Cash Game Poker Strategy: Level Up

Every poker player worth his salt should aspire to improve and move up through the cash limits. We explain how to overcome the different types of opponents you’ll face along the way…

We live in a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am type of society. (Or at least we do on a good night!) We thirst for instant gratification instead of taking pleasure in working and building something over time, and too often this is true of the way most players approach poker. Everyone’s looking for that one big tournament score, with a life-changing payoff and a big novelty cheque. However, the real challenge of poker is being a consistently winning player over a lifetime, and that means nurturing a bankroll and moving up through the cash limits. Sure, it takes time and effort. But as compensation you’ll know you’re a complete poker player, you’ll know you’ve beaten every level, and you’ll have a stack of cash so you can buy your own massive cheque and write it to yourself.

Many of the very best high stakes players of all time, like Phil Galfond, worked their way up through the levels online – now it’s your turn to join them! In this article we’ll show you how to get started on your road to cash superstardom by examining three key early levels, explaining how the game changes and how your game will have to change as you move up through the no-limit ranks.

Micro Stakes

Limit: $0.01/$0.02 – $0.05/$0.10

Bankroll guideline: 20 Buy-ins – $40-$200

Welcome to no-fold’em hold’em. You’re on the nursery slopes and things are sticky – and by ‘things’ we mean the cards to the players’ hands. Here you make money by almost never bluffing and betting your big hands strongly; The players here want to go to Value Town and you’re the driver.

You’ll sometimes hear players say they hate playing against bad players, quoting the eternal line, ‘If they don’t know what they’re doing how can I know?’ This is absolute rubbish – if you can’t win here you won’t win at the higher limits.

With each limit we’re going to look at what mistakes your opponents are making that will give you an edge, which is something you should do with every poker game anyway. At these limits you’ll see more mistakes than we have room to write about, but the critical ones are that your opponents will play too many hands, they will overvalue those hands and call too much. They will also overvalue their draws and – again – call too much. Finally they won’t bet their hands well for value. In short, they’ll call too much when behind and not bet often enough when ahead.

In order to beat these limits you need to shut away your aggro self and play solid poker, bluffing infrequently and playing your hands for value. Make sure you really squeeze your loose friends for every penny.

For example, if opponents are calling a lot pre op, consider making raises of ve or six times the big blind – after all, whenever they call you with worse they’re making a mistake. extend the same logic to your post op play – when you have a strong hand consider overbetting the pot, particularly if you can move all-in without it being ridiculous. Very often you’re facing players whose only thought is whether to call or not, and not about considering the size of the bet. a classic situation in these games is holding A-K, pairing your ace and out-kicking your opponent’s A-X. In these spots it’s essential you get every cent.

You will find some maniacs at these limits who don’t care because the money is small. Don’t let this faze you – quickly identify them and just call them down with a wider range than you would a normal opponent.

You’ll also be playing a lot of multiway pots – it’s not uncommon to find tables at these stakes with 35% or more of players in a full ring game seeing the flop. Compare this to a $1/$2 game where it’s rare for this number to go above 25%. The key is to not get involved in the limp-fest too often, although if you do, remember that hands like 8-7 suited go up in value – while hands like A-J offsuit are danger hands that play very poorly in multiway pots.

Finally, the most important thing is to learn as much about playing no-limit cash as you can at these levels. Start as you mean to go on, so buy tracking software, analyse your results, use learning materials to improve and play with focus. You’ll be able to beat the games without doing all this, but it’s all about getting yourself ready for the higher games.

Sample Hand: Micro Stakes

Analysing hands is a good skill to learn early in your poker career. This one illustrates one of the basic principles of beating the micro stakes tables: getting maximum value when ahead…

Limit: $0.05/$0.10

Six-max No-limit Hold’em

Your Hand: Q♥-Q♠

Action: UTG+1 limps and both the cutoff and the button call behind. You raise to $0.70 in the small blind (trying to get as much value as possible). You get two callers – the UTG+1 and the button. There’s now $2.20 in the pot and effective stacks are $9.30.

Flop: J♥4♣5♥

Action: You lead out with a value bet of $1.70. The UTG+1 player folds and the button calls. (There’s now $5.40 in the pot and $7.60 left in your stack.)

Turn: 6♣

Action: You value-bet again, this time making it $3.20 to go. Again the button calls. (note that shoving all-in on this turn for value is also an option, as your opponent will almost always show up with a Jack, lower pocket pair or flush draw.)

River: 9♠

Action: You bet the rest of your stack – $4.40. Your opponent calls and shows a losing K♥-J♠

Low Stakes

Limit: $0/10/$0.25 – $0.25/$0.50

Bankroll guideline: 25 Buy-ins – $625-$1,250

A few years ago most of what you’ve read about micro stakes applied here too, but there are now people at these levels actually trying hard to win!

These limits have therefore become transitional ones – they’ve still got a few fish swimming around but they’re also full of players like you aspiring to get better. The good news is that it’s not difficult to spot which are which, and the even better news is that even the regular players at these limits have big weaknesses that you can exploit.

We’ve already looked at dealing with fish and that doesn’t change much whether you’re playing $0.05/$0.10 or $5/$10. Let’s focus on the players at this limit who are trying to play well. Typically they have two key weaknesses. The first is that they play very predictably. They have often learnt to play with starting hand charts and, for example, when they raise under the gun you can put them on a very specific range of hands. secondly, they often play weak-tight after the flop. This means they go into check-call mode when worried about their hand and make far too many folds in spots where they should commit.

