I recently started a weekday talk show called A Little Coffee at 9am on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, and Twitch. Questions about bankroll management are by far the most asked, so I decided to address them all here, so I can say “Check out JLPoker.com/bankroll”. Much of this blog post is from my book Mastering Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em. If you have not already, check it out!
Bankroll management could have easily been the first chapter in each of my poker books, because it really is that important. If you constantly squander your bankroll either by playing in games you can’t beat or by losing or spending your money elsewhere, you will never progress beyond small stakes games. In order to play without going broke, you need to keep enough money set aside to handle the normal swings of the game.
This is the opposite of what almost all small stakes players do. They get together a few buy-ins, go to the casino, and then play until they are broke or it is time to go home. This results in them usually having, at most, 10 buy-ins to their name, which is nowhere near an adequate bankroll. If you don’t keep an adequate bankroll, variance is almost certain to wipe you out.
To be clear, your bankroll is the money you have set aside exclusively for poker. It is not money that you spend on bills, shoes, or food. If you treat your bankroll like an ATM, it will always be running low.
Suppose there are two identical players who both play $1/$2 and want to move to $2/$4. Both players currently have $10,000 and need to get to $20,000 before moving to $2/$4. They both play 40 hours per week at their local casino and, on average, win 7 big blinds per hour, regardless of the game or buy-in level. One of the players withdraws $600 per month to pay his mortgage and the other player withdraws $200 to pay for gas to and from the casino, plus some noodles once per week. How much of an impact does this $400 per month difference between the two players have on their abilities to move up?
It will take the player withdrawing $600 per month about a year to get to $2/$4 with a $20,000 bankroll. Doubling up and winning $10,000 in a year doesn’t sound too bad! The other player who withdraws $200 per month will have an incredible $46,800! By not withdrawing that extra $400 per month, the second player is able to move to $2/$4 much faster, doubling his win rate, allowing him to make $28 per hour instead of $14 per hour for six more months. This situation continues to compound over time, allowing the second player to continue moving up at a much faster rate than the first player. If you are willing to give up a little bit now, you will have significantly more later. Mastering the concept of delayed gratification will make life much more pleasant for you.
There are a few factors that determine how many big blinds you should keep in your cash game bankroll (win rate, variance, and risk of ruin percentage), but I will make this simple by just listing the relevant requirements for you:
If you win at 3 big blinds per 100 hands, you need 10,000 big blinds ($20,000 at $1/$2).
If you win at 5 big blinds per 100 hands, you need 8,000 big blinds ($16,000 at $1/$2).
If you win at 7 big blinds per 100 hands, you need 6,000 big blinds ($12,000 at $1/$2).
If you win at 10 big blinds per 100 hands, you need 4,000 big blinds ($8,000 at $1/$2).
If you win at 13 big blinds per 100 hands, you need 3,500 big blinds ($7,000 at $1/$2).
If you win at 16 big blinds per 100 hands, you need 3,000 big blinds ($6,000 at $1/$2).
If you win at 20 big blinds per 100 hands, you need 2,500 big blinds ($5,000 at $1/$2).
If you win at 25 big blinds per 100 hands, you need 2,000 big blinds ($4,000 at $1/$2).
Playing with these numbers will give you a 3% chance to go broke. If you are playing professionally, you will probably want that number to be lower, meaning you need to keep an even larger bankroll. If you are not a professional and you have a job, you can keep a smaller bankroll with the idea that if you lose it, you can always add to it with money from your paycheck.
If you do not have a positive win rate, no amount or method of “bankroll management” can make you profitable. If you play with a negative expectation, you will lose in the long run.
These numbers may sound large to the uninitiated, but there is no way around it, they are what is required. You must understand that you do not have to play in a game just because it exists. If you are not bankrolled for $1/$2, play smaller. If there are no smaller games in your area, play online or get a job and a paycheck. I hate to make it sound so cut and dried, but it really is. I tell you the brutal truth because I want you to succeed.
In order to know how many big blinds you need in your bankroll, you need to know how many big blinds you win per 100 hands. This means that you need to keep track of your win rate. Every time you play, keep track of how much you buy in for and how much you leave the table with. Also keep track of any other drains to your bankroll, such as the rake, dealer tips, drink tips (these three are easy because they come directly off the table), extra food costs, transportation costs, etc. If you had to buy a computer to play online, that is a significant cost. Any money you spend to play poker counts against your bankroll. There are numerous phone apps that can keep track of your results, which makes things easy. If you don’t have a cell phone, you can use a notebook and a pencil. Once you have kept track of your results for about 20,000 hands you will have at least some idea of your win rate. As you play more, you will get a more accurate picture of this number.
