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Hold’em with Holloway, Vol. 20: Talking Ante-Only Strategy with Greg “FossilMan” Raymer

Greg Raymer

Back in 2012, the World Series of Poker debuted an “Ante Only” no-limit hold’em bracelet event, the first major of its kind* for a variant that originated online. The game was similar to traditional no-limit hold’em with one major exception — instead of players taking turns posting blinds every orbit, they all would post an ante every single hand.

*The WSOP actually tested it on the Circuit at their Caesars Palace Las Vegas stop.

The only other catch was that after the flop, the first player still active in the hand was required to bet the smallest denomination chip in play. Since every player was invested in every single hand, the variant inspired action. Pros and amateurs alike seemed to love it, with Greg Hobson ultimately topping a field of 939 players to win a $256,691 first-place prize in that inaugural $1,500 buy-in event.

The following year, Ben Volpe took down the 2013 version of the $1,500 Ante Only NLHE event, besting a 678-entrant field to win $201,399. Then in 2014 Jesse McEuen outlasted 713 other players to win the title in the same event for $212,093. It seemed the format had been a success, but after three straight years on the schedule, the WSOP opted to do away with it for 2015.

The removal of the Ante Only event from this year’s schedule was a disappointment to many players, including 2004 WSOP Main Event champ Greg “FossilMan” Raymer.

“I just thought it was a great event. It was a different way to play hold’em,” Raymer told me. “Everywhere you go it’s no-limit hold’em. One of the things I love about the WSOP is that I finally get a chance, almost [the only time] for the entire year long, to play a significant tournament that is something other than hold’em. Dealer’s Choice was the best, and the other mixed-game tournaments are great, [as are] the draw games, the stud games.”

“With the Ante Only you had a unique format of hold’em. I felt there were some clear, undeniable mathematical strategy choices in order to play optimal. A lot of otherwise good players weren’t getting these, and so I felt it gave me a much bigger edge than the other no-limit events. It was also fun and different, something we weren’t used to.”

Personally, I’m familiar with the “Ante Only” concept, but I must admit I’ve never played such a tournament, neither live nor online. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder how it alters traditional no-limit hold’em strategy. That was something Raymer was willing to expand upon, in part by proposing changes to future Ante Only events.

“I didn’t like the WSOP event starting like it had been with 4,500 chips with a 25 ante,” Raymer explained. “The first orbit was 225, whereas other events with the same price, you’re playing 25/25 blinds, so we were starting 4.5x bigger. You could only bet two ordinary hands before half your chips were gone, so I thought that event was starting way too fast.”

Raymer felt the increased starting stacks planned for the 2015 WSOP may have solved the problem, but he also thought it was a good idea for the WSOP to use their red T5 chips, which traditionally have only been used as rebuy/add-on markers in pot-limit Omaha events.

“Last year I thought they should put T5 chips in play and start with an ante of T10 or something instead of an ante of 25. If we had T5 chips, people could limp in cheap, and I think that’s a big part of that game,” Raymer said.

“Let’s say the antes are 30 and there is 270 in the pot. If you can limp for 5, then you’d limp in early position every time with 100% of your hands knowing that if someone raises you’re folding your crappy hands, and limp-reraising with your best hands.”

Raymer expounded upon the idea of limping in cheaply and what it means to the game.

“Because of that dynamic no one wants to raise with nothing to try to steal the pot, because they know you also limp with your strongest hands from early position. Unless someone in front of me has already raised, I’m going to limp 100%, even knowing I’m often going to fold, but also knowing that threat means I’m going to get to see a flop with all those hands like {10-}{3-}-offsuit.”

Limping with 100% of hands seems like a crazy concept, but given both pot and implied odds, I was beginning to see what Raymer was talking about.

“Surprisingly people will fold... [but] there’s so much in the pot,” Raymer noted. “It’s amazing how far you can get just with the math, and I think the same was true in that Ante Only event. People would make some pretty big mistakes because they were still thinking their normal no-limit hold’em game to some extent.”

Raymer then used the worst hand in poker — {7-}{2-}-offsuit — as an example with which to demonstrate his point.

Let’s say you limp with that hand, which Raymer says a lot of players don’t do figuring someone will raise. Early on it’d only cost you T5 to see the flop. If someone does raise, you can simply fold and only be out a measly T5 in chips. If you get to see a flop and it comes {7-}{7-}{2-}, you’re primed to stack someone. Of course it doesn’t always work out like that, but the point Raymer was making is that for T5 in chips it pays to take a shot.

“It’s like when I learned Badugi and 2-7 triple draw back in 2004. The quality of play was lower. I’d never played those games, but I spent some time doing the math and simulations at home,” Raymer explained.

“I came up with some thoughts and ideas, and when I played the games live for the first time I saw players making decisions that mathematically had to be wrong. I saw a lot of what were obviously mathematical mistakes over and over again. I thought then I might have an edge in those games already. That turned out to be a correct evaluation. Players hadn’t done the math.”

“I’m not sure if there’s anywhere someone can apply the knowledge,” Raymer concluded with a laugh. “I’m not aware of anywhere else that offers Ante Only for a live event.”

Indeed, only time will tell if the WSOP will bring back their Ante Only event. In the meantime, I’m going to keep Raymer’s words of wisdom in the back of my mind, and even more importantly, take to heart his message of constantly thinking about new variants.

If it’s a new game to you, do the math, simulate some hands, and find a strategy that works. Do that and you’ll be well on your way to dominating your opponents.

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