I travel a lot to play poker and talk to students from around the country. Inevitably I hear the same things: “You cannot bluff in my game.” “These players are too bad for this stuff to work.” “They will call me with anything!”
I then sit down in a game with these complaining players and I see them make fundamental errors immediately like limping under the gun with QTo. Just as bad and more infuriating to the student are the effects of their own bad raise sizes. For example there will be four limpers and my student will raise to $7 from the button with AA in a $1-$2 game. Not surprisingly, the big bind looks at the $18 in the pot and calls for $5 getting 3.6:1 on the call. Each of the other limpers is going to get an even better price on his call. Is it really surprising when this Hero ends up in a six way pot for $43 and only $193 or less in the effective stacks? Hero’s own raise size ends up shooting him in the foot right away!
We raise pre-flop so that the opponents can make an error in calling us, or possibly an error in folding to us. If they are getting the right odds to call your raise and they do in fact call you the question becomes who made the error? I am not saying calling the $5 out of the big blind is a winning move. I am not saying limp-calling the tiny raise is the right move. Neither move is such a big error that the mistake will be apparent within the variance inherent in the game. If you want to win, you have to make the Villain pay for their mistakes.
What is the adjustment that our hero makes so his Aces don’t get cracked? Four limpers in the pot and he makes it $30. It would clearly be an error for the limpers to call this raise, but very rarely will they make this error. Hero will then feel smug that at least his Aces did not get cracked. However, he denied his Villains the opportunity to make an error in calling. He in fact took advantage of the first error, but he did not maximize his advantage when creating his preflop plan and play.
The next bad adjustment is to just limp with Aces and see a flop, this is even worse than making the pointless little $7 raise. The error of limping is not exploited in any meaningful way here. The card advantage and position are an advantage but this advantage is so small that it will not really be noticeable. Do not do this either.
My student will go through these options of limping, raising and over-raising and complain there is no way to beat these guys. The problem is that none of these strategies allow the Villain’s to make further errors nor do they magnify their error of limping to the point it is noticeable within the variance of the game.
“If you think they do not respect your raises,
it is because you are not raising enough”
You are likely not raising enough in amount and not enough in frequency. Let us think about the amount first. With four limpers, Aces and the button I am going to look at the pot and say there is $11 in the pot. Actually $13 with my call so a pot sized raise on top of my call is $15. I have a few limpers to go through, so I make it more like $17. That is just three red chips on top for the limpers. This is enough of a raise that calling with junk is tempting but more clearly wrong. If they call a raise like this the error will lose them money a lot quicker and more clearly than calling the $7 raise. If they fold, abandoning their limped money, that will also add up quickly. This bigger but not too big of a raise is the winning play.
What about frequency? In these limp-fest games imagine that once per orbit you are able to raise, in position over one or more limpers. On average that will be four times an hour. Let’s say one in four of those you take it down pre-flop. There is $5-$7 uncontested per hour. Two other times one of the two limpers and the blinds drop out. That is $5 dead in the pot twice an hour. Say you go on to win these two pots a little over half the time for $6 per hour in free money from the limp-folder and undefended blind. Finally one hand an hour both limpers call your raise so you are playing a decent sized pot, in position with better hands than a couple of limp-callers. This final situation is profitable, but not as easy to calculate. The abandoned money from limp-folders and blinds adds up to $11-$13 an hour. These players might have played along for the small raise, but not for the solid one.
This dead money is not a dramatic win where you scoop a big pot at the end, but that small flow of money into your stack adds up, hour after hour, day after day. It may get lost in the noise of a volatile game, but it is there. The House only has a small advantage over gamblers in the pit, but that small advantage will wear down the biggest of bankrolls.