25/03/2009

Going Up a Level

Alex Rousso

What have they got that I haven’t got? Either as a railbird online, watching the celebs and poker pros tough it out at nosebleed stakes, or trying to look casual while staring too long at the high stakes area in the casino, you may well ask yourself that question. You may think as the thousands shift back and forth that these stony characters are poker gods.

They’re not. To be honest, they’re surprisingly close to the characters on your regular tables. They play for more money – that’s all. Granted, this does mean that the mix of players might be different to what you’re used to, and it does mean that if you’re bad, you’re going to lose more than your shirt. That said, going up the stakes is not just a pipe dream.

In general, I would say that there are four broad categories of stakes played in online poker: micro, small, mid and high. Micro stakes are anything less than $0.25/$0.50 blinds in NL and PL games. Here, nobody’s breaking the bank, and basically the only way to make money is to play for value. You bet when you have a hand, and fold yourself out of trouble when you don’t. Small stakes are anything from $0.25/$0.50 up to $1/$2. Here, value betting is still the order of the day, but some of your opponents might be sophisticated enough for you to try a few moves on them. Mid stakes are from $2/$4 to $10/$20, and high stakes are anything above that. This article covers the moves from micro to small, and small to mid stakes. If you’re moving from mid to high stakes, the principles here will still apply, but you’ll hopefully know most of them already!

Regarding the moves from micro to small and small to mid, I believe the issues are largely the same. The two questions to ask yourself are: (1) are you good enough? (2) can you afford it? In the first instance, it is paramount that you record your results. Record every session, good or bad, and be honest with yourself in so doing. You’ll need to have results for at least twenty thousand hands to be sure that you are a money making player at that level (more if you’re a loose aggressive player). Applications such as PokerTracker will help with that, as well as allowing you to analyse your game to fix any weaknesses.

Even if you’re good enough, can you afford the swings at the higher level? Bankroll requirements are something that players often get wrong. Sure, people who build up their bankroll to $1000 and then sit down with the whole lot at a $5/$10 table are asking for trouble, but even having a bankroll of three or four times the buy in is usually not enough. At whatever level you’re playing, you’ll need to have a bankroll of at least ten times the maximum buy in. Since the maximum buy in is often one hundred times the big blind, that’s at least 1000 times the big blind.

If this seems like a lot, remember that as you go up the stakes players are more aggressive and take chances more frequently with more marginal hands. What this means is that players are more likely to play with their entire stacks in any given hand. This is real big bet poker!

Perhaps for that reason, some would suggest that even ten times buy in is not enough. Certainly, if you’re a wild and aggressive player, twenty times buy in is probably the safer figure (but then you weren’t ever one for safety, right?) Remember that this is the amount you’ll need to ride the crests and waves of good and bad beats – even if you are a winning player. You have to be comfortable with losing such an amount in the course of playing money making poker over an extended period.

There is thus a further consideration about bankroll. Regardless of how much you’ve made playing poker, your bankroll should be an appropriately small proportion of your net wealth. In other words, if you only have savings of $30k in your life, playing poker with a bankroll of $10k might be a bit too much of a rollercoaster ride, and the swings might start emotionally affecting you. Only you can know what constitutes an amount that you are prepared to lose. Note, however, that financial advisers suggest that the proportion of your net wealth that you invest in high risk ventures such as the stock market (perhaps equally volatile as poker!), should be no higher than 10%.

Ready to take the plunge? Despite what I’ve said above about players at higher levels being basically the same, it’s always going to be harder to make money the higher up you go. Remember that, beyond the skills that make you a good player, there really isn’t much more that will make you a great player. There’s no magic formula only known to the high stakes players – an elixir that Harrington, Brunson and co haven’t told you about in their books. No, they’re basically keener, more competitive, more courageous and more disciplined than you. Sure, you’ll learn a few things along the way that you never spotted before, but basically, the pros know the same things that you do, they just do it better.

If anything, I find that encouraging; but it does mean that to be great you have to work hard. Just as with the Oracle at Delphi (or The Matrix, depending on where you get your philosophy from), the first wisdom is in knowing thyself. Before you even sit down at a higher stakes table, analyse your game. What are your strengths and weaknesses? How would a good opponent seek to exploit you? What type of player is your favourite fish, and what is your strategy for getting their money? The better you know the answers to these questions, the more prepared you’ll be.

So what to expect? Well, with better players around, you should expect more aggression from your opponents, along with more looseness when they’re in position against you, and tightness when they’re not. In general, you should follow suit – be more prepared to put opponents on a difficult decision by betting and raising, especially if you’re in position. A simple tip is to tighten up more preflop so that you have fewer difficult decisions yourself. That said, if you’re a rock, you might find the easy pickings of your old fish pond are slimmer at these giddy heights. Most rocks don’t quite cut it at the higher (or even high/mid) stakes games – if you want to make money here, you’ll have to speculate a bit more.

