This past weekend I returned to playing a $15-30 limit game, after spending the last few months mostly playing $100 multi-table live tournaments.
Returning to limit after playing so much no-limit is a bit like suddenly having your hands tied behind your back. It is of course night and day from no-limit: a completely different game. Despite feeling a bit constrained and maybe a little impatient, these feelings aren’t affecting my game. I believe I’m playing a much more disciplined, aware game than I was playing just a year ago.
My long hiatus from poker in general, and limit poker especially, has really done wonders for my game. I feel very mentally balanced, very immune to taking beats, very aware of the game dynamic, and just generally incapable of making mistakes (as much of an illusion as this might be).
I think my main growth has been in the area of image perception: how other players perceive me. As a young man (well, like three years ago), I was often an action player. Despite the fact that I knew that this was not a good approach to limit (and I’m talking full ring games here), I couldn’t help but cultivate such an image. It was somewhat useful at the time I was playing for a living, because some of the limit players played no-limit, too – so in some ways it paid off because I was able to take advantage of that cross-game perception. But the metagame was not why I was doing it. It was just the image I wanted to portray because it came most naturally to me, and I thought I could control it in a way that benefitted me.
Truthfully, some of it was probably psychological compensation for the fact that my personal life was a bit lacking in excitement. I wanted that crazy image. I liked having that crazy image. I liked being that guy whom the table was focusing on, whether for good or bad. Some days I felt like this perception really paid off for me. And some days that may have been true. But, looking back on it, I was just making things harder for myself in that game.
I’m still an action player in no-limit. That’s an acceptable, practical image to cultivate in no-limit, provided you know what to do with it. In fixed limit, as I’ve learned after absorbing the lesson time and time again, such an image is a completely useless thing to have.
It’s worse than useless – it’s very damaging to your primary goals in limit. I may be speaking the obvious to you when I say this: most situations in limit hold’em you’d be more than happy to take down the pot immediately. Yes, I agree this is probably obvious. It’s something I’ve known for years. But nonetheless the real internal learning of this lesson has taken a long time to sink in.
I bet some of you younger players reading this are thinking, “No, he’s wrong. I can be as aggressive and maniacal as I want because I know what I’m doing. I know how to handle my table perception so that I get away from hands where I’m beat and maximize my winnings when everyone has to pay me off.” All I can say is, I don’t think that is the best image to portray in the large majority of the games out there.
Being perceived as maniacal will make your opponents call you down more and will make people try to outplay you and bluff raise you more. You may think you want these things, and can handle them, which is what I used to think. But you can’t fade the fact that the situations in limit hold’em where you just want to take down the pot, and are happy with the fact, are so much more numerous than the spots where you feel good having competition until the river.
You have to realize that your opponents are very frequently getting the odds to call you or else are very near getting the proper odds. You don’t want to give them any extra reasons to call you.
This really came home to me this weekend when I had been sitting there a couple hours, doing well, and I realized that I had won quite a few pots without ever having to show my hand. After playing an over-pair a little tricky, and check-raising another good player off the hand on the turn, I overheard him talking to the people around him, saying he thought I had a set. It struck home then that I couldn’t remember anyone giving me that much credit in that spot before. And it felt good.
Of course you can make moves, and switch gears, and these things will not hurt your image, provided you keep them within a certain healthy level. Being perceived as a tight, aggressive player who knows what he’s doing, who is not afraid of the stakes, and who is capable of occasionally making moves, will only help you. Your unpredictability is what earns you your action sometimes. But there should be a well-constructed balance, with the majority of your actions falling into the tight-aggressive category.
To put it bluntly and un-romantically, you kind of have to be mostly a nit at limit. As much as I hate nits, there’s unfortunately not much way around this.
Besides playing tight, just general table presence contributes to people’s reactions to you. How you hold yourself, how you react to winning and losing, your confidence level, your verbal statements: all of these things contribute to how people play with you.
One area I think I’ve improved upon are some things that are hard to define. I think along with my reckless style I used to cultivate a kind of mischievous demeanor. I don’t know how quite to explain this, but I think I often wore a kind of smirk, an attitude that said, “I’m a much better player than you” in some subtle way. As a cocky kid, I usually did think this (and still believe it was mostly true against my competition at that time).
Added to this was frequently my reaction to running bad; I was prone to getting sullen and quiet, obviously upset. This and my cocky demeanor made me someone I think a lot of people enjoyed beating. While I still sometimes go out of my way to have people want to beat me at the no-limit games, at the limit tables it is plain to see that I was making my struggle an uphill one.
With my perspective on the game, after taking such a long time off, I feel a little bit like I’m finally running on a solid surface after training for a few years running on loose sand. After making things so hard for myself in limit poker for years, with regards to my image, I feel like making 1.5 to 2 big bets per hour will be a piece of cake. (Time will tell how that plays out.)
My general demeanor at the table now is much cooler, relaxed, and more calm. I no longer could be described, I don’t think, as someone anyone would enjoy beating. I think my new perspective on the game has given me a new demeanor: one that looks just purely professional, unafraid and unfazed by things. I think most people, pros and amateurs alike, now look at me and think, “this guy’s serious and obviously knows what he’s doing; better stay out of his way”.
In the old days this image would have been not nearly exciting enough for me. I always thought players who were sneaking in under the radar, not making a splash, were not true players. I always hated the nits who would sit back, only play premium hands, and try to collect their 1 BB/hr.
The thing that I’ve come to understand is that not being the center of attention does not equal being a nit. You can have game. Your game just needs to be put in check for the requirements of limit. Your game needs to be more subtle. You need to recognize the limits (no pun intended) of what is possible at limit hold’em.
Now I see that this is where I should have always been: not making waves, but just looking at the bottom line.