What's the difference between playing no-limit hold'em and limit hold'em? There are many great limit players that are dead money in the no-limit games. Likewise, there are great no-limit players that would get chopped up like confetti in limit poker games.
Why does this happen? What factors might cause a player who is good at one game to be terrible in another? In my opinion, the games should be approached with a completely different mind-set.
The no-limit hold'em mind-set
In no-limit hold'em, a player can make a bet that is large enough to protect his made hand and make an opponent pay a dear price to chase a draw. With no-limit betting and deep stacks, moving all-in and getting called can seldom, if ever, be a bad play if you've got the best hand.
When I'm playing no-limit hold'em, my mind-set is this:
My number one goal is to get my opponent to put as many chips as possible into the pot when I have the best hand.
The cost of making small mistakes is often very small in comparison to the cost of making big mistakes. I might call $100 on the river after you catch a miracle card and bet. Certainly that is a mistake -- I called a bet with a losing hand. But if the very next hand I get you to call a $5,000 bet when you only have an 18 percent chance to win with one card to come, you've made an even bigger mistake -- a mistake that is 50 times bigger. There is a huge difference between the small and big mistakes that can be made in no-limit poker. Most of the biggest mistakes in no-limit hold'em happen before the flop or on the flop. The best player before the turn will be the biggest winner in no-limit poker.
The limit hold'em mind-set
In limit hold'em, I can almost never bet enough to protect the best hand against a draw. Putting chips into the pot with the best hand or a draw is almost never a mistake.
When I'm playing limit hold'em, my mind-set is this:
My number one goal is to put as few chips into the pot as possible when I have a losing hand.
In limit poker, there is very little difference between the size of the small mistakes and the big mistakes -- the difference is almost never more than the size of a small bet. Not only that, but very rarely can you make any sizable mistake before the river card is dealt in limit poker. Very often, if you flop any sort of reasonable chance to win the pot, you are tied on to seeing the river -- folding would be a mistake because you are almost always getting the right odds to chase any sort of reasonable draw whatsoever. But at the river, with no more cards to come, saving that last big bet when you have the worst hand is crucial for the win rate. The best player at the river will be the biggest winner in limit poker.
Get into the right mind-set when you're playing limit and no-limit poker. Realizing and thinking about the inherent differences in the games will definitely improve your play. By the way, I truly believe that it is important to be well rounded and good at both limit and no-limit play. You may have more fun slinging chips around and bluffing in no-limit, but if you play some limit poker, your people-reading skills will have to improve for you to win consistently.
Phil Gordon is a World Poker Tour champion, host of Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown," and plays online exclusively at FullTiltPoker. Phil Gordon's educational poker DVD, "Final Table Poker", is available at ExpertInsight.net and his new "Little Green Book" is available now.