Book Review: No Limit: The Fundamentals of No-Limit Holdem

In the Preface to No Limits: The Fundamentals of No-Limit Holdem, authors Chris “Fox” Wallace and Adam Stemple claim that their advice will help you “whether you play in a home game for nickels and dimes or head out to Vegas for some of the biggest games in the world.” This was the first of several ways in the book disappointed me, as its actual content usually assumes the kind of very weak competition found almost exclusively in small stakes games.

As a book for small stakes cash game players, it’s not bad, but not bad isn’t good enough when it’s covering ground already tread by great authors like Ed Miller and Dan Harrington. This was my second and more significant disappointment with No Limits: the authors write as though they are the first people to address the subject, when in fact several very good books covering the same concepts have already been written. There’s never any engagement with these other authors, never any attempt to compliment, criticize, or build on those who have gone before.

No Limits is organized, well-written, and concise, enabling it to cover a lot of ground. It addresses a lot of the most important NLHE concepts at an elementary level. Still, in the end, there is nothing to recommend this book over or even in addition to others on the market and at least a few things to count against it.

Wallace and Stemple try to distinguish their book by claiming to keep it simple and focus on big- picture concepts rather than advice about specific hands and situations, but functionally I don’t feel that they accomplish this objective better than previous authors. I’m also not convinced that this is a desirable objective. Simplified explanations aren’t necessarily easier to understand, let alone more helpful. Where a book like Professional No Limit Hold ‘Em is rigorous and detailed, No Limits is cursory to a fault. A good example comes from a discussion of reverse implied odds and playing big hands fast pre-flop:

“The only guaranteed way to ruin your opponent’s implied odds is to raise enough so that they are making a mistake by calling even if they know they will get all your chips when they hit a big flop. Usually getting 20% of your chips in the pot preflop is sufficient to do this, and if you get 1/3rd of the effective stacks in, then you have certainly achieved your goal if you hold a big pair. This works because with an over pair, no hand is better than a three to one underdog against you.

If you play AA against 66, and get 1/4th of your chips in preflop, you cannot lose money in the long run even if you automatically put all your chips in on the flop no matter what the flop is. Your opponent will only flop a set less than 1 in 7 times so you will far more money with the preflop raise than you can possibly lose later in the hand.”

I quote this passage at length to illustrate how many different figures Wallace and Stemple casually toss around. Am I supposed to get 1/3, 1/4, 1/5, or 1/7 of my chips in pre-flop? I suppose this idea is to give (very) rough guesses rather than an intimidating-looking equation. Although it’s technically true that any of these is good enough, it’s often impractical to aim for especially the higher fractions and in any event the variety of numbers is sure to confuse a new player. Miller et al’s “stack-to-pot ratio” is a much more useful tool for addressing this problem and a good example of why rigor and specificity aren’t necessarily antithetical to simplicity.

More importantly, the central claim that this is “the only guaranteed way” to protect against reverse implied odds is false. Balancing your ranges such that your opponents can’t put you squarely on a big pair, a concept that Wallace and Stemple do touch on later in the book, is really your only option when playing against skilled opposition. Of course it would be nice to re-raise to five times the opening raise with KK, as the authors advocate in one of their examples, so as to get 25% of your stack into the pot, but only the weakest opponents will stick around with the hands you want them to have were you to attempt something like this.

Although No Limits’ example hands tend to assume such opponents, they haven’t been a feature of even $1/$2 online games in some time, let alone the sort of opposition you could expect to find at higher stakes. One example purporting to be from a $5/$10 online games involves multiple players limping in early position. The result is that readers get some good advice about how to play against opponents with obvious weaknesses but little guidance about how to handle more capable players.

What hand examples there are suffer from the related weakness of being too simple and convenient. Points about bluffing, bluff-catching, and bet sizing are illustrated with such ideal situations that, while the essence of the concept is there, readers get little insight into handling trickier spots. Shoving a 13- out draw over a raise from an aggressive opponent with one pot-sized bet left in the effective stacks teaches you only so much about how and when to semi-bluff under less ideal conditions.

Players have the most difficulty with the gray areas, and unfortunately No Limits offers little to help in this regard. It’s a fine introduction to the basics, but not as good as what can be found elsewhere. If you’re looking for a book to help you learn NLHE cash games, pick up Professional No-Limit Hold ‘Em or Harrington on Online Cash Games. If you’ve already read them, you might as well re-read them, because No Limits doesn’t add anything to the conversation.

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