When you move up or if your game gets tougher for some reason (increased rake, the worst player in your area quits, your opponents get better, new parking fees, etc.), your win rate will decrease. This should lead you to reevaluate your required bankroll.
You should also take note of how much variance you experience. Assuming equal win rates, if you play a loose, aggressive strategy, you will have larger swings than someone who plays a tight strategy. This should lead you to keep a larger bankroll. The above numbers assume you play normally, not too tight and not too lose.
When you sit down to play, you should have some predetermined strategy in place outlining when you plan to leave the table. While there is no magical system that will ensure you win most of the time, you do not want to open yourself up to having gigantic losing sessions when all things conspire against you. For this reason, I suggest most small stakes players cap the amount they can lose during any individual session to three buy-ins, or 300 big blinds. If you play in a short stacked 20 big blind game, perhaps you should be fine with losing 120 big blinds. This stop loss is suggested because many small stakes players go on tilt after losing a few significant pots and can no longer think clearly. To further help ensure you don’t go off the deep end, don’t take money with you to the casino that you are not comfortable losing.
It is not suggested that you stop when you are winning, assuming the game is good. Do not be content with “I won three buy-ins today and I am happy with that, so I am going to leave and lock up a win.” If your opponents are giving away money, assuming growing your bankroll is your goal, you should sit there and collect their money for as long as you are playing well.
It is important to understand that cash games are actually one long session. The last hand of today is the first hand of tomorrow. Once you understand this, the thought of locking up a daily win will seem asinine.
When I used to play $5/$10 on a regular basis, if I lost $4,500, I would quit for the day, whether or not I thought the game was good or bad. If my game was bad, I would play for about an hour to see if it improved. If it didn’t, I would quit. Remember, I wanted to make money, not play poker.
I would start my sessions at noon and quit at midnight, ensuring I never played when fatigued. The time of the day that I played was actually quite poor, because the average players gamble the hardest late at night/early in the morning. By playing from noon until midnight, I missed the most profitable hours of the day. However, my main goal was not growing my bankroll as fast as possible, but to live an enjoyable life. I did not enjoy staying up until 6am. I liked waking up and living “normal” hours. I was willing to give up some amount of equity in exchange for being happier. Today, if growing my bankroll was the only thing that mattered, I would play from 8pm until the game breaks (usually at about 6am).
In my experience, at the high and middle stakes, I win in about 55% of my sessions and lose in the other 45%. However, my wins are usually about twice the size of my losses. This is likely a function of game selection and session length. Most of my small stakes students win about 65% of the time and lose 35% of the time, with their wins and losses being roughly the same amount. Poker tracking apps will easily keep track of this information for you.
Here is what a solid winning player’s cash game graph looks like over the long term:
This graph has the player winning $58,422 over the course of 67,962 hands (23 days) at mostly $3/$6 and $5/$10 online. Playing this many hands live will take you about 2,000 hours, which is about one year of play at 40 hours per week.
Notice this player essentially broke even for about 40,000 hands, which is over half of the time depicted on the graph. Could you continue playing your best if you broke even at live poker for six months? Most players could not. Of course, you will likely have a higher win rate live, but even then, it is quite possible to go on significant breakeven streaks. This player was quite fortunate that his biggest downswing was only 20 buy-ins. Most players are not so lucky. As you can see though, if you have a positive win rate, you will continuously grow your bankroll over time from cash games.
Many small stakes players drive themselves crazy trying to figure out how much to buy in for when they take a seat at the table. If you are better than your opponents, you want to buy in for enough to have the inferior players covered, which will often be the table maximum. Some players buy in shorter, but that is usually in attempt to compensate for being bad at deep-stacked poker or due to a short bankroll. If you want to succeed in the long run, you should strive to play all stack sizes well, not only a short or medium stack.
