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Money talks

In the penultimate instalment of Gambling’s six-part guide to the fundamental disciplines of no-limit Texas Hold’em, Duncan Wilkie teaches you how to become a lord of the full-ring games with his comprehensive guide to cash play

Let’s be honest; you can only talk for so long about what the best strategies for the accumulation of tournament chips are before you start to yearn for something that little bit more real. Yes, dear reader, it’s been a fun ride for the past four months, but now it’s time to take off the kid’s gloves and delve into the world of real money poker.

While some of the tournament techniques that you have learnt over the course of this series will still be transferable to the world of no-limit cash, full-ring games are a breed of their own with their own subtleties and nuances. As such, they require a unique skill set and a radically different approach that may seem alien to begin with.

The first major difference between tournaments and cash games is that the blinds are fixed and there is therefore no pressure on you to accumulate chips in order to stay ahead of the curve. However, that does not mean that resting on your laurels is a viable option either, as doing so will lead to a slow and predictable bankruptcy.

No, instead of slumping into a conservative wait-for-the-nuts strategy, your approach to cash games should actually be far more risky than the one you would adopt when playing a SNG or MTT – simply because the second major difference between cash and tournaments is that in cash, you’re never out until the last of the money is gone.

The significance of this point should not be underestimated as it will largely be the factor that dictates most of your cash game play. Put simply, while you might shy away from calling as a 55% favourite if it was a decision for your tournament life, in a cash game it would be automatic as you simply have to push every available edge.

Therefore, providing you have an adequate bankroll for the stakes that you’re playing (20 buy-ins is usually the advisable minimum requirement) you should play cash free from the inhibitions caused by potential elimination and look to get your money in as a favourite – no matter how small – as often as possible to ensure your best returns.

POSITION OF POWER

Of course, in order for you to get into a situation where you can put your stack in as a slight favourite, you’re going to have to be very selective about the hands that you open with. At this stage in our series you should have developed a strong grounding in the importance of position – and this will become even more crucial playing cash.

The best way to think about starting hand selection in a full-ring cash game is that every time you make a poor decision you will actively be costing yourself money. Without the incentive of stealing the blinds which, if you are fully loaded, are only worth 1.5% of your stack, there is no sense in throwing good money after bad.

As such, in early position with up to eight people to act behind you, you should be opening an incredibly tight range of hands. While this will be influenced by how the other people at your table are playing, generally speaking you should be opening pairs 9-9 and above, A-J suited and A-Q off-suit or better and possibly K-Q suited.

Limp-calling with smaller pairs (55-88) is generally okay in deep-stacked cash games as although you are likely to be dominated, should you flop a set you will often stand to win a big pot. As a general rule of thumb, you will get the implied odds to call with small pairs so long as the stacks are over 15x the size of the bet you need to call.

As a very crude example, if you limp-call a bet of $3 in a $100 max buy-in game, providing you can put your opponent on a strong hand range you will be getting the implied odds to flop a set if the effective stacks (the smallest stack in play) are $45 or more – and this rough equation will make up for the times that you miss and fold.

Naturally the further round the table you get the wider your opening range should be, up to the point that you should be betting up to three-times as many hands on the button as you are under the gun (UTG). This would include all suited aces, pairs, broadway combos (any two of T, J, Q and K) and suited connectors like 8-7 as you will get to play most hands in position post-flop.

PUSHING YOUR EDGES

Providing you stick to these guidelines for the most part and don’t fall into the trap of calling too many hands out of the blinds based on your opponent’s ‘wide range’, you will usually only find yourself caught out of position with premium hands, which, of course, will be so strong that they are relatively straightforward to play in most spots.

The rest of the time you will find yourself having the advantage of position when you have called an opening bet with a speculative hand like 9-8 suited or a medium pair or taken the lead by raising for value with a holding like A-K – and then it becomes a case of simply figuring out how the flop is likely to have hit your opponent’s range.

For example, let’s assume that an opponent has opened in early position and you’ve called with Js-10s on the button. Returning to our opening recommendations, you know that your jack-high is not likely to be good, but what you are hoping for is a flop that will allow you to get your money in as a favourite versus a presumably big hand.

Therefore, if the flop comes 9s-8s-3d and your opponent leads out into you, you will want to raise for value with your monster draw. If they then come back over the top of you – indicating a big pair – you should not shy away from getting all the money in. Against a typical UTG range you will be a favourite, and these are precisely the spots that you need to look for.

Of course, not every hand will be a huge all-in clash between two monster holdings, but if you can accurately assess your opponent’s range and play your own hand accordingly, you can usually engineer a situation where you are able to extract the maximum amount of money; be it playing for stacks or squeezing out an extra bet.

However, it is important to remember that sometimes deception – rather than naked aggression – can be the best way to extract value, as sometimes a check on one street will induce a bet on another. The key factor to consider is the ever-changing dynamic between your opponent’s possible range and how they perceive yours.

For example, let’s say that you’ve three-bet an early-position open on the button with As-Ks and your opponent has called. They then check-call on an Ad-8s-3h flop and check again on the 3d turn. Here there is little value to betting as you will get hands like K-K and Q-Q to fold, but checking could get the same hands to bet the river.

Essentially, in full-ring cash games you should always be thinking about how best to extract value from your opponent. This involves being able to efficiently assign them an accurate range of hands, determining how they would play that range against the hands they believe to be in your range and then ruthlessly exploiting this knowledge.

It may sound complicated at first, but the more time you invest playing cash the more natural it will become – and before long, the predictable players at the table will be printing your money for you. Join us next month as we take cash play a step further and enter the hyper-aggressive world of short-handed six-max games.

Full-Ring Cash Dos and Don’ts

Do:

• Be aware of the importance of position and its impact on your starting hand requirements. Remember that there is no pressure on you to stay ahead of the blinds and therefore no need to chase big pots with marginal hands

• Pay close attention to players’ stack sizes and use them to determine your implied odds when playing speculative hands. There’s no use in set-mining with small pairs if the pay-off doesn’t justify calling an open bet pre-flop

• Practice good bankroll management and ensure that you always have around 20 full buy-ins for your chosen stakes. This will enable you to survive when variance is going against you and allow you to make optimal decisions

Don’t:

• Get disheartened when you lose a couple of buy-ins. Full-ring cash is a high variance game and you will experience some downswings – the key is to not be to results-orientated and focus on getting your money in as a favourite

• Play too many hands out of the blinds because you are getting a ‘cheap’ flop. While you will be getting attractive odds to call, playing marginal hands out of position without the betting lead will only cost you more money post-flop

• Play for longer than you feel comfortable with, regardless of your profit or loss for the session. The beauty of a cash game is that you can leave whenever you want – allowing you to take breaks and always play at your optimum
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