Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates decided to take up poker as a hobby. Would they start playing 25nl cash games, $5 Sit n Go’s or $2 multi table tournaments? If you are a wealthy person wouldn’t it be natural for you to immediately play at a higher level? Is a $10,000 buy-in the same for a wealthy person as a $100 buy-in is for your average working class male or female? Wealthy players are not necessarily the most skilful players so does this mean there are a lot of weak wealthy players at the higher levels?
If you are a very skilful and ambitious poker player then you will probably win more money. As you win more money then you will progress up the ranks. Similarly players who are not as good at poker will not build up enough money and therefore will not move to higher stakes. So common sense would dictate that the more skilful players elevate to the top and therefore the games get tougher?
So how big is the divide between low, mid and high stakes? Is it easier to play against someone who knows what they are doing or an erratic fish? Is it all about skill or is it simply about the amount of dough you have in your wallet?
James Sudworth, PKR Professional Cash Game Player, on Cash Games
The stakes at which you play often dictate the average skill level of your opponents. Phil Ivey is not likely to be found playing $1/$2 PLO, whilst Bob the Builder who has never played poker before is unlikely to be found playing in the Durrr Challenge! This does not mean that the higher you play, the better your opponents will be, far from it. There are 4 basic levels of cash games, low stakes (up to 50$NL), medium stakes ($100NL - $600NL), high stakes ($1,000NL - $5,000NL) and then the nosebleed stakes (anything from $10,000NL up). It make sense that the low stakes have a lower average standard of player, because most players at this level are beginners (50% of players), failed mid-high stakes players who are not good enough to play higher (%25), and a few decent regulars (25%). At the mid stakes the players are better, but there is a very narrow skill range. 70% of the players are average to good (break even or marginal winners), 20% filled by very good pro's who don't want to take shots at higher stakes, and the odd occasional moron (10%).
High stakes gets even tougher, there are some of the best players in the world that grind these stakes and they will make up 50% of the field, about 40% of the remaining players will be break even/slightly winning recreational players who are not too bad, and then just about 10% of the field who are real big fish. For a recreational player, this level would be the hardest to find an easy game at. All of a sudden as soon as you venture into the nosebleed stakes, the increasing average skill set of player’s dips. As soon as you hit stakes at which most really good pro's find too high, you weed out a lot of the solid competition. Fewer games run and the best players in the world play at these stakes searching out the fish. But a lot of the time these games are where you can find the most value! Gamblers and Whales like to gamble for money that will mean something to them if they win or lose. They are looking for the adrenaline rush (that most solid players don't get at their stakes) to make the game more fun, therefore for them the only stakes to play for are the highest. Because of their lust for gamble, these huge fish will skip any of the lower levels and head straight to the high tables, don't get me wrong there are a lot of really good players too, but as long as you table select well you can find games that are hugely valuable to you, but the question is whether or not you have the money to compete in such games. If you are going to be playing scared, then even the biggest fish in the world will run all over you if you don't get the cards.
You never find big fish with unlimited bankrolls at lower stakes, because everyone with unlimited supplies of money does not care about playing small games. This means that despite there being a very high percentage of really good players (80%), the remaining 20% of players who will play those stakes will be big fish. This means that the skill level of the good players pales in comparison to the value of the fish. With such high buy-ins and low quantity of games, it means there will always be action packed games that you can focus 1 or 2 tables on, rather than multi-tabling 10x $200NL games!
Table selection is very important when playing very high stakes. The skill range is so wide; you have the best players in the world but also the absolute worst. Therefore a game that can be absolutely terrible value can change to being the best value table on the net with just one player change! I would rather play with the top four players in the world and one huge fish who will usually lose 10x buy-ins in one session, than sit at a table of four break even/winning players and one short stacking fish.
John Eames, Professional Tournament Pro on Tournaments
With online tournaments, the standard of play does tend to reflect the buy in accurately, with the exception of the major Sunday tournaments, and series such as WCOOP and FTOPS. These fields are full of satellite winners, where as a weekly $1k buy in online would be mostly comprised of tough regulars. But what is considered high stakes tournaments online is quite different to live. For instance, nightly tournaments such as a $100 rebuy are considered one of the tougher tournaments online. But if you compare this to live, a $100 rebuy could easily be a local nightly casino tournament, which would be full of weak, entirely recreational amateurs. The reason why what would be considered mid-stakes online, something in the region of $50-100, is a lot weaker is quite obvious. $50 is a reasonable amount to pay for someone just playing for fun at home, and is probably cheaper than most live tournaments they could go and play. Online poker is very disposable and doesn't take up your full attention necessarily. So it's a convenient and relatively affordable hobby and the smaller stakes.
Live is where buy ins don't reflect the skill of the opposition as consistently. Small - Mid-stakes live is nearly always weak, as local players will play the festival coming up at their casino or poker room because it's the only one they don't have to travel for. So they just take a shot. Interestingly, when you jump up a lot higher, say above €3k, there can be a lot of value in major tournaments because fields are full of satellite winners, and people who can afford to play purely for fun. The World Series main event is considered the softest big buy in tournament there is, because it's so famous and prestigious that every amateur will try his or her best to play. Then you have specialist tournaments such as hi-rollers. These usually contain some of the best players in the world, and a handful of weak, mostly wealthy players. These tournaments have small fields so quite often you will see the weak players at the final table. I would definitely rather have four weak players and four very strong players at a final table then eight good players. The main reason these big buy in tournaments attract amateurs, is because live poker is a lot more fun and interesting to them, and they get a great rush out of playing for big money and prestigious titles.
This article first appeared in Bluff Europe magazine.