To make serious money playing poker you need to hit the cash tables.
Tournament poker has taken over the world. Yet 30 years ago poker tournaments barely existed. Now they create millionaires every week and fill our TV stations. Every year new poker superstars are made and latest predictions show the Main Event at the World Series will have 417,392 entrants by 2018… probably.
And you know what I say? Phooey. Tournament poker is an abomination – it’s barely poker. It’s a game for gamblers who hardly know how to play the game. Find two cards you like, push your stack in, and hope they all fold – if they don’t, you can still hit. Real poker is played with deep stacks. Real poker is played after the flop, where you have to play marginal hands with subtlety, artistry and good judgement. Real poker is played for money not tournament chips. The real test of a poker player is a cash game.
Okay, tournaments aren’t all that bad, but the truth is, the no-limit format was designed to be played as a cash game where the pre-flop all-in loses its value but mastery of post-flop play will make you a mint.
In this series of articles I’ll give you an introduction to playing cash games, look at the technical, strategic and psychological aspects of the game, and teach you how to turn knowledge into profit. By the end of the series you’ll know enough to make money in most small and some medium-stakes no-limit cash games. That’s providing you pay attention of course – if you keep flicking to the ads with the pretty girls enticing you to gamble I’m not being held responsible.
Cash vs tournaments
Cash games offer a very different challenge to tournaments. There are two obvious differences – the blinds stay the same and you can get more chips when you go broke… which is nice. In a cash game the blinds will stay the same for as long as the game exists. This means that – unlike tournaments – the blinds do not create a pressure to accumulate chips. Also, as the blinds are not a big percentage of the stacks in play there is much less value in trying to steal them or win the pot pre-flop.
The blinds are often a very small percentage of the money players have in front of them. This means that there are huge implied odds pre-flop because of the potential for winning a big pot compared to the cost of entry into the hand. Understanding how implied odds affect your play is a key concept in cash games, which we’ll look at in-depth later in this series. In a tournament when your chips are gone – you’re gone. In a cash game you can be back the very next hand by visiting the cashier and getting more ammunition. Of course you can also add to your stack at any time between hands, though some no-limit cash games have a maximum you can buy in for – this is usually 100 times the big blind.
The ability to buy back in and the lack of having your tournament life on the line means players tend to call slightly more in cash games. This, coupled with the lack of pressure to accumulate chips by stealing blinds, means there tends to be far less bluffing than in tournament play.
Cash game play also offers a significant emotional challenge that differs from tournaments. If you take a horrendous beat and go out of a tournament you can take a walk around the casino and cool off, or even drive home. If you’re online you can log off and go scream at the walls or kick the cat. In a cash game you can buy straight back in and be in action the next hand. Obviously this brings a real danger. If you’re steaming so much you want to be screaming, but actually you have to play a hand of poker it becomes really easy to make mistakes. If things continue to go badly one buy-in can quickly become three or four. This emotional challenge – of playing well after a big loss – is one of the great tests of being a good cash game player.
For those of you not familiar with the term, a poker player’s ‘bankroll’ is a person’s money for playing poker. This should always be kept separate from other money. If you’re serious about making money from poker, in the long run you’ll need to take cash games very seriously.
I would estimate that as many as 90 percent of poker players play too high in games, where they put too much of their bankroll at risk at any one time. The problem is until you’re very experienced it’s extremely difficult to understand just how volatile poker is. The variance is so great – especially in no-limit – that a bad run of cards can decimate your bankroll if you’re playing too high, even if you’re better than your opponents.
With the growth in online poker it’s possible to play poker for any stakes, so you can start with as much or as little investment in your cash game career as you like. The key decision is how much you put ‘in action’ at any one time. A standard recommendation is that you should put no more than five percent of your bankroll into a game. So if you have $1,000 to play with you should be playing with $50 on the table, which would equate to a $0.25/$0.50 no-limit cash game. I would be even more conservative and advise you that five percent should be the maximum and normally you should play with no more than two-and-a-half percent of your bankroll. Obviously if you’ve got a budget bankroll then start at the bottom and work your way up.
Building a bankroll is something that requires patience and an absence of ego. Many players – even some pros – would encourage you to ‘take a shot’ at a bigger game with your bankroll and if you run well you can build up faster. There are two problems with this – first, as I said, the mathematical variance can kill you even if you’re good enough to beat the bigger game. Second, it’s very difficult to play your best game in a cash game when a lot of your money is at stake.
A key skill in cash games is to be able to ‘pull the trigger’ and put all your chips in on one hand when the time is right. If the amount you’re playing for is too high and stops you from doing that you’re in the wrong game.
The great thing about having an adequate bankroll is it completely diffuses the emotion in poker. There are some situations where even a good player is going to ‘stack off’ in a cash game. For instance, if you have Aces and someone sets you all-in you’re going to play. Sadly, even if you’re a great player your Aces can get cracked (I know I know – but bad things happen to good people). Now obviously you’re not going to be happy about this but I’d submit that the level of your unhappiness depends on how much that stack meant to you. This emotional aspect of bankroll management is very underrated in the life of a poker player.
A winning style
As with tournament poker it’s possible to be a winning player with many different styles. However, as a start point you should be aware that relatively tight ‘abc’ poker will get the money in a lot of low-stakes cash games. The players will make a variety of mistakes – chiefly, they will bluff far too much and lack the discipline to wait for strong hands. By playing better cards you will make money. As you move up stakes and play better players you’ll have to vary your play to cover up the kind of hands you’ll enter pots with. This ability to mix up your play becomes more important as you move up the cash limits.
Great cash game players excel at controlling the size of the pot. To put it simply, when you have a marginal hand you need to keep the pot small, but when you have a big hand you should invest your money. Weaker players are scared to get their money in with good hands in case they don’t get paid and end up failing to extract full value for their hands. We’ll look at this and the other skills that make a winning cash player in the coming months. Skills like learning how to control the pot size, the importance of position, implied odds and stack size. We’ll also look at the psychological aspects of the game – how to get inside your opponents’ heads and read their hands accurately.
There’s a wealth of ready-to-eat information about playing tournaments and sit-and-gos but cash games are a mystery to many players. In short there’s a lot of profit out there for you – let’s get the money together.