The online poker community is divided into “regs” and “fish.” Regs are professionals or semi-professionals and winning players. Fish are recreational and usually losing players. Clearly, it’s important to be able to distinguish between the two as quickly as possible. The best way to do this using stats is to look at the difference between VPIP and PFR.
VPIP means “voluntarily put money in the pot”; it’s basically the percentage of hands that you play. PFR means “pre-flop raise,” which is self-explanatory. Regs typically have their VPIP and PFR very close together, say 23/21. This means that if they’re playing the hand, they’re almost always raising. Fish often have numbers that are far apart, say 12/38. They tend to enter many pots by just calling.
While regs will sometimes call a raise, for the most part they never just call the blinds. This is known as limping in. If it’s folded to a reg and he’s going to play the hand, he’ll play it for a raise. This tendency is so strong that if I see a player limp in even a single time, I immediately mark him as a fish: a weak player and a target.
Yet when you start playing live poker, something strange happens: most players limp more often than they raise. This is true even of some players at higher stakes, and even some players who are generally regarded as skillful.
So what’s wrong with limping? The backbone of the theoretical case against limping has to do with fold equity. Whenever you bet there’s a chance that everyone folds and you take the pot. The value you get from potentially taking down the pot is called fold equity. If you raise, there’s a chance everyone will fold and you win the blinds. If you just limp in, there’s no way you can win the pot immediately. At the very least, the big blind has already paid enough to see a flop. The blinds may not seem like much, but in a tough game every little bit of value calls.
That’s a theoretical argument, but the reality of most live games, which tend to play loose-passive, is that a single raise rarely takes down the blinds. The more relevant arguments against limping have to do with deception and post-flop playability. In my experience a typical live poker player’s pre-flop strategy often looks something like this:
Premium hands (AA-KK, sometimes QQ and AK): sometimes raise, sometimes limp hoping to re-raise
Medium-strong hands (AQ, TT, etc.): raise
Speculative hands (76s, 22, etc.): limp and call a raise
This strategy seems to make sense: try to get as much money as possible in with the strongest hands, while trying to see a flop as cheaply as possible with speculative hands. Yet it turns out to be a very easy strategy to play against. When someone using this strategy limp-re-raises, we can be certain he has a premium hand and either fold with little invested, or call and try to “crack” his hand. For example, if we have KQo we can comfortably fold. If we have 44 and we’re deep enough we can call, knowing that we’re extremely likely to win his whole stack when we flop a set and we can fold otherwise.
When he raises, we can attack him somewhat liberally with re-raises, knowing that many of his strongest hands like AA and KK would have limped; or we can call and play well against him post-flop. For example, we know that very few hands in his raising range are going to be happy to see an all-low card flop like 754.
His raising and limp-re-raising ranges are too transparent, but it’s his limp-calling range that’s really going to cost him a lot of money. This range is made up entirely of weak/speculative hands and will most often end up playing out of position (any player not in the blinds who raises will have post-flop position), without initiative (the opponent has the betting lead). Any one of these factors in isolation — weak range, out of position, without initiative — make it very difficult to play profitably. Combined together they equal a conflagration. Against many players, in fact, it’s profitable to isolate (raise in position) and continuation bet every flop. In other words, someone who knows nothing about poker and hasn’t looked at his cards can automatically defeat this strategy just by raise-betting.
That seems like a bad spot to be in. If we want to incorporate limping into our game and avoid getting abused by good players, we’ll have to be more careful to balance our ranges. For example, we should sometimes limp-re-raise as a bluff, maybe with something like A5s, to balance the times we limp-re-raise with premium hands. And we should sometimes limp-call with very strong hands like KK to strengthen our post-flop range in those spots. In any case, it’s clear that to create a balanced and deceptive strategy involving limp-calling, limp-re-raising, and raising is going to be very tricky and require us to do careful “accounting” of our own ranges.
A much simpler solution — and in practice the solution adopted by most successful players — is to not limp at all. If we’re going to play the hand, we just raise. This gives us the initiative and keeps our range balanced and opaque. It’s far easier to create a single balanced range than to juggle many ranges at once.
There are some situations in which I like to limp. Basically, these boil down to extremely passive games or extremely aggressive games. If the game is very loose-passive (many players see a flop, but there isn’t much pre-flop raising) and many of the players are very weak post-flop, it can work out well to limp speculative hands like low pocket pairs, mostly hoping to flop a monster and win a huge pot. Conversely, if there is a player behind us who’s a maniac, raising 50% or more of hands, an argument can be made for limping any hand we’re going to play. Most of the time, he’ll raise and we get to see what the rest of the table does before reacting.
In any case, limping should be at most a “specialty” play for certain specific situations. Raising is the backbone of every tough player’s pre-flop strategy.