The Future is No-Limit
Online poker games have become increasingly tough over the years. While more people are playing online poker than ever, the games are more difficult to beat than several years ago when there was only a fraction of the number of online players. There are several reasons for this:
New players that win at poker tend to keep playing, whereas new players that lose tend to quit. Over time, this means poker games become increasingly comprised of veteran, winning players and fewer new fish.
Online poker rooms do not protect bad players as much as they used to. In previous years, people were commonly limited to one table at a time, note-taking features were limited, and high-stakes play was restricted.
There are more poker books and poker strategy websites available for players to learn to play the game competently.
These factors tend to make both limit and no-limit games tougher than they once were. While both games are still potentially beatable for a skilled player, I believe the low-stakes no-limit games will be relatively softer than their fixed-limit counterparts.
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To be clear, none of the reasoning in this article should imply that high-stakes no-limit games will be significantly easier than high-stakes limit ones. Few new players jump into $5-$10 no-limit games or higher, and the competition at these games have always been incredibly tough anyway. Most of the reasoning in this article applies to low-stakes no-limit games compared to low-stakes fixed-limit ones.
First, the main vehicle that brings in new, casual players is poker shows on television, which focus on no-limit poker. After watching the World Series of Poker on television, Joe Shmo is going to want to hit the no-limit tables, not the fixed-limit ones.
Furthermore, a greater percentage of online players are now coming from Europe than in the past, which also suggests that no-limit games will be more popular among new players. Unlike in North America, no-limit and pot-limit games are much more popular in Europe than limit ones. Combined with no-limit poker programs on television, it is likely that most new players from Europe will probably be hitting the low-stakes no-limit tables instead of the fixed-limit ones. Since the percentage of new players coming from Europe compared to North America will grow in the future, this affect will become increasingly pronounced in a couple years time.
No-limit is also less affected by multi-tabling sharks than limit games. Many semi-professional and professional fixed-limit players can play four or more fixed-limit games at a time competently. This is generally not the case with no-limit games. Succeeding at no-limit requires reading players and making more situational judgments than fixed-limit games, and these skills are greatly harmed by playing four or more tables at a time. Furthermore, when players multi-table, their likelihood of clicking the wrong button increases greatly, and this is much more disastrous in a no-limit game than fixed-limit one.
In the past, poker rooms have limited players to three tables or less a time and sometimes even just one table a time. Now, players generally can play as many tables to their heart's content. The only thing that will truly limit the ability of players to multi-table is when it is disadvantageous to do so.
Since it is advantageous for no-limit pros to play fewer tables than fixed-limit sharks, the fish:shark ratio will be higher in no-limit games than fixed-limit ones. If your average limit shark plays twice as many tables as the typical no-limit shark, each fixed-limit pro has twice the negative affect on games that a no-limit pro does.
Another potentially important reason no-limit games will be softer than limit ones is a reason no one really wants to think about, bots. It's not clear if some players have programmed successful bots or if the poker rooms are able to prevent players from using bots on their sites. Nonetheless, if there is any bot-playing happening, it's much more likely to be in a fixed-limit game than a no-limit one.
First, it's significantly easier to program a bot for a limit game. A player with a "basic" strategy is more likely to be successful at limit than no-limit. Furthermore, if the bot makes a few crazy errors, it is less disastrous at a fixed-limit game than no-limit one. Poker rooms may also be able to catch a no-limit bot easier than a limit bot. A greedy bot-maker who is having his bot play five no-limit games at once at a site will raise a lot more suspicion than a bot playing five games of fixed-limit at the same site.
The tendency for poker rooms to increase the rake in recent months also may make no-limit games more appealing than limit ones. While most sites still stick with the standard 5% up to $3 rake structure, some sites have increased the maximum rake (such as Pacific Poker) or adjusted the rake structure to tax low-limit games more. The changes in rake structure tend to affect limit games more so than no-limit games.
First, no-limit players pay less rake per hour than limit players since all sites have a "no flop, no drop" policy. More no-limit pots are taken down preflop than limit ones, so less rake is paid. Second, poker rooms have generally changed the rake structure to take a higher percentage of low-stakes fixed-limit pots than in the past. For example, poker rooms commonly take $.50 from a $5 pot, then another $.25 when the pot reaches $12, and $20. This is higher than the typical 5% that is charged for no-limit games. In short, poker rooms have invented complicated rake structures to tax limit games while generally leaving no-limit games alone.
A skilled player can still win at both fixed-limit and no-limit games. As games get tougher, the more talent will be needed to succeed at online poker. The route to profit is not only improving one's ability, but finding the easiest games to beat. In terms of game selection, it seems the future is no-limit.