Creative ways to simulate no-limit hold’em

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When people visit a Minnesota cardroom for the first time, they’re often surprised to learn no-limit hold’em is not offered as a cash game. Most tournaments are NLHE, so why not cash games? The first Minnesota law authorizing card clubs was passed in 1999, before the poker boom in 2003, and limit poker was the game of choice. The law originally stated players could bet up to $15 on the opening rounds and a maximum of $30 for each bet/raise on later rounds. Clearly $15-$30 limit games were intended to be the highest stakes. In 2001 the laws were changed to allow up to a $60 bet regardless of which betting round it was.

Obviously the times have changed since then and poker has evolved. With the growth of poker on television, NLHE has become the most popular form of poker. But the law is not as quick to change as people’s tastes. In fact the laws are essentially the same as they were in 2001. So how do poker rooms accommodate players who want to play NLHE with the $60-max-bet restriction?

I visited Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn., which boasts a large selection of limit games, to speak with Michael Hochman, senior director of table games, to see how they accommodate NLHE players.

“The Survival tournament was specifically designed to be a no-limit hold’em cash game in tournament format,” he said. “Annie Adlin, one of our shift managers, actually came up with the idea, which I thought was brilliant.”

The Survival tournaments, which launched in September 2010, are available at three different buy-in levels: $230, $330 or $530, which are meant to emulate a $1-$2, $1-$3 and $2-$5 cash games, respectively. Using the $330 tournament as an example, here is how the tournaments work:

• The tournament starts as soon as nine players have signed up and lasts two hours.
• The blinds are $1-$3 for the first hour and $2-$3 for the second hour.
• Each player starts with $300 in tournament chips, one for every dollar of the buy-in.
• Any time a player gets below half the starting stack ($150) they can add $150 or $300 in chips.
• If a player busts and elects not to buy-in again, the seat may be filled by a player on the waiting list.
• At the end of the two hours every player is paid $1 for every tournament chip in their stack.

Overall it’s pretty close to a cash game, but it still follows tournament rules. So you wait to tip the dealers until the end of the tournament, and you can’t use your cell phone at the table. I’ve played a few of these and found them to be enjoyable. The time spent during the payouts can be a little tedious, but it’s fairly easy to play a few of these games on a busy night without too much waiting. Just be sure you play it like a cash game, don’t try to get all your chips in the pot just because time is running out. You don’t need all the chips; you get to cash out whatever is in front of you when the “tournament” ends.

I then went to Columbus, Minn., to Running Aces Harness Park, which takes a different approach. I spoke with poker manager Gregg Barktu about their spread-limit cash games.

“Our whole idea was to offer something different from our competitors, which was regular limit games, so we (decided) to offer these spread-limits,” he said. “($2-$60 spread-limit) is our most popular game by far.”

The $2-$60 spread-limit hold’em game allows players to buy in for anywhere from $50 to $200. The blinds are $1-$2 and players can bet $2-$60. Of course $60 raises and reraises are allowed, so it’s still possible to get your stack in fairly quickly. They also offer a $5-$60 spread-limit game, which has an uncapped buy-in and $2-$5 blinds.

I play the $2-$60 game regularly, and while it isn’t quite a true no-limit game, it’s pretty close. Though you still see new players trying to go all-in with more than $60 in their stack, people catch on fairly quickly. The main strategy change I’ve noticed is you can’t make monster bluffs to chase people out of the pot and likewise you might not get the implied odds with drawing hands as you would in a no-limit game.

For no-limit fans there is hope the Legislature will change the laws to allow Minnesota poker rooms to offer games comparable to those offered in other states. One proposal was made this year, House File 1419, which would have allowed the Minnesota Racing Commission set the betting limits instead of being codified in law. However that proposal fizzled without being put up for a vote. Until then we can be happy poker rooms still offer a variety of games to satisfy no-limit players.

— John Somsky is the Ante Up Ambassador for Minnesota. You can email him at john.somsky@gmail.com.