Building the Raft While Staying Afloat on It

Bankroll management in your normal game can be a bit like a rollercoaster: the ups and downs are a thrill, but at least you know you’re safe. When you’re playing at higher stakes, it’s more like getting a lift back from a club with your mate who can’t drive. You find yourself asking how many drinks he really has had, and didn’t you promise you’d always get the tube rather than do this again? It’s really not so funny when the stakes are higher than you’re comfortable with.

When poker is a job rather than a hobby, there are a thousand pitfalls to contend with. Hungover? You probably shouldn’t play. Had a fight with your wife/girlfriend/family member? You probably shouldn’t play. The tables are too full of sharks? You probably…

By comparison, in the average desk job, any negative situation at work basically means you lie low for a bit, do some admin maybe, and coast until the good times roll again. Either way, when you leave your desk that evening, you still got paid for a day’s work. In poker world, you’re only ever getting the green when you’re hitting the felt.

That’s tough enough when you’re playing your normal game, but take it up a level and it all goes to Hell. You have the same decisions, but without the experience of bigger swings, or the safety of knowing you’re a money making player at this level. It takes tens of thousands of hands to establish yourself at higher stakes – and that’s without changing your game. Every time you change your style slightly, the counter resets to zero. You might be doing well because your style is an improvement, or it might just be dumb luck.

There are plenty of other issues. When the regulars don’t know you, they might give you the benefit of the doubt for a few weeks – in marginal situations, they might fold your bluffs or not put you on a tough decision when you appear weak. But soon enough, they’ll start opening up, and then your stats might take a dive.

This can be a bit of a boil on the old noodle. You might not want to be one of those grinders that spends a lifetime on the $1/$2 and never stretches themselves. Although I’d never blow my whole bankroll against a slightly hammed-up Russian played by John Malkovich, I always want to know whether I can beat the next game up. That leads to a curious kind of crusade. I mean, it’s your job after all. When do you call time and go back down to the level you’re comfortable with? How many hands do you play at break even before you start worrying about the rent? Here are some suggestions for bankroll management.

If you are genuinely considering going pro or even semi pro, the acid test is that you withdraw a certain amount from your poker bankroll each month. In other words, not only do you have to keep your poker money separate from your other money, but there should be a regular net transfer from the former to the latter. This helps you establish what your bankroll is for, i.e. making more money from playing poker. It also bars you from doing crazy things like having a quick go on tables ten times your usual stakes – and invariably riding the rollercoaster until you go broke. If that money is your poker bankroll, you’re not a real pro. If that money is your rent, you’re in need of a new hobby.

Either way, the size of your bankroll should govern the stakes of the game you play. For most money-making players a bankroll of 20-30 times buy in (where the buy in is 100 times the BB) of your regular game is usually enough. You should not expect downswings of 30 times the buy in, but since downswings of 10-15 times buy in are possible, you want to have a bankroll that doesn’t have you looking nervously over your shoulder. Of course, every now and then you will run so bad that either (a) you lose confidence in your play, or (b) you run out of sufficient bankroll. In either of these cases, it might be wise to drop down a level sooner rather than later, say, when your bankroll drops to 30 buy ins at the level below the one you are currently playing.

One idea is to have a bankroll totalling 20 times the buy in for all the levels you play at. For example, imagine you are a $1/$2 player. Using the simple, “30 times buy in” rule, you figure to need a $6000 bankroll to protect from the swings and play comfortably. However, you could alternatively figure your bankroll as follows:

Bankroll for
that Level
0.25/0.50 1000 1000
0.50/1 2000 3000
1/2 4000 7000
2/4 8000 15000

So for example, if you have a bankroll of $7000, you can play at the $1/$2 level. If you parlay you bankroll up to $15,000, you can then progress to the $1/$2 level, but if your bankroll drops down to $3000, you have to drop back down to $0.50/$1 level until you build it back up to $7000 again. You can add the rule about having to take away a certain amount each month (e.g. $2000) to live on if you want to go pro.

For tournaments, I would follow Chris Ferguson’s advice of not buying into a multi table tournament for more than 2% of your bankroll – the use of a percentage amount here is self limiting: if you’re bankroll is low, you have to enter cheaper tournaments. Remember also, that as you go higher up the stakes, because the games are tougher and more aggressive, you will need a relatively bigger bankroll; 20-30 times the buy in might not be enough here, anything up to 50 times the buy in might be more appropriate.

Playing according to a given, monitored amount will make you more circumspect about the games you choose. If you want also to play other forms of poker for fun, try having separate bankrolls for experimenting, tournaments, and so on. Either way, it pays to keep within your bankroll. A rollercoaster ain’t so fun if you don’t know whether you’ll crash or not…