This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
We’ve examined bankroll requirements before, usually from a mathematical standpoint. Today, let’s do something different. You’re a poker player, right? You want to mix it up, go to war, splash chips, and maybe bet the ranch like they do in those Old West movies. I understand. Me, too. But there’s something about the stakes you play for that often affects your fate more powerfully than your poker skills. Let’s examine that.
Playing poker for fun. Yes, you can play poker for matchsticks or bottle caps, for pebbles or rubber bands. In fact, you can play for free by agreeing to give back the rubber bands you win when you’re done playing. Personally, I believe that the winner should be allowed to keep at least half the rubber bands, but that’s just me.
There are other situations that ruin the concept of poker when you least expect it. I’ve played in tournaments in which the players with the most money at the end of a given time period are declared the winners and collect the prizes. What does this mean to those who have few chips as the end approaches? It means they might as well gamble and hope to get lucky. There’s no such thing as a bad hand anymore. The same concept is true when you play poker for free. There’s no such thing as a bad hand, because the only really apparent reward is winning the pot and gloating. Every time you win a pot, you gain one gloat. Simple.
True, you should be able to gloat if you end up with the most rubber bands, but nobody cares. Playing for free is good for learning the procedures, but it takes the fun out of poker. And it can be the wrong kind of practice once you begin to understand strategy, because your opponents aren’t trying to make rational decisions, and they almost never can be bluffed. Advice: Don’t play for free if you’re already comfortable playing for affordable money.
Playing poker for tiny stakes. Tiny stakes matter. They may not matter much, but it’s not the same as playing for free. If you play penny ante with a 5-cent maximum bet, you might get lucky and win $3.45. But this might take many hours of time. Or, you might lose $2. It turns out that the difference between winning the $3.45 and losing the $2 isn’t enough to motivate most people to play well, and that’s a very important concept.
The result is that few people play their best poker when the stakes are tiny and insignificant. This is why skillful players who sit down in a $5-limit game while waiting for a seat in a $100-limit game seldom show an overall profit. The result just doesn’t seem to matter to them (even though it should). They figure they can lose badly and overcome the setback in a single hand once they are provided a seat at their intended limit. It’s not smart, but it’s what they think.
This is why Bill Gates might not be able to play winning poker at any customary limits. There may not be any games where the stakes are enough to motivate him. The legendary two-time world champion and Hall of Famer Doyle Brunson jokes about the time Bill Gates was playing $3-$6 at the Mirage. Gates sent a copy of Brunson’s poker bible, Super/System – A Course in Power Poker, over to Doyle’s $3,000-$6,000 game for a requested signature. But instead of acting honored by the request, Doyle good-naturedly needled Gates, refusing to sign a book for anyone with billions of dollars who was afraid to come over and gamble with the big boys. I know what Doyle’s motive was. He was trying to tease Gates into his game, and it might have worked – not that time, though.
But there’s another point here. Bill Gates already was sort of playing poker for $3,000-$6,000 right then! How come? Because there’s no conceptual difference to Bill Gates – the richest dude alive – between playing $3-$6 and $3,000-$6,000. Both stakes are meaningless. It’s sort of like you were playing in a game in which you got 10,000 chips for a penny and someone needled you for being unwilling to play in an adjoining game in which they were playing 10 chips for a penny.
No matter what the outcome, the result would have no bearing on your life. And as a result, you might not play any more seriously at $3,000-$6,000 than at $3-$6.
Advice: Don’t play for tiny stakes unless you’re a very poor player who would lose meaningfully more money by playing larger. If you care about mastering the game, you’ll probably improve faster by playing for stakes that are large enough to make you feel a little bad if you lose. Bill Gates can’t do that.
Playing for limits that seem low to you. This is almost the same discussion as the previous one, except the effects of playing at this limit can be more destructive. These are not tiny limits, but low limits.
Here’s the scary thing about low limits. They seem too low to matter only in the short term. Overall, they can devastate bankrolls. Players who refuse to gear down and play serious poker at these limits can become lifelong losers. Some players will discipline themselves enough to win consistently at stakes that don’t really challenge them, but it’s a tough trick for most players.
Advice: Unless you take the smaller games seriously, seldom play poker for limits that are several levels below what you like to comfortably play. Just avoid them. Psychologically, these limits don’t seem to amount to much while you’re “warming up” for a bigger game or when no larger limit is available, but collectively, they do matter. And if you choose to play or are forced to play all the time at a level that doesn’t provide a chance of losing enough to be slightly painful tonight, you might never be an overall winner. It depends on your temperament, though. The best method is to play as good as you can at every limit, but that isn’t possible for many people, hard as they may try.
Playing for limits that seem high to you. Here’s a big secret: Almost nobody is a favorite to beat poker at a limit that seems uncomfortably high. This is one reason why those occasional forays from $20-$40 into $100-$200 seldom succeed for players who have been making a stable income.
The danger is at least fourfold: (1) You’re likely to talk yourself out of continuing to play a hand on the early betting rounds when it’s slightly profitable and you would do so in a smaller game; (2) You’re likely to sacrifice profitable opportunities by not playing lots of starting hands that you would play at the limit you’re accustomed to; (3) You are much more likely to be bluffed; (4) You may not feel free to advertise and mix it up as you would at the lower limits – allowing your opponents to control you, instead of you controlling them.
Playing for limits that seem right to you. You need to decide, in accordance with what I’ve just said, what limits seem right for you. Then, you should play higher only if an extraordinary opportunity arises; and you should play significantly lower only if you can maintain your discipline and make decisions as if they matter.
Additionally, you need to remember:
1. The larger your bankroll grows, the more you should seek to defend it by playing for stakes that can do less damage proportionally.
2. As limits rise, the quality of your opponents usually improves. This means that it sometimes may be more profitable to play at a level just below the one where you’re pushing your risk tolerance near the danger zone. You’ll probably make more against weaker opponents at a level that you feel comfortable splashing chips when you need to.
3. You should avoid playing in games in which your lifestyle might change in a single session. I personally rarely play above the $200-$400 limit, and most often play at $75-$150 or $100-$200. That’s where I feel most comfortable and have the greatest control over my opponents. Once in a while, I may go beyond this, but I’ve grown out of the phase in my life when I craved spectacular wins and enjoyed the thrill of trying to avoid devastating losses. Nowadays, I play poker to have fun and feel comfortable. But, you’re right, this new philosophy makes me want to play less often. It’s a lot less exciting than it used to be.
So, if you’re a capable player, I believe that finding the right limit for yourself will go a long way toward keeping your bankroll healthy. — MC
Note: This column, published in the late 1990s, began with this note (repeated here for historical reasons): “As we go to press, I have just learned that Linda Johnson has resigned her position as publisher. In my entire life, only a few things have saddened me more than this. As you go through life, you meet human beings and life forms of all types. Linda Johnson, as a human being and life form, has shown me such extraordinary talent and love that I know nothing can replace her. For me personally, saying she will be missed is not enough, but I’m betting she will continue to serve our industry in other monumental ways.”