Top 3 Tips For Moving Up Stakes

Patrick Howard
10 Jun 2024
10 Jun 2024

If you want to make a lot of money playing poker, there's only one way to do it: you have to move up in stakes. In this article, I'm going to share my three biggest tips for beginning poker players, especially those starting out at low or micro stakes, who want to move up in stakes, make more money playing poker, and potentially turn this into a profession.

About Author

By the way, if you're new here and wondering if I'm qualified to talk about this, let me introduce myself. I've coached hundreds of students and was the head coach at Poker Detox's coaching-for-profits cash game stable from 2019 to 2022. During my time there, I led the team to over $5 million in profits, with nearly all students starting at low stakes.

In 2019, I personally moved up from 200NL to 2KNL on Bovada within about six or seven months, and I documented this journey on my Run at Once blog. So, I know a thing or two about moving up in stakes.

#1: Focus on Recreational Players

The most important tip is to focus on recreational players and game selection. Understanding why this is crucial is simple: look at the world of competitive chess. Very few people make a decent living playing chess competitively. Poker, however, is different. 

Many people make a living playing poker, and this is primarily because there are players who participate for entertainment. These recreational players sustain the entire ecosystem, making it a viable profession for many professional poker players.

This concept might seem obvious — of course, you should focus on recreational players (but in practice, it's not as straightforward). When you actually play poker, most of your hands will likely be against other professional players, especially in most pools. These players present the toughest challenges, which can easily distract you from the recreational player at your table. It creates the illusion that all professionals are competing against one another, and that you need to beat other professionals to make money. However, that's not true at all.

According to my online database, the average recreational player usually loses around 30 big blinds per 100 hands. 

This means if a recreational player buys in for a half stack (50 big blinds), on average, they will lose their entire stack within about 150 hands. On the other hand, while it varies a bit from site to site, in a healthy ecosystem where the rake is not too high, the average regular tends to win at about 1 to 4 big blinds per 100 hands. 

So, if you want to make money, who should you focus on? The person donating 30 big blinds per 100 hands, or the person winning several big blinds per 100 hands? Obviously, you want to focus on the recreational players — the low-hanging fruit.

Recreational players make a lot of fundamental mistakes when playing poker, so almost any reasonable strategy you use against them will be profitable. 

However, that doesn't mean you should stop there. By exploiting these players, you can gain even more of an edge. In fact, I would argue that studying recreational players can provide a greater edge than studying how to play against good players.

There's not a lot of content available on how to exploit recreational players. This is partly because it's not a well-understood concept. Many people have the wrong idea about how to exploit recreational players. While any reasonable strategy will make money against them, a suboptimal strategy won't maximize your potential edge.

Another reason for the lack of content is that those who understand how to maximally exploit recreational players guard this information closely. They don't want to give away this knowledge for free and turn every professional poker player into a "max exploit bot" against recreational players, as this would reduce their bottom line and potentially harm the online poker ecosystem.

However, just because there isn't much good information available doesn't mean you shouldn't think about it. Always use common sense and logic to gain as much edge as possible against these players. 

Don’t allow yourself to autopilot and play the same strategy you would use against professionals. 

Adjust your play to exploit the mistakes of recreational players effectively.

Caveat: don't Be a bumhunter! Being a savvy game selector does not mean being a bumhunter. Focus on how you can win the most money from a recreational player when they're at your table and position yourself in games where you're likely to encounter many recreational players. However, game selection becomes bumhunting when you obsessively table-select and avoid playing against other professionals.

Instead, research which pools are good to play in and at what times, set up a schedule, and ensure you have a solid strategy against recreational players when you encounter them. Don't automatically sit out as soon as a recreational player leaves the table. This behavior kills the games and makes it a poorer experience for everyone.

In summary, while focusing on recreational players is crucial when moving up in stakes, it's not the end-all-be-all strategy in poker. Eventually, you will need to learn more theory and how to play against stronger players. However, prioritizing recreational players is the most important thing while moving up in stakes.

#2: Be Aggressive With Your Bankroll

The second tip for moving up in stakes is to use an aggressive bankroll management strategy and take many small shots. To illustrate this, I’ll refer to a graph from an article on my blog titled "You Should Probably Stop Playing Zoom". This graph, made using the Prime Dope Variance Calculator, effectively illustrates the point:

This graph displays your bankroll requirements versus your win rate. The y-axis represents your bankroll in big blinds, so 5,000 big blinds equate to 50 buy-ins. The x-axis shows your win rate in big blinds per 100 hands. According to the graph, if you have a win rate of 3 big blinds per 100 hands, you need a bankroll of about 50 buy-ins to ensure a less than 5% risk of ruin (i.e., a less than 5% chance of busting your bankroll during a downswing). 

As your win rate increases, your risk of ruin decreases exponentially.

This ties back to my first point about focusing on game selection while moving up in stakes. A high win rate in your games means you don’t need a large bankroll to play in those games, allowing you to move up in stakes quickly without requiring significant liquidity.