This level is where aggression becomes your friend. You can start to re-raise pre flop with a slightly wider range to put pressure on players. Post flop if you’re playing against a weak-tight regular you can play your draws fast, bluff scare cards and really put the pressure on. The great thing is that few of the players at these limits will be ‘playing back’ at you – they simply don’t have the check-raise bluff in their arsenal.

In contrast to $0.05/$0.10 there will be fewer limped pots and far more raised pots taking place, either heads-up or three-way. Look to isolate the weaker players and play in position. Playing good cards is still important, but you can start to open your game up a little; make sure you push your comfort zone a bit at each limit to really improve your game.

As a side note we wouldn’t recommend playing more than four tables at any limit. You need to focus on the action and develop reads on the players – this will help your results and make you grow quicker as a player.

Having got the basics at the lower limits – which will be enough to make you pro table by the way – you should really start focusing on your hand-reading skills. Put your opponents on a range, understand what they’ll do with that range and adjust your play accordingly. easier said than done, but this is the skill that will slowly develop for years as you move up the ranks.

Sample Hand: Low stakes

At low stakes the quality of play is generally better than the micro tables, but some smart, aggressive play should still yield an edge…

Limit: $0.25/$0.50

Six-Max no-limit Hold’em

Your Hand: 7♥-7♠

Action: It folds round to the button who raises to $1.75. You decide to call in the SB (you could also three-bet) and the BB folds. There is now $4 in the pot and $48.25 in your stack. Your opponent is a tight, semi-competent regular.

Flop: 9♥-5♠-2♠

Action: You check – planning to check-raise – but your opponent checks behind.

Turn: A♠

Action: You make a bet of $3 and your opponent calls. There is $10 in the pot. At this point you put your opponent on a hand he thinks may be good but isn’t sure, like a weak ace, a nine or a low pocket pair.

River: K♠

Action: The river completes a backdoor flush. You decide to turn your hand into a bluff and bet $11 – trying to get folds from weak aces or a nine, which have you beat. Your opponent thinks for a short while before folding

Mid Stakes

Limit: $1/$2

Bankroll guideline: 30 Buy-ins – $6,000

Make no mistake, on pretty much every site these days $1/$2 is a tough poker game to beat. You’ll encounter a lot of good multi-tabling pros. These players don’t make the big mistakes of lower limit players and aren’t afraid to commit their stack on a big call, semi-bluff or bluff if the moment is right. The good news is there are still fish, and the better news is you can develop the game to beat regulars with hard work and application.

The key skill you’ll really need to apply now and for the rest of your ascension through the limits is game selection. The truth of cash poker is that in your lifetime most of your profits will come from the bad players – even at $200/$400. Now you have to put time into seeking them out. On a big site there will be many $1/$2 games going; the key is to find the juicy ones. As we write this, a random scan of six-max games on one of the biggest sites shows players seeing the flop on a table from as low as 24% up to 41% – those will be different games and you want to be sitting in the one with the fish.

You won’t be able to avoid the regulars completely, but the good news is there are still ‘bad’ regulars that you can exploit. These are players who have run good and don’t belong at this limit or are good enough to beat the fish but still have big leaks. Observe players and try to spot the mistakes they make or patterns they repeat. Some multi-tablers fall into predictable habits – for example, some will continuation-bet almost every flop, making it very profitable to check-raise bluff them a lot.

The big difference, as you start moving into mid stakes, is the level of aggression you’ll face, particularly from the regulars. You’ll sometimes need to fight fire with fire by increasing your own aggression and sometimes use these players’ aggression against them by inducing bluffs and mistakes.

At this limit you really need to start being a complete, exible player, dealing with situations as they come up rather than to a preset formula. For example, if you have 7♣5♣ in the cutoff with aggressive players on the button and in the small blind, it may be a fold. But with the same hand under the gun, a good table image and a fish in the big blind, you might want to raise it.

One final note. by this point you’ll have some serious money in action. If you four-table you’re putting $800 in play at once and four-figure losing sessions will happen however well you play. For some that’s a daunting prospect. The key is to have your poker money separate from real-life money and stick to stringent bankroll requirements. Also – at all limits – do everything you can to avoid tilt. Play well, work hard and you’ll be grinding $5/$10 before you know it.

Sample Hand: Mid-stakes

This hand is the same as the sample hand at the micro stakes to illustrate how differently the action unfolds. Once again it’s six-handed and everyone has a full stack (in this case $200)…

Limit: $1/$2

Six-Max no-limit Hold’em

Your Hand: Q♥Q♠

Action: Everyone folds to the button who raises pot to $7. You re-raise to $24 in the small blind. The BB folds and the button calls. The villain is a tough aggressive winner at these limits and capable of making plays. There is now $50 in the pot and $176 in your stack.

Flop: J♥4♣5♥

Action: You value-bet $38 and the villain calls. There is now $126 in pot and $138 in your stack. Your opponent is capable of playing Aces and Kings this way but also floating with air, Broadway cards or a lower pocket pair – or calling with a hand like a Jack, Tens or Nines, thinking he could be good. He also knows you’ll three-bet him pre flop with a wide range.

Turn: 6♠

Action: You could shove, bet small or check on this river. It’s a close call, but you decide to try and trap your aggro opponent. You check, he thinks and shoves, and you snap-call with your overpair. He shows 8♣9♣ The river is a blank and you win the pot.

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