The fact that there are slightly fewer weak players may actually be to your advantage. If you read the game well, you’ll be able to pull all those fancy moves that you wouldn’t bother with against your clueless friends in the cheap seats. This is where poker really becomes enjoyable, for example, reading a check or a block bet on the river as a genuine sign of weakness and raising a better hand off the pot.

By the same token, some of your old, more obvious moves might not be such a cinch. For example, bluffs such as betting a missed flush draw on the river or betting out on a paired flop from the blinds might be treated with a bit more suspicion. Knowledge of your opponents becomes increasingly more important as you go up the stakes. Some of the super-high stakes players claim that it’s about little else.

If you’ve been playing small stakes, you’ll be happy to know that there are probably more “gamblers” at the mid and high stakes. By gambler in this context, I mean players – both skilled and unskilled – who are prepared to raise it up and are not particularly bothered about winning or losing, they just want action. It’s unlikely that people like this will play at something like $0.25/$0.50 stakes. In fact, they exist at the $2/$4 level all the way upwards, depending on how rich they are, I suppose. Players like these are a good source of income, just make sure that you play fewer marginal hands against them.

Position is always important in big bet poker, but it’s something you’ll have to pay special attention to at higher stakes. With less passive and more aware opponents, checking your hand out of position is likely to cost you. In short, players rarely fail to bet when they’re in position, so free cards are less likely. Practise check-raising to combat this, and be more prepared to be commit your entire stack when you’re out of position. Hand selection and general tightness is a key factor here.

Continuation bets are more likely to be called, or even raised. You’ll have to be more savvy about which opponents will let you get away with continuation bets, as well as which hands not to bet (for example, the ones that you don’t want to be raised or check-raised off). Similarly, your play on the river should improve. Once all the cards are out, there is only one decision: whether you’re betting a better hand for value, or a worse hand as a bluff. Position is important in this consideration, so much so, you should rehearse your action before the river. Your opponents – used to playing at this level – will happily put you on a difficult decision, and one that will be that much harder if you’re not used to the stakes. As the pot is always biggest on the river, that’s where the really expensive decisions get made. Sorting your river play out is a major factor in improving your hourly rate.

Last of all, don’t be afraid to admit defeat. Stand up if you’re not winning or you feel outgunned. There’s no shame in living to fight another day, or more importantly against weaker opponents. Frankly, table selection is where a lot of good players fail to be great players – you know the adage about what to do if you can’t see the fish at the table . . .

So in sum, as you go up the stakes, the game will invariably be less forgiving on the following general factors:

  1. Looseness (especially out of position)
  2. Passivity
  3. Positional play
  4. Knowledge of your opponent
  5. Value betting or bluffing on the river.

The only other major issue is that of emotional control. Remain aware of the emotional pressure that you’ll be under when you play for more money. It’s easy to play a hand well when you’ve got the nuts, but those marginal situations where you’re not quite sure who is ahead that are the true tests of a player’s mettle. If that question is being asked of you for twice the money that you’re used to, that pressure will often tell.

One of the most difficult things I find about going up the stakes is that each time you’re starting from ground zero. There’s something about being out of your depth financially that makes it easy to forget all the lessons you learned at the previous level. Thus, in spite of everything you know, keeping it together emotionally might be one of your primary targets.

With that in mind, you might want to start playing slightly tighter and more conservatively than usual. While this will reduce your hourly rate, it can also reduce volatility, and while you’re getting comfortable with the swings at the new level, that might be crucial. Perhaps you can try playing short stacked for the first ten thousand hands – that way you’ll get a better handle on your opponents, and how your style is working out at this level without having to risk as much as you normally would.

Keep looking at your stats and maintain a level head. For example, don’t let being a short term winner or loser go to your head (if you’re winning, it may just be savvy players giving you the benefit of the doubt because you’re new; they’ll soon learn!). Wait at least ten thousand hands before making a decision about whether to continue or not. Hopefully your bankroll will last this long; if it doesn’t, stay disciplined. Go back down to the previous level, rebuild your bankroll and start again. Jennifer Harman claims to have lost her bankroll attempting to break into the higher stakes games no fewer than nine times before she successfully stayed there. The emotional side of the game can play havoc with your journey up the stakes, so don’t lose faith. The money can screw with your thought process in many different ways. People automatically assume that higher stakes will make them tighter, but it can make you looser, more bluffy, more passive – anything really. The secret is to know yourself and keep an eye on how you’re doing. Stop, think and breathe. If all else fails, you’ve always got the fish at your lower stakes game to welcome you back.