Introduction

Like all variations of poker, no-limit hold 'em looks like a card game. But it's not, really.

No-limit hold 'em is actually a game of wagering based on imperfect information that uses cards to construct the situations for wagering. Players make bets and call bets based on their estimate that their hand (which they see) will, in the end, be better than their opponent's hand (which they can't see). To make an informed estimate, they have to take four factors into account:

  1. The likelihood that their hand will improve as more cards are dealt, which is pretty much a straight mathematical exercise.
  2. An estimate of the hand their opponent may hold, which is an exercise in inductive reasoning, based on hands he has held in the past, his general style of play, and the bets he has made thus far.
  3. The likelihood their opponent's hand will improve, another mathematical exercise, but complicated by the fact that their opponent's hand is not known for sure.
  4. The money odds being offered by the pot.

When a good no-limit hold 'em player plays a hand, he looks at his cards, looks at his opponents, considers the betting, and makes an educated guess whether to check, bet or call, raise or fold. In many hold 'em hands, one factor becomes so important that the other factors don't require much thought. For example:

  1. A player holds a hand so strong that he doesn't really care what his opponents have.
  2. A player holds a hand so weak that he thinks he's sure to lose a showdown.
  3. The pot odds are so large that he can play the hand with almost any holding.

Don't make the mistake, however, of assuming that even these hands are easy to play. In no-limit hold 'em, there are no trivial hands. Since you don't have to show your cards down to win, under the right circumstances any hand can be a winner.

If you've watched televised poker at all, you've no doubt heard no-limit hold 'em described as the "Cadillac of Poker.'" It's a true statement, but few players understand why the game deserves that reputation.

Professionals rank the different forms of poker by how much they consider their entry fees in a tournament to be worth. Top seven-card stud players, for instance, think that the true value of an entry into a seven-stud tournament is about twice the entry fee. (Paying $1,000 to enter a seven-stud tournament should yield, over a long run of tournaments, about $2,000 in prizes.) An entry to a razz or Omaha tournament yields about the same value. But the best no-limit hold 'em players think that a $1,000 entry fee is worth $4,000 to $5,000, and in huge events like the World Series of Poker, with many beginners in the field, perhaps as much as $7,000 to $8,000.

What makes no-limit hold 'em poker so much more skillful for good players, and so profitable for the best players? Many think it has something to do with making big all-in bets, or orchestrating outrageous bluffs. But actually it hinges on two technical factors: the amount of information available to the players, and the ability to control the pot odds offered to your opponent. Let's look at each factor in turn.

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