One of the most important events in my poker career occurred at the tail end of the 1990s. A regular in my weekly home game invited me to play in another game that had, to me, a novel twist. The only form of poker played was limit hold ’em with $1 and $2 blinds, over and over again. I had played LHE before, but at my table it made only occasional appearances sandwiched between better-loved variants such as low-Chicago and Anaconda.
Having run a home game for decades I was well aware that an invitation to one frequently meant the host assumed the invitee was an idiot, or at least an easy source of profit. It occurred to me that a little research was in order, so I picked up a couple of books and immediately fell in love. Not only was it readily apparent that LHE had a strong mathematical basis, but the books contained neat charts of profitable starting hands.
Over the next few years I worked up from $3/6 LHE at the Kansas City Ameristar to $20/40 at the Mirage and logged over seven million hands online, topping out at the $50/100 tables. But the whole project nearly got derailed in its first few months due to a pernicious seduction.
Every LHE book contains one piece of consistent advice. The most common mistake made by most players is that they play too many hands. The starting-hand charts are designed to make sure that the diligent reader doesn’t commit this error. But as I bought more books and started spending time on the emerging poker forums, I noticed that not all starting-hand charts were the same. Some allowed you to play far more hands than others!
Guess which ones I liked the best?
It’s important to point out that these “wider opening ranges” as we would now call them came with certain caveats. “If the game is extremely loose-passive and you’re playing against very weak players, you can add these hands from that position.”
It was amazing. No sooner had I been exposed to these expanded ranges than I immediately decided that every game I played in was extremely loose-passive and that my opponents were all several sandwiches short of a picnic.
To cut a meandering intro short, my poker career was saved by PokerTracker and the fact that the math geek in me triumphed over the vain nitwit who thought he could play wider than everyone else because he was just that good.
So what does all this have to do with $1/2 NLHE?
Let’s start with “The Course.” When I first read the chapter on opening ranges I was absolutely delighted. Ed Miller’s were wider than mine! At least from the first three positions in a full-ring game they were, since Ed’s recommendations treat everything from the hijack back to first position as EP.
The EP opening range in the book version of The Course is the following:
A2s+, KTs+, QTs+, JTs-76s
The extra hands relative to my default range are the small pairs, lower suited connectors, and weaker suited aces.
I immediately started trying out the extra hands at $1/2 in my usual Vegas poker rooms. It was great having the extra hands, particularly the suited connectors since they’re such fun to play, but something didn’t feel right. And while my sample size was not large, my hourly rate appeared to be suffering too.
I believe one of my better-developed skills as a poker player is that I now recognize my own limitations. So I first asked myself if the problems I was having with this new range simply reflected holes in my post-flop abilities. It seemed plausible, but an additional factor also suggested itself when I did a bit more digging and studied the accompanying videos to The Course.
The games I play in are typically fairly shallow. Many tourists buy in for the 50BB table minimum and then allow their stacks to dwindle as if they are playing blackjack. The new hands I was playing from up front all benefit from large implied odds which, in turn, require fairly deep effective stacks.
Just as I was about to dump the troublesome hands, I started coming across more and more references to “board coverage” at RCP and elsewhere. In the context of the Miller opening range, one reason small pairs and medium suited connectors are included from EP is that they provide this board coverage. The basic idea is that if our range only contains big cards we cannot represent strength on low-card flops.
While I don’t disagree with this, I’ve reached the conclusion that having a tight opening range that does not provide board coverage on low flops is not in itself a problem. We only have an issue if an opponent will exploit the fact. For this to happen our opponent must first notice that our EP opening range is dominated by big cards. They must then have the sophistication to recognize which flops are bad for our range. Finally, they must have the skill to do something about it that costs us chips. In a typical $1/2 game this simply doesn’t happen.
You might reasonably point out that without getting into difficult spots and trying new approaches we will never get better at poker, and once again I agree in principle. The Course is explicitly designed to provide a student with the skills to beat $1/2 games and then to move up and become a winner at $2/5 and possibly higher. I would add that I think it is one of the best books ever written on the topic.
But there is a pedagogical Catch-22 here. The Miller range makes perfect sense in 150BB-deep games against somewhat competent opponents such as those you might find at $2/5. In order to get confident with those ranges and understand how they dove-tail with a winning post-flop strategy, we need to practice using them. But the obvious training ground is $1/2 where the games play very differently.
If you are currently viewing $1/2 as such a training ground and have reached a level in your poker understanding where you appreciate these subtleties, keep going. You already know, for example, that in shallow games the value of implied-odds hands plummets while hands like AJo go up in value. However, if you are using an opening range similar to or wider than the one above and are struggling, consider the possibility that the problem is the stack depth and texture of the game. Experiment with tightening up.
Goodness. In the modern age of NLHE training sites that last sentence borders on heresy. Ed’s EP range in The Course corresponds to 14% of hands. Even in shallow $1/2 games I suspect it can be played profitably; I just don’t think it’s optimal. However, if you follow the RCP forums you are likely aware that Christian Soto and other devotees of the Solve For Why approach adopt (successfully) an opening range of around 24% of hands. More generally, there is a growing consensus that a LAG style makes the most money, and the starting point to be a LAG is to play more hands.
I think we have one of those cognitive permutation problems involving carts and horses. In fact, if you take away one idea from this article, make it the following:
You don’t make more money in NLHE simply by playing a wide opening range.
The spots you get into as a result of playing more hands may be a useful part of your poker education, and as you get better at poker it is possible to play more hands profitably, but if you simply widen your range and expect your win-rate to magically increase, you’re in for a disappointment. Moreover, these wide ranges and the accompanying post-flop strategies are not designed for typical $1/2 games.
It is not my intention to thwart the attempts of RCP coaches and authors to challenge subscribers to play wider ranges. Learning should always contain an element of experimentation. I’m simply trying to avoid players getting frustrated in $1/2 games when they apply wide ranges that are compromised by stack depth and game texture. The seduction of playing more hands came close to terminating my poker career. I don’t want that to happen to you.