the case – he could be deep just because he got really lucky or because he’s been glued to the seat for 48 hours (look for 32 ounce coffee cups and bloodshot eyes) – but loose-aggressive players are the most likely ones to build deep stacks in a game with a maximum buy-in.
Back to my crazy $2-$5 game. Usually I would buy in for the maximum, $500, to give me the best chance to win a big pot. But yesterday I wanted to try out a strategy that I consider foolproof for beating crazy no-limit games. I bought in for $300 or 60 big blinds. Last issue I said that I often buy in for around that much to scope out a game. After all, I can buy more chips before any hand, but I can never take money off the table.
But this buy-in was a little different, because the foolproof strategy relies on a short buy-in to work. In a crazy game, many players will play very loosely preflop, even for a raise. After watching a few hands (and after losing my first buy-in right off the bat with pocket jacks against 6-5 on a 6-5-2 flop), I saw that the “standard” preflop raise at the table was to between $30 and $40, and typically between three and six people would call it. So a typical hand would see five or six players to the flop for around $150 – a crazy game indeed.
Naturally, if five or six players are seeing every flop, their standards are none too high. Many players were playing (for raises) any two suited, offsuit connectors, and hands like K-7 offsuit. Now if everyone at the table has $2,000 in front of them, and if everyone is playing loose like this, then the low standards don’t actually hurt anyone. To get an advantage in poker (or to get taken advantage of), someone needs to adjust their strategy to exploit the weaknesses. If no one is taking advantage of it, playing loose is harmless.
But the foolproof strategy is designed to take advantage of it. First, you don’t have $2,000 in front of you. You have only $300, making the $30 preflop bet a sizable 10 percent of your stack. And, by the elegant symmetry of the table stakes rule, it’s also 10 percent of all of your opponents’ stacks when they’re playing against you. (Remember, their extra money is irrelevant when they’re playing against you. It’s as if it weren’t even on the table.)
Playing K-7 offsuit for one percent of the stacks can work out fine. Playing it for 10 percent is a recipe for disaster. They simply can’t outflop or outplay you often enough to make up for building such a big pot with such a stinker of a hand.
So what’s the foolproof strategy? Buy in for 40 to 60 big blinds. Wait for strong starting hands: pocket pairs, big aces, and K-Q. In position you can add in some more hands. Ask yourself, “Is this hand better than what my opponents are probably playing? Or am I playing this to try to get lucky?” If you’re playing to get lucky, don’t play. For instance, if you see 8 6 , throw it away. It can be a good hand when the stacks are deep and you have some control over your opponents, but it will only cost you money in a wild and woolly game.
So you’re waiting for good hands. If you have a medium or big pocket pair, or if you have two big cards, raise preflop. With small pocket pairs, or on the button with your somewhat weaker hands, you can just limp.
If the pot is raised and you hit the flop well, move all-in. For instance, say you raise to $35 preflop with K Q and five players call. The pot is $210 before the flop, and you have $265 remaining. The flop comes Q 9 7 . If everyone checks to you, push all-in. Even if someone bets in front of you, push all-in. The pot is too large to consider folding a hand as strong as yours. Indeed, that’s what makes this strategy “foolproof.” Your goal is to get your money in early with good hands so there are no tough decisions. You aren’t relying on your hand-reading skills or your creativity to give you an advantage; you’re relying on raw math.
That’s the basic idea. Obviously, you won’t push with every hand on every flop. If you raise preflop with pocket jacks and the flop comes A-K-6, check and fold. If you have A-K and the flop comes J-9-7, check and fold. If you limped in preflop with pocket fives and the flop comes Q-T-3, check and fold. But if you connect solidly with the flop, the pot will be big enough and your stack will be small enough that you can just put your money in and be confident that, over time, your bets will earn you money.
You can mix it up a little bit. For instance, you can try limp-reraising if you get a strong hand in early position. Or you can try a squeeze bluff if a loose player raises and a few people call. For example, if someone raises to $40 and three people call, you can try moving all-in with J 9 . If no one calls, you win $160 for your $300 risk. And if you do get called, you’re getting 3-to-2 on your money, enough to compensate you even if you run into A-K.
The reason many people have trouble in wild games is they repeatedly leave themselves in a no-mans-land. They flop a decent hand, but then the big bets start pouring in, and they second-guess themselves. Buy buying in a little shorter, you can get your money in with confidence and with a mathematically guaranteed, foolproof advantage.
[This article appeared originally in the December 5, 2007 issue (Vol. 20, No. 24) of Card Player.]