That said, you should not sit with the maximum amount every time. If the weak players are short stacked and you think the good players are better than you, or if the good players have position on you, you should buy in for only enough to have the weak players covered. Remember, you lose money to the players on your left, so if the bad players are on your right with 20 big blinds and a strong player is on your left with 100 big blinds, you should buy in for 20 big blinds to ensure you can win the bad players’ stacks while not opening yourself up to lose 100 big blinds to the strong player on your left. For what it’s worth, I buy in for the maximum about 95% of the time.
Once your bankroll starts to grow, you should consider moving up in stakes. While there is no definitive method for moving up, I generally suggest that you move up aggressively once you have played for a decent amount of time with a positive win rate. This is because $2/$5 is typically not much tougher than $1/$2.
When moving up, it is important to understand what the players winning in the game you are moving to are doing to beat the bad players, because quite often, the “bad” players at the higher stakes would be slightly winning or breakeven at the lower stake. If you do not know how to exploit these players, you will likely be breakeven, unless the games are populated with awful players.
Sticking with the same bankroll requirements listed above, if you normally need a $6,000 bankroll to play $1/$2, you would assume that you need a $15,000 bankroll to play $2/$5. In reality, you need more than that because your win rate will be smaller due to the increased skill level of the opposition. That said, you do not need the full $15,000 before attempting to play $2/$5.
If you get up to perhaps $9,000 in your bankroll, it may be a good idea to partition $2,000 of it as a 400 big blind shot at $2/$5. This will allow you to get experience playing a tougher game while also potentially growing your bankroll at a much faster rate. You should strive to pick your spots well, playing when the games are the absolute softest. It is perfectly fine to play $1/$2 during the tough times and $2/$5 during the soft times. For example, I typically play much larger during the WSOP because that is when the games are softest, due to lots of recreational players being in Vegas. In your local casino, it probably makes sense to play larger on weekend nights.
When taking a shot, do not play “scared”. Simply play as you would in your normal game (of course, this assumes you are a winning player). If things go well, you can continue grinding $2/$5 and if you lose $2,000, you can move back to $1/$2 with your adequate $7,000 bankroll. Notice that taking shots in this manner does not risk a substantial portion of your bankroll. Many amateurs butcher the concept of taking shots by putting half of their bankroll on the line. Do not do that.
If you take a shot and it goes poorly, you must move down.
I will say it again: If you take a shot and it goes poorly, you must move down. Many players get the taste of the larger action and decide “Now I am a $2/$5 player”. They then play those stakes until they go broke, ending their careers or worse, turning them into perpetual degenerate gamblers. Moving up and taking shots is a calculated risk that may end in failure. If it does, you must be disciplined and move back to the smaller game that you can beat.
If you are playing $1/$2 with your $6,000 bankroll and you lose down to perhaps $3,000, it may be ideal to move down to $.5/$1, replenishing your bankroll to 3,000 big blinds. Moving down in this way will drastically decrease your risk of ruin while also ensuring you do not continue playing in a game that is too tough for you. It will not maximize your potential win rate, but it is fine to sacrifice some upside in exchange for minimizing your risk of ruin when things are going poorly. By moving down and essentially doubling the number of big blinds you have in your bankroll, you will have a difficult time ever going broke, assuming you continue to play with an edge.
Simply put, you must follow these guidelines if you want to stay in action. You are certain to experience bad runs throughout your career. When you do, if your bankroll is not adequate for your current game, you must be willing to move down. Many otherwise strong players have gone broke because they were too proud to move down and be seen in the smaller games. While I completely understand that it is not fun to grind smaller games than you are accustomed to, it is much better than the alternative of going broke. If you do not have discipline, you will have a difficult time succeeding unless you get a steady stream of good cards for an incredibly long time period. I would not bet on that.
Compared to cash games, tournaments have significantly more variance. This is because you will only cash about 15% of the time, and you will have a meaningful score a tiny percent of the time. Here is what a solid winning tournament player’s graph looks like:
Notice the jarring nature of this graph. The player is usually on a downswing, but then has a large, sudden spike (when he has a big score). If you play tournaments, you will usually be down from your peak, which drives some players crazy because they rarely feel as if they are “up”.
The player in this graph won about $8,700 over the course of 401 tournaments (30 days online) with an average buy-in of $38 (for a 55% return on investment). Depending on how many events you play in a day, it could take well over a year (or two) to play this many events in live poker. This player had a break even stretch that lasted 200 tournaments, which is more tournaments than most live players play in a year. This graph is actually quite tame. Many players experience significantly more variance, especially if they only play tournaments with large or tough fields.
