Are Limit Games Making a Comeback?

Alex Weldon : June 11th, 2015
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This year’s World Series of Poker schedule features more Limit events (including mixed events where some of all of the games are played Limit) than we’ve seen since 2007. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of such events on offer declined from 23 to 16, before jumping back up to 20 in 2014 and to 22 this year. Already, we’ve seen eight of these bracelets awarded, including Championships for 2-7 Triple Draw, Razz and Omaha Hi/Lo.

At first glance, 23 to 16 and back may not seem like such a big swing, but consider that seven of these events are mandatory inclusions every year: the $10,000 Championships in six disciplines, plus the $50,000 Poker Player’s Championship (which has always been a mixed game event, even if the final table has sometimes been played as straight No-Limit Hold’em). Take those away, and the number of non-mandatory Limit or mixed game events was nearly cut in half from 16 down to 9 before recovering in the last couple of years.

Why the 180?

It’s hard to be sure, but I suspect that the primary driving force behind the resurgence of Limit and mixed games is simply Hold’em fatigue, coupled with the fact that not many games outside of Hold’em and Omaha work very well with a No-Limit or Pot-Limit structure. The extra street of betting in the Stud games would lead to overly large pots without a betting limit, while games like 2-7 Triple Draw and Badugi work better when players are given good pot odds on their draws.

What I mean by Hold’em fatigue is simply that the game has become a victim of its own popularity. It’s all that most people have been playing since the boom. Although trends in playing style continue to shift, leading to an ebb and flow of adaptation, in terms of general strategy all the low-hanging fruit has long since been plucked. Compounding this is the online poker phenomenon; even casual online players tend to end up with tens of thousands of hands under their belts, while multi-tabling grinders can easily log in the millions of hands in a single year.

It’s very hard for any game to withstand that amount of play without starting to feel a bit stale, or for players to feel their skills are stagnating. As I discussed in my Challenges of Innovation series, there’s an increasing sense that the poker world needs something new. Whatever that is, we haven’t discovered it yet, but in the meantime, old classics have started to seem fresh again once dusted off.

Is No-Limit actually better?

That logic implies that No-Limit is still a better way to play poker than Limit, and that any renewed interest in Limit games is only a blip, or a temporary trend while we wait for a new big bet game to come along and give us an alternative to Hold’em and Omaha. Is that really the case, though?

It seems to me that you could turn the argument around and say that Hold’em replaced Stud due to novelty, and that No-Limit play became popular largely because it’s the better format for Hold’em. The reality is that there are pros and cons to both formats and it’s unlikely that either will every completely supplant the other; it’s not beyond imagining that fashion could one day swing the other way, and Limit games could once again be the mainstream, with No-Limit playing second fiddle.

What Limit has going for it

One thing you can say for Limit games is that they’re less stressful, yet more consistently engaging. Tom McEvoy famously described No-Limit Hold’em as “hours of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror,” a characterization you also hear applied to the experience of a soldier at war. This is more true for tight players than for loose-aggressive ones, but regardless of style it’s an inevitable consequence of the No-Limit betting structure that the majority of decisions are dwarfed in importance by the occasional huge decision. By contrast, success or failure in a Limit game comes about through an accumulation of individual decisions, most of which are of similar importance.

This, in turn, can lead to a more sociable and relaxed situation at the table, as it’s less likely that a single detail is going to make or break someone’s tournament or cash game session. Concentration is still important, of course, but the potential consequences of a mental lapse are capped along with the betting.

Limit betting also leads to a whole lot more calling, where No-Limit emphasizes aggression. Casual players like to get to a showdown and see the cards, and Limit play allows them to do so more readily, especially in a tournament setting where the desire to see a showdown is put into conflict with the desire not to be eliminated from the game. Giving casual players an enjoyable experience is of great value, particularly if they’re encouraged to play a loose-passive game in the process.

Finally, from the professional’s perspective, a Limit game has lower variance, particularly in a tournament context. It isn’t only because of the smaller field size that we see the same guys appearing at final tables year after year in the Limit events. In a Limit event, a collision between deep-stacked players is never going to result in an all-in. As long as you can maintain a decent stack size, it will always require multiple setbacks to knock you out, not just a single unlucky hand. By contrast, No-Limit betting means that it’s simply impossible to avoid all-in coin flips with survival on the line; no matter how good a player is and how lucky they get in the early going, at some point everyone is going to be within one bad river from the rail.

But what about the viewers?

The strongest argument for No-Limit over Limit is that the drama of an all-in makes for good viewing. After all, the poker boom was largely triggered by the televised broadcast of the 2003 Main Event. By now, though, television viewers are beginning to suffer from Hold’em fatigue almost as much as the players. The first time you see two players all-in with overcards versus a pocket pair and millions of dollars on the line, it’s exhilarating. By the hundredth time, however, it’s more or less the least interesting aspect of the game.

Assuming that non-professional fans of poker are incapable of appreciating anything outside of all-in confrontations is insulting to them, particularly now that many of them have been watching for over a decade. It was certainly what was needed to pique people’s interest in the first place, but the longer someone has been a fan of something, the more they appreciate its finer points over its surface appeal.

There’s a lot of talk these days about “sportifying” poker. That being the case, I’d like to draw a parallel with other sports. Some people are fans of soccer, a game in which the tension comes from the rarity of scoring chances and thus the massive importance of a single goal or a missed chance. This is reminiscent of the nature of No-Limit Hold’em (and of McEvoy’s quote), which makes edited-for-television No-Limit poker a bit like a highlight reel or penalty shootout. Other people are fans of basketball, in which the gradual accumulation of points through frequent baskets more closely resembles a Limit game. Then there’s the stop-and-go nature of American football and baseball… some people even like to watch golf, for some reason.

In other words, television viewers are open to a variety of experiences, paced in different ways. The fact that it was highlight reel No-Limit Hold’em which kicked off the poker boom in no way means that this is all that poker fans will ever want to see. I think a television audience would be very receptive to something new, if we were willing to offer it to them.

It’s not about Limit games being better than No-Limit, or vice versa. They’re simply different experiences – for both the player and the viewer – and, I think, that variety is what is needed in order to pull poker out of its current slump.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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