The calculations indicate that with a win rate of 3 big blinds per 100 hands, you need 50 buy-ins. If your win rate is 6 big blinds per 100 hands, you only need about 25 buy-ins for less than a 5% risk of ruin. And if you're crushing your games at 15 big blinds per 100 hands, you need just a 10 buy-in bankroll for less than a 5% risk of ruin. That's pretty crazy, and what's even crazier is that these calculations are done assuming that you can never move down.

So, in reality, what you would actually probably do is have a bankroll of maybe 20 buy-ins and take a five buy-in shot every time you get over 20 buy-ins. If you lose that shot and you just move back down, you make that money back and then take another five buy-in shot. 

If you can move down every time you go on a downswing, well, every time you move down, you double your bankroll effectively. So, your actual risk of ruin is going to be much lower than even this graph, which is quite aggressive, is saying.

This is sort of the mathematical reasoning behind my suggestion, which a lot of people think is a little bit too aggressive, but I think it's really fine.

I would suggest when you're starting out in poker at lower microstakes, have a separate bankroll from your living expenses. 

Ideally, if you're not playing poker professionally yet and you're not established, you should have a separate source of income. Keep a separate bankroll for poker, maybe around 20 to 30 buy-ins, and take small shots. As you move up in stakes, you can start to build a bigger bankroll, maybe up to 40 or 50 buy-ins. This is mostly for mindset reasons, as games get bigger, most people like to have a larger bankroll for security.

My caveat for this strategy is to remember to move down! You also want to manage your downswings. With an aggressive bankroll management strategy, it's possible to move up several limits without incurring a huge downswing. 

Imagine you're a 25NL player and you've never gone on more than a $500 downswing in your life. Then you go on a heater and rapidly move up in stakes to NL50 and then NL100. Let's say you stick the landing at 100NL.

Now, you've got a big bankroll at NL100, and then you go on a 15 buy-in downswing. Before you have to, according to your bankroll rules, move down back to 50NL.  

I would say if you have only lost $500 at most previously, you should try to move down, even if you don't have to. You should not allow yourself to lose more than about 150% of what you've lost previously. Not everybody needs to do this for mindset reasons, but I think most people get discouraged when they go on a downswing much larger than their previous maximum downswing.

So, always think about how much you're comfortable with losing at any given time. 

Sometimes you can preemptively move down and make some money back at lower stakes before you cross that threshold. Even if it's a bit too conservative for your bankroll management strategy. It's fine to do so.

In summary, use an aggressive bankroll management strategy, but also don't be afraid to set conservative stop losses. 

There's no harm in going back down one limit lower and making some money back before you take another shot. Remember, bad bankroll management strategy isn't about taking shots too aggressively — it’s about failing to move down when it's time to. 

In reality, most people who have made a lot of money playing poker have been very aggressive with their bankrolls. They were just able to put their ego aside and move down when they ran bad.

#3: Find Your Poker Tribe

My third and final tip is to find a tribe. Don't just try a lone wolf strategy. For most people, the lone wolf approach is not going to work, especially now that online poker is harder to beat than it used to be. If you can find a tribe where people are moving up, making more money, and improving very rapidly in poker, then if you're spending a lot of time around people like that — you are also likely going to do the same thing.

In addition, you're going to save yourself from falling into various pitfalls. I'll give you an example: recently, there were a couple of websites, both GGPoker and BetOnline, which massively increased the rake on their cash games. It would have been nice if they had told people that they were going to do this, but instead, they just kind of launched an update stealthily in the night without telling anybody, and increased the rake by like 50 to 100 percent in both cases.

Now, if you're just a lone wolf and you're not really paying very close attention, it could be months before you realize that the rake increased that much in your games. If you just didn't check that stat, you might think, 'Well, I'm just kind of having a bad couple of months.' Maybe you don't check your poker tracker and see that they're raking another three big blinds per hundred or two big blinds per hundred off the top of your profits.

If you're in a tribe or, cooperating with poker coach, you will constantly be exposed to information like this that's going to help you a lot. Like:

  • Hey, this site just increased their rake a ton, probably should get off of that site;
  • Hey, have you heard about this site? Games seem really, really good, maybe you should get on there and give it a try;
  • Hey, have you heard about this poker software that just came out? It's really helped my game a lot.

These are the types of tips you're going to get when you have a strong network, and there are many more examples that I could give. But don't get lost in it!

Your tribe can be really helpful, but my final caveat is to not get lost in your tribe. Don't get distracted from the big picture. You don't want to spend all of your time socializing with other people on your poker server. As much as making friends with other poker players is great, you have to remember that this is also your job.

If you're just focusing on socializing and not on getting better at poker, that can be an issue for your development as a player.

In addition, you also don't want to get really wrapped up in microstrategy discussions. If you feel like you're in a hand history discussion group and players tend to spend like 30 minutes talking about a single hand, maybe you jump into the group, discuss a couple of hands, and then all of a sudden there's one hand that people have a disagreement about and you end up talking about that for 40 minutes. 

That's a sign that your study group is not being very productive and it's just getting distracted in the minutia of poker. Again, that's a really good way to waste a lot of time and stunt your development as a player. You should always be coming back to understanding where your money is coming from in poker and not getting wrapped up in minor details and microstrategy discussions.

Alright, that's all I've got for today. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope you learned something. Good luck at the tables!

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