My journey in online tournaments has been somewhat similar to the above graph, with the line generally moving in the upward direction. I have been lucky to win 100 or more buy-ins in major events multiple times throughout my career despite not playing all day every day like most grinders. In live poker though, I have experienced significantly more swings. I lost about 60 buy-ins in my first year playing live tournaments, which amounted to about $250,000 out of my $350,000 bankroll. From there, I was fortunate to win about 300 (huge $10,000) buy-ins over the next year. After that, I continued winning at a small rate and then over the last few years, have roughly broken even. My biggest downswing has been $450,000 or so, or roughly 80 buy-ins. These numbers may seem staggering, but they are standard when playing relatively tough high stakes games. If I did not have my one amazing year, I would only be a small winner instead of a big one. It is important that you play in a manner that leads to winning tournaments because that is where a large chunk of your win rate comes from.
There were a few terms mentioned earlier that may be new to you. First, your “average buy-in” is the amount you buy in for on average. In general, you should keep your buy-in amounts somewhat close. You could play 100 $20 buy-in events for an average buy-in of $20 or you could play 99 $10 events and 1 $1,000 event for an average buy-in of $20. Clearly playing one $1,000 event will drastically increase your variance, which should be avoided, assuming you don’t want to go broke. I am typically fine with a 5:1 spread, assuming the large buy-in events are incredibly soft and are not played too often. This is how many professionals justify playing soft $1,500 buy-in WSOP events on a bankroll that is adequate for only $500 buy-in events.
The second term is “return on investment” (ROI). This is how much you make on average in each tournament you play. This takes all fees into account. If you play 100 tournaments with an average buy-in of $115 and you cash for $15,000, you invested $11,500 and got back $15,000, meaning you won $3,500. You then divide that amount by your total investment to get your ROI, which is $3,500/$11,500 = 30%. Knowing this number will help you nail down how many buy-ins you need to have in order to maintain a low risk of ruin.
Here are some rough guidelines to help you determine an adequate bankroll, assuming a 30% ROI.
If the average field is 9 players, you need 24 buy-ins.
If the average field is 45 players, you need 69 buy-ins.
If the average field is 90 players, you need 103 buy-ins.
If the average field is 245 players, you need 154 buy-ins.
If the average field is 550 players, you need 219 buy-ins.
If the average field is 1,200 players, you need 289 buy-ins.
If the average field is 2,600 players, you need 375 buy-ins.
(Note, almost no one has 30% ROI in 9-player tournaments.)
The size of the field (number of players in the event) is incredibly important when determining your bankroll requirements. In fact, it is quite common to have 125 buy-in downswings over 1,000 tournaments played in 1,200 player events. You must be prepared for these downswings so you are not devastated when they occur. As you have a higher win rate, you need fewer buy-ins. and as you have a lower win rate, you need more buy-ins.
It is also worth mentioning that over the course of 1,000 tournaments played with 1,200-player fields, if you have a 30% ROI, you will only win about 85% of the time. This means that if you play 1,000 tournaments with a 30% ROI, you will be down 15% of the time. If you instead have only a 5% ROI (as many amateurs do), you will only be up 54% of the time over a 1,000-game sample. However, if you have a 5% ROI and play 1,000 45-player tournaments, you will be up 72% of the time. If you have a 30% ROI and play 1,000 45-player tournaments, you will be up 100% of the time.
Especially when you are in the bankroll-building phase of your poker career, focus on small-field tournaments where you have an obviously positive win rate. If you only play 2,500-person tournaments, expect incredibly large swings, almost exclusively in the downward direction.
The rake is a huge detractor to your win rate. Many typical winning small stakes live players play 100 $65 buy-in tournaments ($50 goes to the prize pool and $15 goes to the rake) over the course of the year and cash for $7,000. They are thrilled with this result and think they have a solid win rate. In reality, they are only up $500 over 100 games for a paltry 8% ROI. If there was no rake (making the buy-in $50), they would instead have a substantial 40% ROI. Especially when starting out, strive to find tournaments that have 13% rake or less. If your local casino doesn’t offer small stakes events with less than 13% rake, you are probably best off not giving them your business. Remember that just because a game exists does not mean that you have to play.
