If you’ve spent any time on poker forums in the last few years, you’ll have seen that there’s a strange trend that develops every time someone posts a hand in which they open-limped preflop. One of the first comments will always be something along the lines of “don’t limp in, just raise or fold”, or “limping is just bad, don’t do it”. Then the original poster will inquire as to exactly why limping is “just bad”, or why they should only raise or fold, and that’s where the discussion falters – people usually don’t have much reasoning behind not wanting to limp in preflop, other than that it’s simply “not what good regs usually do”, or “it’s weak”. With this article, I want to try to elucidate this debate, and provide a few concrete reasons why limping is very rarely the right play.
Before I begin any kind of explanation, I want to add a few caveats. Firstly, this article will predominantly deal with open-limping – limping into an unopened pot. There are situations where limping behind players who have already limped in can be perfectly fine. Secondly, this article is not going to address the concept of open-limping in the small blind – some players choose to adopt a purely raise-or-fold strategy in the small blind, while some choose to have an open-limping range in certain circumstances. It’s really an entirely different debate that probably deserves an article of its own.
Thirdly, this article doesn’t intend to suggest that there are no occasions on which open-limping can be appropriate – indeed, on rare occasions it can be an interesting way of throwing good players off their game. Finally, those of you who play live poker quite often may find that there are some specific tables at which open-limping can be of great benefit, if the dynamic at the table differs greatly from an ordinary No-Limit Hold’Em table (for example, very little preflop raising, or a huge amount of preflop raising, or simply nobody at the table who is capable of correctly interpreting the significance of a preflop open-limp). With those points in mind, here are a few reasons why open-limping should almost never be your default play in MTTs.
Capping your range
One key phenomenon that occurs when we limp in against competent players (note that they don’t have to be strong players, merely competent enough to have some conception of the significance of someone choosing to limp instead of raising preflop) is that we make it very difficult for ourselves to represent strong hands once we get into postflop situations.
Let’s say we decide we want to bet all three streets as a bluff on a fairly dry and blank board. Once we’ve limped in, we make it very hard for ourselves to credibly represent strong hands in such a situation, because we’ve more or less taken most of the strong preflop hands out of our range. When our range does not contain hands like QQ+, it is immediately weakened and capped, and this makes it very difficult for us to get away with any bluffs postflop, because our thinking opponents will be less wary of strong hands. This wouldn’t be so bad if we did actually have a stronger range, of course, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Building big pots
Something that becomes very difficult once we limp in is to build big pots when we feel it necessary. As soon as we limp in, we make it harder for the pot to grow to the kind of size where we might be able to win (or lose) a substantial number of chips – this has a great impact on our overall EV, since maximising the amount we win when we make strong hands postflop is pivotal to our success.
Let’s say we have a hand like pocket fives – a hand many weaker players would often be inclined to limp in with preflop – and we’re fairly deep-stacked. We decide to limp in preflop in a spot where antes are in play. Usually at a 9-handed table, the blinds and antes would equal about 2.5 big blinds, so once we limp, there’s around 3.5 big blinds in the pot. One player limps behind us, and the pot grows to 4.5 big blinds. We flop a set, bet the flop for 2bb, and get raised to 6bb. At this point, the pot is 12.5 big blinds. Let’s compare that to a similar situation where we had raised preflop and got called.
If we raise to even 2bb preflop, the pot is 4.5 big blinds by the time it gets to the caller, who makes it 6.5 big blinds after calling. Our flop bet is 3bb instead of 2bb, and the raise is to 9bb instead of 6bb. The pot has now grown to 18.5 big blinds, and we’re going to have a lot more opportunities to stack our opponent in this pot than we would have in the first instance. It might seem logical to counter this point by saying that we lose fewer chips when we’re beat if the pot is smaller, but this is a somewhat negative way to perceive the situation, and it ignores the reality that a big chunk of our overall EV comes from our nut hands. We don’t want to be focusing on how to avoid getting stacked when the rare set-over-set comes around – we want to be focusing on how to get our opponent’s stack when the much-more-common ‘set versus top pair’ comes around.
Issues of balance
I mentioned earlier that the idea of getting less credit for stronger hands might be good if we actually had stronger hands in our range. This concept is what leads so many people to limp in preflop with hands like KK or AA – they think they’re trapping their opponents into giving them value, when in fact they’re doing just the opposite.
What they’re accomplishing is actually creating a situation where they’re faced with a choice between two bad options. The first is having a limping range almost exclusively composed of very strong hands, and subsequently being unable to create big pots with those hands for the reasons explained above. Alternatively, they can start balancing their limping range by including other, weaker hands in it, but that suddenly generates a lot of situations where they’re limping in with weak hands not for the sake of the hand itself, but for some speculative idea of the future EV it might generate if they happen to get dealt a strong hand in that same spot at that same table against those same players sometime soon. This kind of speculation is never a great idea.
If you’re limping weak hands, it creates a good spot to limp strong hands. If you start limping strong hands, limping weak hands becomes okay, but the value of the strong hands decreases. Even if you had a perfectly balanced limping range, you’d end up negating your opportunities to make the most money with the top of your range. Take one look at your Holdem Manager or PokerTracker stats sorted according to hand groupings, and you’ll see what a mistake this is. You’ll probably see that pocket aces makes you roughly twice as much as any other hand or group of hands in the deck, so losing out on that huge margin and turning AA into ‘just another hand’ would be a significant mistake.
Overall EV considerations
Those of you who’ve read some of my forum posts over the last few months will probably have heard me wax lyrical about the benefits of a program called HoldemResources Calculator – it’s a piece of software that allows the calculation of GTO or unexploitable preflop strategies for any conceivable hand or situation. I’ve run many, many calculations with this piece of kit over the past six months or so, and one thing keeps cropping up on several occasions.
The software provides a judgment of the overall EV of any situation for a certain player in the process of constructing GTO ranges – in a situation where two different plays could be +EV, it chooses the most +EV one and includes it as part of the GTO solution. In situations where limping preflop is included as a strategic option, the software almost never recommends that players actually choose that option. In almost every instance I could find, the GTO solution to a game where players have all strategic options open to them did not include any limping at all, because limping simply served to reduce the EV of the overall situation, even when it was done with a perfectly balanced range. The only exception was in the small blind, which as I’ve mentioned, is a very different type of situation. Thus, while it is possible to construct a GTO strategy based around preflop limping, this strategy is not the most +EV choice available to us, and limping is not part of a broader GTO strategy in most cases.
A final thought
It’s common for many players to adopt limping strategies when they first start out in poker – from an external perspective, it might seem perfectly innocuous. But as you can see from this article, once we dig a little deeper into the mechanics of preflop limping, we can see that its effects are much further-reaching that we can often anticipate.
Changing our preflop action affects the way postflop situations play out, and changing the way one postflop situation plays out affects the way all the others play out. As MTT players we must keep a close eye on all parts of our game, and recognising the synergy between our preflop and postflop decisions is a key part of maintaining our edge. If you’re currently in a place where limping preflop is a part of your default strategy, it might be time to take the next step and eliminate it.