Managing Your Poker Bank Roll
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The first rule of being a successful poker player is picking the right games in order to keep your bankroll healthy. Phil Shaw guides you through the basics.
The issue most overlooked by beginner poker players — and a few more experienced ones — is that of bankroll management and game selection. Frequently, though, this is the difference between winning and losing, and between being in action and watching from the rail
In basic terms a bankroll is a sum of money set aside to play poker, out of which should be enough for you to survive the ups and downs of the game - as well as cover all expenses, tips, and rake or table charges - and allow you to turn a consistent profit. The question of bankroll management and game selection is intimately linked, since the whole concept of a bankroll assumes that you are a winning player overall, and that you can find games that you’re both able to beat and almost never likely to go broke in.
If this isn’t the case then, from a financial point of view, you would probably do better to find the smallest limits tolerable to you and consider the money you lose (or spend on flights, hotels and so on) as entertainment or education.
Game selection covers a wide selection of issues, and is just as important as how you play during any given hand or session. It may mean playing at the right stakes, the right betting structure or the right type of poker, but most frequently it means playing with the right people (i.e. those who have money and are a lot worse than you).
The masters of this aspect of poker tend to be players with the maximum flexibility, who will go almost anywhere for a game and play any particular mixture of games to keep the weaker players happy. One respected UK player recently described another as: ‘a master of game selection. He will travel anywhere.’
Which puts him in good company, since this sentiment actually echoes down throughout poker history, right back to the days of the Texas road gamblers. They would happily drive a couple of days straight on hearing of a ‘good game’, typically living nomadic lives built around travelling wherever the action was.
Nowadays, though, an explosion of popularity and interest in the game has transformed the poker scene, and one upshot of this is that there’s suddenly more action available than ever before. This comes in the form of poker festivals all over the place (meaning many players still live on the road for a big part of the year) and on the internet, where there are already more than 200 sites to choose from (and counting) and an almost limitless selection of games.
Don’t get jolly rogered
These two options are very popular with both the professional and recreational players, and tend to both interlink and contrast in their viability.
For example, the internet offers fast, convenient, low-expense play and maximum choice to all, but also the option of winning seats into major festival events for a small investment and an upper limit on stakes. The live festival circuit, in contrast, typically has the biggest tournaments and cash action in one place and the chance to see the world while making a living, but also the most risk of going broke or finding out that your ability - or bankroll - aren’t large enough to make it a viable option.
Similarly, while professional players have traditionally always played live there is now an increasing shift towards the internet game, where they can minimise bankroll fluctuations and multi-table in smaller games so that their ‘wages’ are more consistent. In this way what could have been a bad week or month live becomes, at worst, a bad couple of days online. Coming at it from the other direction, though, are the internet kids who have built sizeable bankrolls and experience online in short amounts of time and are beginning to hit the live circuit in droves in search of the big action.
The modern poker player therefore finds him or herself in a luxurious situation compared to the road gamblers or even the pre-poker-boom pros. New possibilities in game selection and the pressure it takes off your bankroll is a major part of this. Not only are there all-important swathes of new players bringing fresh money into the game, but, for the experienced player, they are accessible from the comfort of your own home and sofa - while they are relaxing or learning the ropes, or against the backdrop of any number of picaresque cities where they flock to in the hope of TV stardom, a ‘poker holiday’ or the big-time.
WHAT GAMES SHOULD I PLAY?
Most professional players would say that they get their ‘wages’ in the cash games, whether live in the local casino, online or on a stop along the festival circuit. This is because you can choose who you play against, what the stakes are, and how long you play for - none of which are true in multi-table tournaments, where seating is random, the stakes are always rising and you must play until you win or go broke. Also, since you can usually choose the amount you sit down with (this is often capped online in big bet games) there is little contingency between the results of various pots, whereas in a big event your results for the entire month or year might be grouped around a series of crucial final table hands. In a cash game, though, if someone gets lucky against you it’s easy just to take out more money and try to get it back.
In deep water
Bankroll requirements vary wildly for cash depending on the type of game, and it takes an experienced player to know when they’re out of their depth or need to drop down and recover in the smaller games. Obviously big bet games need deeper pockets than limit ones, wild and short-handed ones offer more fluctuation that tight ring games and pot-limit Omaha players need bigger tanks than pot-limit hold’em ones who play at similar stakes. The experts on limit hold’em often quote a bankroll of around 300 big bets for ring games but in looser or short-handed games this number is probably too low. Similarly, for potlimit and no-limit hold’em games you will need anywhere between 25 and 50 buy-ins, depending on the type of games you play, your style and the relation of your sit-down to the blinds, and for pot-limit Omaha you can probably double these numbers.