Like cash games, you should move up when you are adequately bankrolled with the idea of taking shots at events that should be abnormally soft. Most tournaments become abnormally soft when there is an overlay (the casino adds money to the prize pool, either purposefully or by accident) or when there are lots of satellite qualifiers in the field. When in the process of moving up, be a bit more cautious with big shots, as they can quickly add a huge amount of variance to your results. Many amateurs make the mistake of grinding $150 buy-in local events all year with the intention of taking their profits ($5,000 or so) to Vegas during the summer to try to get rich at the WSOP. While a few of these players get lucky, the vast majority go home with nothing. If your goal is to grind up a bankroll so that you are adequately bankrolled to play $1,500 tournaments, taking huge stabs at them is not the wise way to go about it. You must be content to grind up your bankroll in a slow, disciplined manner. While tournaments provide an avenue to get rich quick, almost no one gets rich and stays rich from taking big shots.
You should probably be a bit quicker to move down when playing tournaments compared to cash games, again due to the increased variance. When you dip about 20% below the required bankroll, it is wise to start lowering your average buy-in by mixing in smaller games where you have a larger win rate.
Satellites are tournaments where some portion of the field (usually 10%) wins their way into a larger event (that usually has 10 times the buy-in of the satellite), and everyone else gets nothing. Since there are no payout jumps once you get in the money and the only payout jump is gigantic, you should drastically alter your strategy to ensure you get in the money once it becomes clear that is a realistic possibility. As an oversimplification, you should play normally in the early levels, and once you double or triple your stack, you should play more cautiously. For a thorough discussion on adjustments you should make in satellites, check out Bernard Lee’s chapter in Excelling at No-Limit Hold’em.
While many amateurs think they should strive to satellite into major events, I think that is a bad idea, assuming your goal is to constantly improve your poker skills and eventually grow your bankroll such that you do not have to rely on satellites to play large events. That said, if your goal is to travel the world and have a chance to win life-changing money, satellites are great.
You will often hear the best professional discuss how they want to be sure they get to play with the satellite qualifiers in the main event. This is because they correctly understand that most strong satellite players use a strategy that is great at getting in the money but horrible at winning the tournament. This leads to the satellite qualifiers playing in an overly tight manner near the money bubble, allowing the professionals to easily push them around. It is important to understand that satellites and normal tournaments require different strategies and should be viewed as different games. If you approach both games with the same default strategy, you will lose in at least one of the two forms.
Another problem with satellites is that your ROI is capped. In a normal tournament, if you win, it will usually be for 30 times your buy-in or more, but in satellites, the most you can win is 10 or 20 buy-ins, depending on the structure. This will lead to a lower average ROI because a large amount of a strong player’s edge comes from getting to the final table with a large stack and then crushing it. While you will experience significantly less variance in satellites, the lower ROI overrides all of this. In fact, it is generally thought that there is no edge to be had in high stakes online satellites because the default strategy of getting some chips early and then being patient until you get in the money isn’t too difficult to master. If the skills required to win are both obvious and easily implementable, you should not expect to have much of an edge.
The one time that playing satellites makes financial sense is when the event you are trying to win your way into is normally within your bankroll requirements and you planned to play the event anyway. For example, a few satellites often take place on the day before a WPT main event. These events may have buy-ins between $350 and $700, with the winners getting $3,500. If you are properly bankrolled for an average buy-in of $1,500, it could make sense to play both the satellites and the main event. Just be sure you understand that the games are completely different and require drastically different strategies. Playing satellites to “warm up” for the main event is not an intelligent line of thought, just as you would not play limit hold’em to warm up for no-limit hold’em.
Over the last few years, a new form of tournament has popped onto the scene that allows you to re-enter if you bust during a predetermined number of levels. You should not approach these games much differently than you would approach normal tournaments. If you bust before the re-entry period ends, ask yourself if you would buy into a completely new tournament with the current blind structure.
Suppose you play a $550 ($500 + $50 rake) event and bust after eight levels. If you opt to re-enter, you will have a 10,000 stack at 400/800 blinds, giving you a 12.5 big blind stack. Ask yourself what kind of an edge you will have in an event where you start with 12.5 big blinds. If you are honest with yourself (as you must be if you want to reach your full potential), you will know that your ROI is almost certainly less than 10%, and if it is more than 10%, it is perhaps 15% at best. This means that you will essentially break even by re-entering into this event. This means you should not play, assuming your goal is to make money. While I understand that you didn’t go to the casino to skip events, if you care about your bankroll, you must be disciplined and not re-enter.
