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Game Flow in No-Limit Hold’em Cash Games

Over the years, many people have asked me for advice on what is the “perfect” strategy for certain types of games. I think people get somewhat seduced by the thought that something as complex as poker can be simplified to a few basic strategies that can be easily executed.

Do not get me wrong, in many instances poker can be simplified tremendously and software helps us to achieve this even more. Only last year did I undertake to start using tracking software to help me play in my usual $25-$50 six max no-limit games (I use Poker Office version 5 by the way) and my results have seen a total transformation from last year.

Tracking software like this is invaluable at six-max because eliminating patterns and identifying those of your opponents becomes ever more crucial. You can get away with an awful lot in full-ring games which you simply cannot in six-max! But in this article I want to take you beyond tracking software and into an area that I call game flow, but is also commonly referred to as the “meta game”.

I think that the use of tracking software is at its most crucial at the lower and middle limits. At the low limits and micro limits, I feel that there are easily enough bad players to make playing a sound solid automatic game very profitable without the use of a sniffer.

However as you progress through the limits, into say NL200 and above, then game selection assumes far greater importance and there are far more players who can play the game very well. The player pools are still very wide and the regulars mainly have strong games. So what you are searching for is value from a smaller number of players. Once you start to hit NL200 and above, you will now encounter many tables which are simply not profitable and finding and avoiding these tables will tend to be your bread and butter.

How you go about finding these tables will be a subject of further articles, but once you start to move into highstakes games then you are once again entering a situation where basing your decisions too strongly on what your HUD is telling you will be a big mistake. If HUDs were the standard requirement at highstakes NLHE then players like Phil Ivey would use them.

Despite not being able to see your opponents you can still get a tremendous amount of feel playing online. Every game has its own unique flow and if you can tap into this flow and what it means then you can really take your game to a world class level. I would still always make use of a HUD even at highstakes poker but here it is more of an artificial aid rather than the mainstay of your operation like it is at the lower levels.

So what exactly do we mean by “meta game”? Well this is a topic that is not always easy to put into words, but it is basically the game behind the game. It opens up a whole new dimension of poker where the actual cards themselves decrease dramatically in importance.

Using “flow theory” or the “meta game” can be very effective not just in live poker but in online poker too. But you have to be very careful that you are playing against very sophisticated players and that they are also closely watching you and the table. One of the things that you cannot afford is to be thinking on too high a level. This can be wasted on certain opponents because they are simply not thinking anywhere near your level.

Using flow theory can mean basically making any play with any hand at almost any time based on the flow of the game. For instance, let us say that your image had been very tight simply because the rest of the table had been very aggressive and your opportunities had been limited. It is folded to you on the button and you raise with the 8s-3s merely because you suspect that your table image is rocky and that your opponents are sophisticated and observant enough to know this.

The big blind calls and the flop comes Ks-3d-3h giving you trips. You end up with a nice size pot against your opponents Kc-Qd. Your opponent types in “nice hand” into the chat box. Whenever I see that someone has taken the opportunity to type something like that then this could possibly be an indication that something has needled your opponent or why would he take the trouble to type something. Usually this is an attempt to make the other players think that losing the pot had no effect on them and is an attempt to look cool and calm.

But they could be angry at themselves for not three betting you pre-flop after they saw that you had nothing but junk. Then on the next orbit you see an A-9 and it is folded to you once again on the button. Now a lot of people would argue that this is a standard raise, and it probably is against lower caliber players, but an A-9 is not a hand that wants a lot of action at this stage of play.

It is clear that your play with the 8-3 has changed you opponents’ view of you. But we don’t yet know in what way. They could be thinking that you may have decided to take a single stab with a junk hand because you hadn’t played a hand for a while and may not elect to do so again. Or they may be thinking that you are changing gears and looking to loosen up.

What your play has achieved is to start a chain of events that you can then look to exploit. It is difficult to tap into game flow if you are multi-tabling and is why I don’t multi-table when I play $25-$50. I also refuse to use tracking software as well and prefer to sit watching a game for a good 30-45 minutes at this level prior to playing and then use it afterwards to analyze the session and my opponents.

But let us say that you had been very active stealing blinds and generally getting under the skin of your opponents. The flow of the game tells you that your opponents in the blinds are looking to make a stand and start playing back at you. So in two successive orbits you fold A-9 and A-5 on the button despite raising with the 8-3 earlier in the session.

It is plays like these that many intermediate and novice players fail to comprehend and cannot see how it can be possible to raise with 8-3 but yet fold A-9 in the same position against the same players. If your opponents are playing card dependent strategies then using meta game principles will simply not work.

Likewise if you are playing full-ring then this will also vastly diminish meta game principles. But they really do come into their own in six-max play or shorter, where learning to correctly tune into the flow of the game can really take your poker to the ultimate level. If you then take this a stage further and play a world class player heads up, then suddenly poker becomes a whole new game where most conventional poker wisdom ceases to apply.

Carl “The Dean” Sampson is an ambassador for document.write(CakePokerA);document.write(CakePokerB);, a poker theorist and online pro.

Carl Sampson

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