Playing High Stakes No Limit Texas Holdem
Having played poker for many years, both online and offline, I continue to be surprised by the depth of the No-Limit game and the challenges / opportunities offered by high stakes play. First I must define "high stakes", because the statement obviously means different things to each player. Most online poker players begin at low stakes and over a period of time advance to 50c/$1 or $1/$2 NL. Higher than that and they run into difficulty as the style of play takes a dramatic and rather aggressive shift. Scared off, they often settle into their comfort zone which may well sensibly be 50c/$1 NL Holdem games. I myself stayed in this zone for years playing low limit cash and medium sized multi-table tournaments (with great success). High stakes for the purposes of this article can be defined as $3/$6 No Limit and higher.
The first, and most obvious point is that to enter the room with maximum chips costs $600 - no small change to most people. Many choose to enter with less, say $150 in a conscious attempt to limit prospective downside to that figure. From my experience that's a mistake - it sends all the wrong signals such as "you're scared of losing, or can't afford to lose $600." If there is even an element of truth in that statement then my advice to you would be to go down a number of levels or stop playing poker altogether. Poker is without question a skill game, but there is significant risk in the outcome of any hand. Therefore enter with $600 or don't enter the room. I typically look for tables with one or more shortstacked players and push them around with marginal cards.
The second surprise you'll get is the frequency with which you can / will be dragged into sizeable pots. Obviously this is a great thing if you have a monster hand but we all know these come around rather infrequently. At this level it is not uncommon to see pots in the $300-$500 range on the strength of say a pair of tens with 2 overcards out on the board! In other words, higher stakes brings out disproportionate levels of aggression (afterall calling statons rarely win poker tournaments) - long term aggression at the table is the way to go and most poker players that have got this far know that. Playing at these levels will give you an adrenaline kick that you do not get in low stakes poker because you simply do not have so much to lose.
I find the following strategies work for me:
1. Be the table aggressor - raising almost every hand pre-flop and making the cost to call $20+ to see. This pushes out all but the best hands and depending on the flop a pot raise equal to the size of the pot usually knocks out the card catchers who didn't already have a big pair in the hole. Obviously a friendly flop (low cards in this case) is required to push opponents off their hand, and failure to do so leads to an expensive judgement call about the likelihood of your opponents' possible hole cards.
2. Play the calling station and call down aggression when significant cards hit. This is a great way to play (and I have to admit it is also my most comfortable playing style) but to be successful it has to be mixed with some loose calls that give the impression that you'll play almost anything. Take care to use opportunities such as small blind calling big blind as the last 2 in a pot in order to flop the loose play cheaply.
The rewards for those with the stomach to make objective calls can be significant indeed. I have turned $600 into $1500 in less than 15 minutes. Negative variance (losing) can be just as dramatic and losses of $600, or more if you have won some, can be just one hand away.
I write this article as a warning to new players thinking of stepping up in class. It's one thing watching Jamie Gold win $12m in this year's WSOP competition, and quite another getting to such a level yourself. Television hype of large poker events is very much a one sided, edited, exciting view of the poker world but take it from me that scaling such heights requires patience, diligence, practice and a modi***** of luck. Be careful at the poker tables - fish are a rare thing in this the high stakes poker pool.