Let’s suppose you instead bust four times in the first level by getting all-in before the flop with A-A each time. You have played well and done nothing wrong. You should again ask yourself if you should re-enter. This time, you will have a 10,000 stack at 50/100 blinds, giving you 100 big blinds. The two main questions you should ask in this spot are if you are on tilt (which I discuss thoroughly in Mastering Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em) and if you are still properly bankrolled for the event. If you are angry because you played great and got your money in good, then you should likely stop playing (although clearly getting unlucky is a silly reason to be angry). If you are no longer properly bankrolled (as will often happen when taking shots in large buy-in soft events), you should also stop. You should not stop if you think “it is not your day”. Always be rational and logical with your thought process and make your decisions accordingly. If you have an edge worth trying to realize, you should re-enter. If you do not, you should not re-enter.
Toward the end of the re-entry period, it is common to see the short stacks (and some medium and large stacks) playing incredibly wildly, hoping to either double up or bust so they can re-enter with a fresh stack. If your goal is to win the most money possible, playing in this manner is almost always a mistake. Most of the time, your stack will be quite short in terms of blinds when you re-enter, meaning that if you have an edge, it will be minimal. Also, the “short” stack you are considering gambling with will often be half of a starting stack or more. This means that if you voluntarily get your stack in poorly, you are mucking some of your current equity and re-buying with a neutral (or negative) ROI. That doesn’t make logical sense.
The only time you should gamble near the end of the re-entry period is when you have about 33% of a starting stack or less with one level remaining in the re-entry period, assuming you get 25 big blinds or more when you re-enter. This is because your equity with 33% of a starting stack is quite low and if you re-enter, you can still have a positive ROI. Also, it is tough to get it in too poorly with a tiny stack because of the substantial amount of dead blinds and antes in the pot, meaning that getting in “bad” often isn’t too terrible because you will be getting 1.5:1 pot odds. That said, if you do not think you have a positive ROI re-entering with a 25 big blind stack, you should play normally.
Make a point to identify the players who are actively trying to double up or go broke. Recognize that these players’ ranges are much wider than they should be and adjust accordingly. While it is prudent to ensure someone is making an error before getting extremely out of line to exploit it, with one level left in the re-entry period, if you have the inkling that someone is trying to double or bust, don’t be afraid to get out of line to collect their donation.
Some players will actually act in the opposite manner, becoming very tight, wanting to ensure they do not have to re-enter. While their logic is horribly flawed (because you are not forced to re-enter), you can get a bit out of line and push these players around.
The rake is the unrecognized killer of almost all small stakes poker players. It is difficult to beat a 10% rake capped at 3 big blinds in cash games and a 20% rake in tournaments (which are common amounts in many small stakes games, especially live). If you can beat the large rake, it is often for only a small amount. This is why I suggest that my students start off playing in games with a significantly beatable rake, assuming they can get a proper bankroll together.
To illustrate this point, consider what happens when you play in a standard local $1/$2 game with a 10% rake capped at $4, or a $2/$5 game with the same rake. Assuming you win at the rate of 8 big blinds per hour before rake, you will win $16 per hour at $1/$2 and $40 per hour at $2/$5. However, you will pay about $10 rake per hour to play $1/$2, leaving you with $6 profit while paying about $14 rake per hour to play $2/$5, leaving you with $26 profit. $6 per hour is only 3 big blinds per hour at $1/$2 whereas $26 is 5.2 big blinds per hour at $2/$5. By moving up and maintaining the same win rate, you give yourself a hefty raise, both in terms of dollars and big blinds per hour. If the only game available to you is $1/$2 with $4 or more rake per hand, you will have a tough time winning at a significant amount in the long run unless your opponents are terrible.
This concept also applies to tournaments. Many small stakes tournaments with buy-ins of less than $500 have 20% rake (or more) and structures that lead to low skill advantages for the strong players whereas larger buy-in events have 13% rake (or less) and structures that lead to large skill advantages. If the only game available to you is a tournament with a poor structure and 30% rake, you will not win in the long run.
