The Secret to Micro-Stakes Poker: Bankroll Management

If there is one thing that defines success in poker at any level, it’s good bankroll management. While high-stakes games often provide excitement and fun, players who play above their bankroll limits risk going broke and jeopardizing their ability to play the games they want to play.

One of the most common stories from the high-stakes poker world is about players going bust and having to rebuild their bankroll to get back in the game. Those stories are less common today than they were a decade or two ago. A big part of the reason for that change is a growing recognition of the value of solid bankroll management.

Perhaps the most famous example of the dangers of poor bankroll management comes from someone ranked as one of, if not the, best player of all time, Stu Unger. While Unger’s personal problems with drugs are well documented and helped contribute to his eventual demise, the other side of Unger was that of a “degenerate gambler” as described by Mike Sexton.

Ask anyone who played against him. It’s likely they will list Unger as the best poker player who ever lived. The evidence is out there. No other player has won the World Series Main Event and the now-defunct Superbowl of Poker. Unger won both three times each.

It’s estimated that Ungar won $30 million over his short life in professional gambling, and yet died in a cheap hotel with less than $1,000 to his name. And while his drug addiction no doubt played a part in that, as his backer in the 1997 Main Event, Billy Baxter, noted, after winning his third Main Event title in that game and pocketing $500k of the prize, Unger lost it all within a couple of weeks gambling on sports.

Simple Bankroll Management Techniques

Bankroll management is a simple concept in general. The idea is that you never play higher than your bankroll can handle. The trickier part is determining exactly what level you should be playing with a given bankroll and determining how big your “poker bankroll” is.

Your bankroll is really nothing more than the amount of money you have to gamble with. How that total is determined is purely a personal decision that will be related to specific personal circumstances, both financial and social – for example, someone working a low-wage job while trying to support a family will almost certainly have less disposable income to put into a leisure activity like gambling than a single professional making more money.

Those personal considerations are what players need to consider before jumping into the gambling world, including poker, if they want it to stay fun. Still, there are some general rules that apply across the board, no matter how big your bankroll happens to be. You can learn more about how to play poker online.

Bankroll Management Guidelines

Whether you are a winning or losing player at poker, there are a few things you need to consider before buying into a game. Your total bankroll will be part of what determines how big you should play. Different players will still approach that in slightly different ways. One crucial thing to consider is that your bankroll is seen as the amount of money you are willing to lose.

That applies to winning players as much as to losing players since we know poker is a game that is high in variance. Even winning players can go through long downswings that crush their bankroll. Proper bankroll management and understanding how to adjust can be the difference between sustainable poker entertainment and going broke.

Once you’ve set the total amount you can play for, based on your own personal circumstances, you are ready to start considering the size of games that fit your bankroll. For bankroll management purposes, the size and type of games you play are very relevant.

Risk Tolerance & the 1% Rule

Like with investing in the stock market, how big you play with your bankroll will depend, in part, on your tolerance for risk and variance. If you don’t mind losing your whole bankroll sometimes then you can likely play a bit higher than someone who is less able to reload if they go broke.

For players with a low-risk tolerance, using the 1% rule is a decent starting point. That is, no single game you buy into should cost more than 1% of your bankroll. So, for a bankroll of $100, you’d be playing $1 games at most.

Someone with a higher risk tolerance might go as high as 5% (so a $100 bankroll would allow a $5 max buy-in). That player must understand that 20 buy-ins can evaporate fast in tournament poker during a streak of run-bad.

In some cases, particularly risk-averse players could go even higher with a 150 or 200 buy-in rule. Which will mean much slower monetary gains for winning players but will also virtually guarantee they will never go broke.

There are a few caveats to going with the general rules. Once you assign a max buy-in level, that value will change as your bankroll increases or decreases. You should be adjusting your buy-in range accordingly as you play. Dropping down in stakes isn’t an admission of failure, but rather a logical strategy to adjust your buy-ins to your bankroll reality.

Buy-in Ranges

Further, players shouldn’t feel completely handcuffed by the buy-in limit they set. Use it as a strong guide rather than a hard and fast rule. Allow yourself to play smaller and larger from time to time depending on your mood and the games available.

For example, I follow the 1% rule in my own play. However, even while following that rule, I have a “high roller” range that I only play occasionally. Usually targeting games whose formats I feel I excel in while avoiding other game types at that level. In the $100 example above, my high-roller range will include 2-5 games per week at $2, and 1 or 2 games as high as $5 in a weekly volume of 20-25 tournaments.

Additionally, players should pay attention to game types and adjust accordingly. The biggest example is the newer trend of rebuy/add-on games. Those sorts of games should be valued at 2.5x or 3x the listed buy-in because of the extra variance, and the necessity to add-on. For R/A games in the $100/1% example above, a player would only be rolled to play $1 R/A games as part of their high-roller range, not as the main meat of their game schedule.

The short part of bankroll management is simple, “don’t spend more on poker than you can afford.” Of course, that’s easier said than done. Hopefully, some of the tips here can help you have a long and sustainable love affair with poker by keeping your bankroll healthy both inside and outside the game.