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Limit Hold’em Isn’t Always Like Watching Paint Dry

Barry Greenstein
  • Defending fixed-limit hold'em against the charge of lacking excitement when compared to other variants.

  • For new players, fixed-limit hold'em can offer a low risk, potentially exciting introduction to live poker.

Early in his book Ace on the River: An Advanced Poker Guide, Poker Hall of Famer Barry Greenstein includes a long chapter in which he gives an overview of his poker career. Greenstein describes learning how to play poker in his youth, becoming a serious and successful player during his college years, then eventually finding his way into card rooms as he ultimately built a career out of the game.

At one point Greenstein talks about how in the late 1980s Texas hold’em finally became legalized in California (where he settled), and it wasn’t long after that he became a full-time pro. Greenstein preferred no-limit hold’em, and as someone who at that time had played NLHE longer than a lot of the other new players in California he had a considerable edge in the game.

“But the no-limit games eventually dried up,” he explains, forcing upon him a new course of action.

I had to do something I never thought I’d do — play limit hold’em. To me it was like watching paint dry.

That comparison of fixed-limit hold’em to watching paint dry is something you might have heard before. It’s pretty common — almost a poker cliché — and with the explosion in popularity of no-limit hold’em over the last decade-plus, you hear many these days agreeing that after experiencing the thrilling ups and downs of no-limit hold’em, being stuck in an LHE game is like having to sit through the most mind-numbing lecture imaginable.

Limit hold’em has its defenders, though. In fact, some argue that it can be a lot less boring than no-limit hold’em because generally speaking players get to play more hands and make more decisions from street to street. As someone who enjoys LHE, I tend to agree with that argument. I also think that for new players visiting a card room for the very first time, taking a seat in a fixed-limit hold’em game might actually be preferable to playing NLHE, for a number of reasons.

If you’re like most people who are trying anything new, it is only natural to feel a little hesitant about both how to proceed and what to expect. Perhaps you’ve played a bit either at home with friends or online and feel reasonably comfortable about the rules and even strategy. Even so, the process of putting your name on a list and eventually being seated at your first live poker game in a casino can be intimidating — never mind actually being dealt hands and facing real live opponents. (If you’re in this group, do check out Robert Woolley's “Casino Poker for Beginners” articles for a wealth of helpful information.)

In most poker rooms there will be no-limit hold’em games going, with $1/$2 blinds usually the lowest stakes available. You might decide on your first trip to a poker room to sit down in one of these games, buying in for $100 or $200 and taking your chances in the game. NLHE is of course an exciting game, with one of the primary sources of its excitement coming from the fact that you can double your stack or lose it all in a single hand. It could happen that you might even lose your entire stack the first significant hand you play, which is a possibility you should probably mentally prepare yourself for when first sitting down.

But what if you decide to make fixed-limit hold’em your first live poker experience? The lowest limits for LHE are usually $2/$4 or $3/$6. In a $2/$4 game, the betting amounts are fixed at $2 for the first two betting rounds (before and after the flop), and $4 for the last two rounds (after the turn and river). That’s why the game is called fixed-limit, because there’s no variety in the amounts people can bet and raise on each street.

Starting out in a fixed-limit hold’em game — especially a low stakes game — has a few benefits for the brand new player. Say you go up to the desk and get put on the list for a $2/$4 LHE game, then sit down with a stack of $100. What might you expect?

  • You’ll likely get to play more hands than you would in a typical NLHE game.
  • You’ll be able to experience the mechanics of game play more frequently such as being dealt cards, handling chips, acting in turn, and so forth without having to think about measuring your betting amounts (which are already prescribed).
  • You won’t have to worry quite as much about “tells” — either your own or reading others’ — as many of the decisions in LHE (especially low-stakes games) are made without a lot of deliberation.
  • The game is also more likely to be a little less tense overall than most NLHE games as the players who sit in low-limit LHE games are often more relaxed since the amounts won and lost on a given hand usually aren’t as substantial. Such an atmosphere will likely help ensure the experience to be a positive one for you.

That said, you might well expect to lose a few bucks, too. After all, it is your first ever poker game. However, in a limit hold’em game you most certainly aren’t going to lose it all in one hand.

Many who try fixed-limit hold’em and eventually move up the ranks to play higher-stakes games discover it to be an endlessly challenging game involving high-level strategy. The pots can get big, too — indeed, in some cases fixed-limit hold’em can “play bigger” than NLHE, relatively speaking. Even low-stakes LHE games often involve interesting strategic decisions and like all poker variants can attract savvy players, regardless of the stakes.

Here’s the other thing, too — while you might eventually decide fixed-limit hold’em isn’t your game and that you prefer the excitement of NLHE, during that first session, I promise you will not be bored. Everything will be new and interesting, and it’s very likely the experience will be one you’ll remember for a long time after.

In other words, it won’t be like watching paint dry.

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