While there is nothing you can do to minimize the rake you pay in tournaments because you pay it before you buy in, you can adjust your strategy in cash games in order to pay as little rake as possible. This is done by winning as few pots as possible. This may sound counter-intuitive, but if you only win two pots per hour and you win on average 10 big blinds per hand, you will win 20 big blinds per hour minus the roughly 8 big blind rake, leaving you with a profit of 12 big blinds per hour. If you compare this to someone who wins 40 big blinds per over the course of 15 pots, all of his profits and then some will be devoured by the rake. The easiest way to beat games with an exorbitant rake is to play tightly and only enter the pot when you have a premium hand. Do not fall into the trap of calling raises or limping with all sorts of junk, hoping to flop well. That is a surefire way to go broke.
If the rake the casino takes isn’t enough to hold you down, you also have to account for the other expenses you take on when you play poker. In live cash games, it is customary to tip the dealer when you win a pot. While I am all for tipping the dealers, you have to be realistic about it. If you win $10 per hour and you tip the dealers $5 per hour ($1 for each of the 5 pots you win), you cut the amount of money you take home in half. It is not practical to tip much at all in small stakes games if you care about winning money. As you move up (remember back to the $2/$5 example), you can start tipping $1 per hand. As you move up even higher, even a $3 tip per hand becomes practical. If you feel inclined to tip in small stakes games, I suggest you tip $1 only when you win a sizable pot, which will usually be about once per hour.
In some places, it is customary for the winners of a tournament to tip the staff. Most casinos take 3% of the prize pool out for the dealers. If they do this, do not feel the least bit pressured to tip any additional amount. The same is true if your casino offers a “dealer add on” (it may have another name) where your $100 tournament buy-in gets you 10,000 chips and if you give the dealers $10 at the start of the event, you get some number (usually 5,000) additional chips. This is a shady, essentially forced, way to induce the players to tip the dealers a significant chunk of the buy-in (9% in this example) on top of the normal rake. If absolutely no money is taken out on top of a rake that is 10% or less (I haven’t experienced this in years), feel free to tip the dealers a few percent of your winnings.
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You should also account for the amount of money it costs you to actually travel to play poker. This is referred to as “travel rake”. If the rake the casino takes isn’t obvious, travel rake certainly isn’t. If you have to buy $20 worth of gas to drive to and from the casino, that amount should be accounted for because it is an expense you would not otherwise have. If you would normally make dinner at home at the cost of $5 but dinner at the casino costs $15, the $10 difference should be accounted for. If you travel multiple days to play, the cost of your lodging should be noted. It is common for small stakes players to profit a few thousand dollars per year but unknowingly be break-even or losing due to the travel rake.
Speaking of going to the casino, make sure you plan ahead in order to maximize your comfort and minimize your expenses. This concept can be applied in many ways, such as showing up when you know there will be an open seat in the game you want to play. If you show up to your casino and have to wait two hours to get a seat, you have essentially wasted two hours with which you could have been doing something productive. If you happen to find yourself in this situation and don’t want to go home, take an educational book to read or a podcast to listen to so your time is not completely squandered.
I make a point to pack a backpack whenever I go to play poker. My bag contains a bottle of water, raw almonds, protein smoothie powder, green tea, a jacket, headphones, sunglasses, a note pad, multiple pens, floss, and my iPad (for reading books). If you ever find yourself wishing you had something at the casino, resolve to solve your problem by bringing it with you.
Some casinos and online poker sites offer various types of bonuses, which you can take advantage of help alleviate the rake. Many online sites offer “rakeback”, where you are given back some portion of the rake you pay each month. When I used to grind nine-handed tournaments during my first few years as a pro on PartyPoker, I was winning roughly $20,000 per month from the games and getting $15,000 more from 33% rakeback. I was paying roughly $45,000 in rake per month by playing 3,000 $200 + $15 buy-in games. That $15 rake adds up! If you play on a site that offers rakeback and you are not getting it, you are making a costly mistake.
Some sites have done away with rakeback and instead distribute frequent player points, which can be exchanged for various prizes, such as tournament buy-in tickets, gadgets, and cash. On some sites, the items have roughly the same value in terms of points, but on others, they give you a better deal if you exchange them for tournament buy-in tickets (because the casino keeps some of it as rake).
Live casinos also offer various promotions, such as bad beat jackpots. A bad beat jackpot is a promotion where some additional amount of money is raked each hand and is then given to the players who are involved in a pot where a premium hand, such as four of a kind, loses. Each casino sets its own stipulation to make the jackpot hit more or less often.
