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 article I covered the basic skills needed to beat a $1-$2 game. In this article (which appeared originally in Card Player vol. 28 no. 3), I’ll talk about the extra tricks you’ll need once you move up to $2-$5.
Skill #4. Barreling
There are a number of definitions of barreling, but here’s a simple one. Barreling is betting because your opponent (or opponents) checked.
Frequently, barreling is a type of bluff bet. You’re making the bet because you expect your opponents to have too weak a set of hands to put up a winning fight.
Barreling is a cornerstone skill to move beyond the most basic no-limit strategy. It’s a play designed to thwart two of the most common ways players try to get away with poor play.
Almost all live no-limit players play too many hands preflop. These extra hands are bad hands. (If they weren’t bad, then these hands wouldn’t be “too many”.) After the flop, players have to figure out a way to get rid of or hide these extra bad hands.
At $2-$5, you will see people most commonly try one of two methods to deal with the bad hands. Most commonly, they will fold them. Also popular, many players will call with them.
Nearly all players mix these strategies to some extent. A player may fold most of the time, but call sometimes. Another player may call most of the time, but fold sometimes. Also, a player may tend to call on the flop and turn, but tend to fold on the river.
As a winning no-limit player, your job is to catch your opponents trying to hide their bad hands. For both folding and calling, the way to catch an opponent in the act is to bet.
If they’re folders, then it’s obvious why betting works. It gets them to fold. They put the money in preflop or on the flop and then they fold it away.
If they’re callers, then it’s perhaps counterintuitive why betting is important. While it’s true that you don’t want to bluff a calling station, you still need to barrel at calling stations. The only thing that changes between folders and callers is which hands you choose to barrel. Against folders, you tend to want to barrel all your junk, but you might check back your hands with a little value like bottom or middle pair.
Against callers, it’s the opposite. You might check back your total junk, but you want to barrel all your marginal pair hands. A hand like a pair of eights that might have very little value against a folder can have quite a bit of value against a caller—since if they want to call with their bad hands, they will necessarily be calling with unpaired hands.
You check? I bet. It’s a basic $2-$5 skill.
Skill #5. Evaluating Board Texture
Board texture is poorly understood among most live players. I look at it like this. Preflop, every pot starts out identical. The same hands have value and the same hands don’t have value.
The flop changes the rules of this game. It reorders the hand rankings. It alters the distance in value between hands. The turn does the same. As does the river.
What doesn’t change, however, is the math of the game. A $50 bet into a $100 pot always offers 3-to-1 odds to the caller, no matter what’s on board.
What makes this game tricky is to square the things that don’t change—preflop hand values and pot and bet sizes—with the things that do change—postflop hand rankings and equities.
Most $2-$5 players do a terrible job of this. When a board comes 8-4-2 rainbow, certain types of hands have value, and the equities work a certain way. When the board comes Q-T-T with a two suit, hand values change, and the equities work differently. Each type of board texture resets the strategic rules, and most $2-$5 players can’t keep up.
This misevaluation leads typical $2-$5 players to fold too much on certain board textures and to call too much on others. It leads them to stop betting too quickly with some relatively strong hands while they bet far too recklessly with other hands that actually aren’t so strong.
If you learn the basics of how board textures work and you practice looking at how hand ranges behave on certain types of flops, turns, and rivers, you will be able to identify and punish the errors your opponents make.
Skill #6. Making Live Reads
Live reads are the general term for all the bits of information available in a live cash game. Of these, I consider bet sizing tells to be the most important. One of the great things about no-limit is that players get to choose their own bet sizes. Hidden within these bet sizes, for most live no-limit players, is information about how players feel about their hands.
A player who wants you to fold might shade a bet a few chips bigger. A player who is worried about getting raised might shade a bet a few chips smaller. A player who is looking for information might bet even smaller.
At the $2-$5 level, players frequently try to control the action by making bets that are intentionally small. They figure that if they bet small first, you won’t be able to bet big instead. All this bet sizing information can give you clear direction for how to exploit a situation.
Physical tells are useful sometimes. Also, there are subtle “vibes” that contain information. These vibes actually appear all over the place when you play live. Players give off weak vibes frequently, for example. I believe these vibes are actually physical tells that brains process and interpret unconsciously—as opposed to the conscious observation and translation associated with traditional physical tells that you might find explained in a book.
You can learn some rules of thumb for live reads, but ultimately you will learn how these work with experience and intentional observation.
Skill #7. Emotional Numbing
The amounts of money that change hands at $2-$5 are significant for most people. To play successfully at this level, you must learn to numb yourself to the emotional ups and downs. Bankroll management plays a role. So does self-talk and self-coaching. Hand analysis away from the table is also important. The ultimate goal is to build up tolerance to losing—both for magnitude of losses and for prolonged bad runs. I don’t have all the answers, but in the book I have a few tips that have worked to help me make sharp plays and keep me in action.