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Strategy Op-Ed: Why Hellmuth's Limp Strategy is Bad for Poker

Read all about the limping strategy Phil Hellmuth employed during the 'High Stakes Duel'

After Phil Hellmuth's impressive come-from-behind victory against Daniel Negreanu in the 'High Stakes Duel' on PokerGo, writer Nick Fisk has written this strategy op-ed analyzing the 15-time bracelet winner's limping strategy.


There's no denying that Phil Hellmuth's heads-up comeback was a remarkable achievement. But what should not be forgotten is the bizarre strategy of limping that Hellmuth employed in order to achieve this victory.

It's not that Hellmuth didn't have a raising button. In one of the very first hands of the duel, Hellmuth three-bet with {k-Hearts}{q-Diamonds}, Daniel Negreanu four-bet with {a-Spades}{a-Clubs}, and Hellmuth made a cautious lay-down.

But Hellmuth continued with the strategy of limping from the button, even with hands like {k-}{10-} or {8-}{8-} where conventional wisdom would be to at least put in a raise to at least gauge the strength of your opponent’s hand. Perhaps earlier on, Negreanu was more inclined to raise, and then most commonly Hellmuth would just call. As the game ground on, Negreanu was more inclined to check back and see a cheap flop.

Remember, an annual subscription to PokerGO costs $99.99, but you can save $10 off by using promo code “PokerNews” at checkout. Once you're signed up, the entire first match of Negreanu vs. Hellmuth can be seen here.

Heads-Up Guessing Game

There are so many reasons why for me, limping is a poor strategy, particularly with moderate-good hands. The main reason, of course, is that post-flop, it really becomes a complete guessing game as to what your opponent might have, and you’re letting them potentially flop that unlikely two pair with something like {9-}{4-}. If you’ve limped with {k-}{10-} and it comes {k-}{9-}{4-}, you really are in trouble. In addition of course, raising pre-flop with hands you hope to win with increases the pot-size and the amount you hope to win.

3 Reasons Why Limping Pre-Flop Was Bad

  • It turns into a guessing game pre-flop
  • You run the risk of getting out-flopped
  • You fail to increase the size of pots you might later hope to win

Perhaps Hellmuth employed this strategy to minimize risk, but I don't think this is an effective way of playing heads-up in the long term. In my experience, heads-up should be all about bet, bet, bet instead of check, check, check. It should be about using a fair bit of aggression to try and win both the big and small pots.

Another reason for the unusual play might be that down to Mike Matusow. A close friend of Hellmuth's, Matusow had apparently been keeping an eye on the Polk v Negreanu match. So it might have been identified that Negreanu was tending to put in a lot of annoying 3-bets and so flat-calling might prevent this. Perhaps Team Hellmuth also figured they were more likely to win hands that got to the post-flop stage and limping ensured more hands got to this stage?

When You Should Limp Heads-Up

That's not to say the strategy of flat-calling should never be used. I would definitely use it just about every time pre-flop against an ultra-aggressive player who was either shoving or massively over-betting just about every time pre-flop. But Negreanu was definitely no such opponent, not showing any particular aggression. I think Negreanu’s flaw, particularly as he went into a good lead early on, was imagining he was just going to waltz to victory without having to think too much about things.

Only towards the very end, once it was Negreanu who finally had the depleted stack did Hellmuth begin to correctly show a little more aggression. But even while Hellmuth had the lead, he was still prone to limping just about every time.

Dragged Out Heads-Up Match

You could argue that Hellmuth although showed great patience to come back from such a huge deficit, the match could still have ended way, way sooner if Hellmuth had just raised far more often from the button. The commentators pointed this out repeatedly and had more or less given up on ways of expressing their incredulity at Hellmuth’s apparent strategy.

I did almost wonder if Hellmuth had been instructed to limp so often in order to intentionally prolong the match, but I can’t really see if there would be too much benefit to that for anyone. All I can say is that I hope the employment of this woeful strategy was strictly a one-off, and we will see some more skilful, aggressive and entertaining play in any potential rematch.

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  • Read all about the limping strategy Phil Hellmuth employed during the 'High Stakes Duel'

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