In general, bad beat jackpots are a horrible deal for no-limit players, assuming they are in the same jackpot pool as limit players, which is often the case. This is because you see way fewer turns and rivers in no-limit compared to limit. Some shady casinos take an “administration fee” of 10% of whatever the jackpot hits for, so if the players paid in $10,000, only $9,000 is paid out. Some casinos even expect you to tip the floor person who physically pays out the money. If you have the option, do not play at tables that take additional rake that goes to the bad beat jackpot.
Similar to bad beat jackpots, high hand jackpots pay out some amount of money to the person who makes the best hand throughout the entire poker room during a set time period, usually every 30 minutes or hour. Some casinos simply give away a predetermined amount (usually between $200 and $1,000) while others tack on an additional $1 rake while this promotion is running. If you have to pay in, try to avoid these games. Your table will often have the option to opt out, which often happens at the higher stake games.
If you find yourself in a jackpot game, you should not alter your play at all. You should naturally play all pairs (which can make four of a kind). Folding your weak suited connectors is still ideal (because you are rarely going to make a straight flush, and when you do, you will almost never be against quads). Play your normal strategy and do not get illusions of grandeur.
While you should not alter your play in jackpot games, many of your opponents will. They may be inclined to call preflop raises with any hand that could be part of the jackpot, hoping to strike gold. If you pay attention, you will see some players using extremely wide preflop ranges which often have to be folded by the turn and river. If you find someone who is a calling station before the flop but weak and straightforward after the flop, you are the one who has struck gold.
Some casinos sporadically offer various other promotions. Some will “splash the pot” where they put $100 into random pots each hour, giving it to whoever happens to win. Others pay out some amount of money whenever pocket Aces get cracked. Many casinos will comp food and hotel rooms if you play long enough. Make a point to do everything you can to get money back from the casino, because every penny increases your bottom line.
Some casinos offer their most loyal players the opportunity to be prop players. A prop player usually agrees to play a set number of hours each week during the off-peak hours in short-handed games. Essentially, prop players start games and keep games running. They usually do not get to pick which game they play and are shuttled from game to game by the floor man. This leads to them frequently playing in short-handed games, which may or may not be a bad thing, depending on who is in the game. In exchange for this, the player is paid an hourly rate, usually between $10 and $20 per hour. If you know you are going to play a ton of poker in the same casino during off-peak hours, look into becoming a prop player. If you get paid $10 per hour to play and play 30 hours per week, you get an extra $1,200 per month, which is a nice bump to any player’s win rate.
Some casinos offer player loyalty bonuses in the form of entries into monthly invitational tournaments to players who play a predetermined number of hours each month. This often works out to roughly a $250 bonus each month in the form of a tournament buy-in, which is meaningful, but not too significant. Other casinos essentially make all their tournaments into league games where the players with the best results at the end of the month or year are invited to an invitational tournament. If you find that you are not being invited to these events (because you don’t play enough), recognize that you are funding the players who get to play in them.
Some casinos award tournament buy-in tickets to players for various reasons, such as winning high hand bonuses or playing a set number of hours. Some of these players do not want to or cannot play the tournament they have a ticket for and will look to sell it to someone else at a discount. If you can buy a $300 tournament buy-in ticket for $200, you immediately scooped up 50% ROI (minus the rake) because you are putting $200 into the prize pool whereas everyone else is putting in $300. While it is ridiculous in my opinion that this black-market ticket-selling industry exists, if your casino features it, do not be afraid to take advantage of it. Just be sure you are buying real tickets. If you want to take this to the extreme, if you know there is always a line of players buying into the $300 event on the day of the tournament but people are selling tickets they do not want a week in advance for $200, it may be wise to buy 10 tickets at $200 and then sell them for $290 to the players in line to buy in. That said, be careful to not get stuck with worthless tickets. Gambling is fun!
As you can see, the concept of rake extends well beyond exactly what you pay the casino to play. You should strive to be acutely aware of where your money is going to and coming from. The rake is a consistent leak that many amateurs are oblivious to that relegates them to small stakes games for their entire poker playing careers.
That is everything there is to know about bankroll management (I think!). If I missed anything, let me know in the comment section below and I will address it. Thanks for reading! Please share this post with your friends. I would greatly appreciate it!
If you want the book where much of this blog post came from, check out Mastering Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em. Be sure to check back next week for another educational blog post.