My upcoming book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy for Smart Players, is a practical guide to winning in live no-limit cash games. It starts with what you need to stop losing at $1-$2, and it adds on skills until you get to what you need to beat $5-$10.
I’m giving you a taste for my recipe to conquer everyday cash games. Last articles I covered the skills to beat $1-$2 and also $2-$5 games. In this article (published originally in Card Player vol. 28 no. 4) I’ll talk about the extra tricks you’ll need once you move up to $5-$10.
Skill #8. Exploiting Aggression
Skill #2 was a simple commandment. Don’t pay people off. If they bet big on the turn or river, they won’t be bluffing often enough to justify a call. So fold. Fold and don’t think twice.
That skill is very useful in $1-$2 and $2-$5 games. It can be useful in $5-$10 games as well—against opponents who play like the ones you’ll find at $1-$2 and $2-$5. But once you venture into $5-$10 games, you’ll find that you’re up against many players who are more than willing to bluff big. This requires you to abandon (temporarily) Skill #2 and develop this skill instead.
There’s usually a big flaw in the aggression many players use at $5-$10. Since they play too many hands preflop, they end up with lots of bad hands after the flop. But they don’t want to just fold these hands, nor do they want to call down hopelessly with them. So they turn them into bluffs. The problem is that all bluffs need to be supported by an appropriate number of good hands.
In other words, if you want to bluff when the flush card comes, then you’d better be a threat to have the flush as well. If you want to bluff when the board pairs, then you’d better also be able to have trips or a full house.
The flaw is, in many cases, players at $5-$10 try to bluff in situations where they do not have enough good hands to back them up. Or even when they do have some good hands to back up their bluffs, they try to bluff with so many bad hands that the bluffs flood out the value hands.
Either way, you can exploit this aggression by anticipating it and then by calling. It’s a tricky skill, however, because you need to understand clearly which good hands are likely and which ones are unlikely. You also need to be able to guess which bad hands will be present, and how often the player might try to bluff with them. When the bluffs crowd out the good hands, you call. When it’s the other way around, you fold. To thrive at $5-$10, you will need to learn to tell the difference.
Skill #9. Playing Deep
Typically, $1-$2 and $2-$5 games come with capped buy-ins that limit losses. Even when the buy-ins aren’t capped—or the cap is high—many players come to these games and buy in short. These are games that everyday folks play, and they want to gamble in the three figures, not the four or five figures.
At $5-$10, that dynamic begins to shift. Games at this level often have a high buy-in cap or no cap at all. These games begin to attract recreational players with big bankrolls and even bigger egos. They also attract pros who think nothing of covering a table with $20,000 or more. The game plays deep.
Now you don’t have to play deep to play at this level. You can buy in for $600 at a $5-$10 game and play it that way. There’s no shame in it at all.
But if you want to become one of the pro-level players who buys in to cover the table, you will have to learn to play deep.
Mathematically, there’s nothing fundamental that changes when you play deep. Since bet sizes tend to increase exponentially in no-limit, even buy-ins that are very large compared to the blinds open up only another one or two possible rounds of betting or raising.
I’ve found that there is one key adjustment when you’re playing deep.
You have to learn the psychology of it. Some players are far too eager to play for stacks when you’re very deep. Other players are too fearful to play for stacks when you’re very deep. Players who play for stacks at roughly the correct rate are rare.
The deeper you are playing, the more significant the errors people make on the final bet become relative to the preflop action. In other words, if you have $5,000 stacks, it’s far more important to catch someone making an error in how they play the final $3,000 than it is to catch them making an error on the first $100. This is true even though players have the chance to make preflop errors much more frequently than errors for stacks.
So the trick to playing with deep stacks is often to determine first whether your opponent is liable to get stacks in too easily or to be too fearful to play for stacks. Once you’ve determined that, you want to bloat pots preflop more than you might in a shorter stacked game. You don’t want to go wild with this, but in general, you should:
- Be more willing to 3-bet preflop than you might in a shorter stacked game.
- Be much more willing to call a 3-bet preflop than you might in a shorter stacked game, particularly if you are in position.
- Be more willing to 4-bet preflop than you might in a shorter stacked game.
This preflop play seeds the pot and prepares you to take advantage of the predictable errors your opponents make.
Skill #10. Taking On The Pros
Once you hit $5-$10, you will be playing with professional players. These pros have, to some extent or another, acquired all the skills in this book. The only true, long-term way to beat them is to master these skills better than they have.
But on the way to that goal, you can take shortcuts here and there. A big way is to use reverse tells. I don’t mean that you should wiggle your ear when you’re strong when you usually wiggle it when you’re weak.
Instead, I mean that you can mimic the weak plays that other players make, but have a surprise in store. For instance, you may notice that recreational players like to bet out in a certain spot to see where they are at. You can mimic that play, but do it with either strong hands or hands you are willing to make a big bluff with.
Or you can check value hands on the river that you’d normally bet, because it’s easier to get the pro players to bluff or to bet weaker hands than to get them to call with a worse hand.
Once you have acquired and mastered all these skills, you should be able to hold your own in virtually any live no-limit hold’em game anywhere on the planet.
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