‘Sit&gos’, or small, fixed-field online tournaments, are an excellent way to learn cheaply, make some money, and to maximise a limited bankroll - they are also great practise for bigger final tables. You can choose to play heads up, against four or five players, or in a one, two or three-table format, and the game will only start when the required number of players have registered.
Buy-ins and possibilities vary from site to site, but almost all have very low stakes games for beginners and the basic one-table tournament where nine or ten players enter and three get paid along a 50%, 30%, 20% structure. Across the board, partypoker.com probably has the biggest player base for sit&go tournaments, while pokerstars.com has both the slowest structures (plus speed events for those so inclined) and the biggest actively frequented games - $500 single tables, and $5,000 heads-up matches.
You shark, them dinner
In terms of bankroll management and game selection these events score very highly. You can simply unregister if you don’t like the field and, while an excellent player might only need to maintain a bankroll of 20 buy-ins to keep safely afloat, even a moderately skilled player shouldn’t ever need more than 30. Because the buy-in is fixed, you can easily keep results and move up and down the various stakes as you see fit. Furthermore, for the expert player sit&gos offer an attractive edge since, besides playing worse poker generally, more inexperienced players also tend to perform worse as games gets shorthanded, and fail to understand and employ a number of specialist tournament concepts which are vital for success.
Multi-table tournaments are probably the most frustrating, costly to the bankroll, and hardest to win consistently out of all formats of poker, but they also attract most of the new players as well as the cameras, headlines and the biggest prize pools. Make no mistake about it, though, in the immortal words of leading player Dave ‘Devilfish’ Ulliott: ‘You need a shitload of money to play the tournament circuit’, so wherever you play bear this in mind and find a few regular games in which you know you are a consistent winner and which will allow you a base for ‘taking shots’ at that big score.
The actual amount you would need to survive just playing multi-table tournaments is almost impossible to calculate accurately and playing these events exclusively for a living is strongly dissuaded. Even in sit&gos you must play hundreds of games to even have a vague idea of your overall win rate and skill level, and in terms of multi-table games this can extend into the thousands (i.e. years or decades of play), especially when events both online and live are now producing four-figure fields and buy-ins vary in size, clustering your overall results around the biggest and most populated events you play.
Because of this and the contingent, compound nature of tournament play, the difference between a good player and a great one is magnified to a huge degree. When flights, hotels, taxis and other expenses are factored in the net result is often that players can’t make a living and go broke, or spend ages discovering they don’t belong among the elite players for whom these events are viable ways of making serious cash.
So it’s no surprise that even among top tournament players (including several former world champions) many have backers or go broke frequently, and most of the European name players have jumped at the opportunity of sponsorship, indicating that this is the most realistic future for tournament poker.
Satellites are smaller tournaments that offer tickets into bigger ones as prizes, and are found both online and live, and in single and multi-table formats.
They’ve become more popular recently as most sites now offer satellites to major events with buy-ins and expenses included, and while amateurs are eager to emulate Chris Moneymaker in becoming an unknown who wins the World Series of Poker, even pros are attracted by the value they offer.
But beware - for every Moneymaker winning $2.5 million there are thousands who contribute to their ticket and those of the other qualifiers without seeing any return. From a bankroll perspective the lure of the parlay must also be approached with care, since the chances of a serious return are minimal. While getting into an event cheaply is great, it’s unlikely that over all the satellites you play in the long term that you’ll get your ticket for much less than half-price.
Banking on a seat
Which is why you often hear cries of ‘Why not just win the money in a cash game?’ Sure, the reason for this is probably because you either end up with a seat or don’t, but bear in mind that the satellite approach can make less sense than first appears. For example, some new players spend much of their poker time trying to qualify for big events rather than gradually moving up the ranks to the point where they could just buy-in anyway.
On the other hand, many places let you win more than one seat and take away the cash equivalent (or sell the seat), so for specialist satellite players there’s an extra angle here. But bear in mind what the number of seats available does to your bankroll fluctuations - if there’s one seat per six players in a multi-table event then this may be a much safer option than a similar non-satellite event, but if it’s a sit&go with just a seat to the winner or a multi-table event where very few get rewarded you might want to think twice before getting in too deep.
We are grateful for this article to Inside Poker Magazine.