by Bob Ciaffone


The term pot-limit means just what it says; the limit you can bet is the size of the pot. Naturally, a pot grows in size as a deal progresses, so the betting limit after all the cards are out is usually far greater than it was at the start of that deal.

In some places, the only form of poker played is pot-limit. This is true of Stewart's home country Britain, as well as most other European countries. I remember talking to one of Britain's finest professional poker players, who was coming to America for the first time. The player started asking me for advice on how to play limit poker, saying he had never played that form before!

Americans almost always learn to play limit poker before pot-limit poker. Frankly, this is the natural order, since pot-limit play is more complex. You must decide how much to bet, as well as whether to bet, and decisions are more meaningful, because the amount of a bet or raise is much larger in proportion to the total amount in the pot. Therefore, it will be helpful for many readers if we compare limit and pot-limit betting structures as to their effect on overall strategy.

At limit poker, most bets offer the prospective caller pot odds of anywhere from 4-1 to 20-1. When you bet or raise, these attractive odds mean you are a big favorite to get called. At pot-limit poker, a normal bet is between half the pot size and the full amount of the pot. The pot odds offered the opponent will normally be between 2-1 (for a full-pot bet) and 3-1 (for a half-pot bet). This means at pot-limit a bet or raise has a far better chance of winning immediately, which of course has profound effects on strategy.

If there is a good chance to win the pot with a bet or raise, it is obvious that bluffing becomes much more attractive. To be a good pot-limit player, you must be willing to run bluffs, and become adept at reading your opponents. This means pot-limit is more of a "people game," where psychology is very important.

Pot-limit also puts a high premium on aggressive play. There are two ways to win a pot. You can either show down the best hand at the end, or win earlier by a bet or raise. The difference between being a winning player and a losing player at pot-limit is often determined by how many pots you win without having the best hand. By reaching out with those bets and raises, you win more pots with moderate hands, and also get more action on good hands.

Another difference between pot-limit and limit poker is the use of deception. The good old-fashioned poker virtues of trickery, subterfuge, and chicanery find far more use at pot-limit play. You are constantly scheming how to win all the opponent's chips. Falsely acting weak at some point during the deal can be the way to do it. Another way is to sometimes play a hand that does not measure up to the usual requirements for that situation. The deeper the money, the more reasonable it is to play a surprise holding to bushwhack the opponent with later. And bluffing is of course a form of deception. At limit poker, solid straightforward play is demanded most of the time. At pot-limit, it is often necessary to trick the opponent out of his money. Naturally, this also makes for more fun.

A major difference between the two poker forms is position assumes far more importance at pot-limit. The amount proportionately at risk on each bet makes your decision more meaningful, so giving and getting information for that decision correspondingly increases in value. Acting first is uncomfortable. If you check, a bet by the opponent thus induced can easily knock you out of the pot. If you bet, this alerts the opponent to get out if he does not have a good hand. Acting last is helpful with any hand, but it is especially helpful with marginal hands, because you can act accordingly on the information gained from the opponent. At all forms of poker played with pot-limit betting, the rule for deciding which hands to play is "solid in front, looser in the back."

At limit play, winning with a super-class hand increases the amount you have won by several extra bets, but one bet is only a fraction of the pot size. At big-bet poker, just "one extra bet" actually triples the size of the pot, so a super-class hand earns proportionally a much greater reward. This difference in the amount of reward has a major influence on the relative value of starting hands. For example, at pot-limit or no-limit hold'em, pocket nines are a more desirable starting hand than they are at limit hold'em, and a K-Q offsuit less desirable. Pocket nines build middle set, and K-Q builds only top pair. True, it is more than twice as hard to get a set. But middle set can easily double through an opponent, whereas if top pair breaks someone, it rates to be you. So in building hands at big-bet poker, you take aim at the other person's entire stack.

To sum up, we see that pot-limit poker places much more emphasis on psychology, aggressiveness, deception, and position. The good player thus has more tools to work with. His advantage against weak opponents becomes greater. If your main poker skill is sitting back and waiting for a good hand, you better stay with limit poker. But if you have the finer poker skills––or are willing to work at acquiring them––then pot-limit play is the field where you can really flower.