Unlocking Higher Stakes in Poker: How to Break Through

Run It Once
22 Apr 2024
Holdem Strategy
22 Apr 2024

Long time high stakes poker pro Phil Galfond has advice for how to break through to higher poker stakes, whether you’re playing low stakes live poker or you are trying to jump into high stakes online poker games. Let’s start!

So what's holding you back? If you're like most poker players, one of your biggest goals is to move up in stakes. So what might be holding you back from that next buy-in level? Today, we're going to cover what actually might be holding you back and what you might think is holding you back that isn't. 

First, let's talk about the excuses you might be telling yourself, so that we can walk past that, and next, we'll get into the real problems and some solutions for them.

Excuse #1: Bankroll

The most common delusion that poker players have is that they believe they deserve much better results, but because of their bankroll situation, they're just not getting there. This happens to be the second most common delusion that I hear from poker players. Now, is it possible that you're good enough to be beating games much bigger than the ones you're playing in? Sure, it is. But most of the time when people believe that, they are simply wrong. 

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it doesn't really matter. Your bankroll that you have is just your bankroll. How simple is that? Complaining about it doesn't change it.

The less time you spend focused on your starting circumstances, which you just can't change, the more time you can spend on growing that bankroll. 

Over a long enough time horizon, what's responsible for your results will not be that starting bankroll, it will be your skill level and of course other soft skills like bankroll management and studying, and so on and so forth. Your starting bankroll right now, 10 years out — that's not going to have mattered… 5 years out, it’s still not going to have mattered because if you are winning in the games, if you are skilled enough, you will win and you will move up. It's just inevitable.

Excuse #2: Bad Luck

Obviously, this is the most common delusion you hear. Everybody seems to think that they are running bad. If you've ever heard somebody say: "I'd be crushing $10/$20 if I wasn't so unlucky", I would be winning at high stakes tournaments if I didn't run so bad. The variance involved in poker is so hard to comprehend for our human minds that even the very best players in the world will play against each other not knowing where they stand. It's just too complicated. If they can't figure it out, why do you believe that you can? 

It's the core of what makes poker work as a game that people play for money. Have some players been luckier than others? Yes, of course. Have you been unlucky? Maybe — maybe you have or maybe you haven't. But guess what — variance is here to stay. 

There is always going to be variance in poker and you will always occasionally get lucky, occasionally get unlucky. Now your past results may have been heavily influenced by bad luck and your future results might be too. So you have a choice you can go into each session with a negative mindset. 

You can complain about how unlucky you've been. You can curse the world. Curse the poker gods or you can take responsibility for what you can control which is how you show up to the game, how you show up to the table, how you show up to prepare for a hame. You can throw up your hands and relinquish all responsibilities for your results. You can blame bad luck. Or you can find a way to succeed in spite of it. 

50% of people are luckier than average and the other 50% are less lucky.

In most areas, we can have a rough idea of where we stand. I have led an objectively fortunate life but in poker, I have no idea if I've run above or below my expectation, and neither do you. Your circumstances, whether in life or in poker, may have made getting to where you are today much harder than it should have been. 

You may deserve a better average outcome, given your abilities and given the work that you put in. But focusing on that blame is not going to help you. In fact, it's only going to hold you back, further amplifying any injustices that may have taken place. 

You get to choose between a victim mentality and taking ownership over your outcomes. If you choose the latter, your outcomes are going to be better as a result, but your ego would prefer that you choose the former. Poker allows each and every one of us to consider ourselves unlucky.

If we choose to fall into that alluring trap, tell ourselves that: 

  • We've done the work;
  • We’re good enough;
  • We’re smart enough;
  • We deserve so much more.

It has to be this bad luck that is standing in our way. So how do you set yourself up to succeed in spite of bad luck? It's actually simple. Number one: you remain responsible with your bankroll, and number two: you grow your skill edge.

How to Make Your Downswings Shorter

The frequency and magnitude of your downswings at the poker table are directly correlated with how big your edge is. The way that downswings work essentially, there are two inputs: there's your skill edge — your number of big blinds per 100 you're expected to win in the game you're playing. And then there's the variance or the standard deviation of that game, which is also measured in big blinds per 100. That number gets higher if it's a higher variance game where a lot of money is getting thrown around. 

It gets lower if it is a lower variance game where players are quite tight and you're only getting involved with good hands and you're not building big pots without the good ones.

You can change how often you experience downswings and for how long by modifying each of these factors individually or together. One mistake that people often make is they say: 

"Well, I want fewer downswings, so I'm going to play a lower variance style. I'm going to be super nitty preflop, I'm not going to bluff, I'm not going to call down light," and so on. 

The problem with this is that, yes, by doing all of those things, you're reducing your variance, but in almost all cases, you're going to reduce your win rate along with it.

Now, the ratio of your win rate to your standard deviation is what is going to be responsible for downswings. So, if you're decreasing your variance but also decreasing your win rate, you're actually going to downswing just as often, if they're decreased in proportion. Moreover, you're actually reducing your hourly rate. If your win rate is only one big blind per 100 in a No-Limit cash game, then your results are going to be kind of all over the place.

It's going to be very hard to know where you stand over 5,000 hands, 10,000 hands even because the variance is so much greater than the win rate. But if your win rate is 15 big blinds per 100 with that same standard deviation because you're playing in the same games, then your results are going to very clearly trend towards the positive, and your bottom 70th percentile results over enough hands is going to be a winner. 

This is the bottom line: Growing your edge enough can make long-standing downswings virtually impossible. So as dismissive as it may sound, my advice to those of you who experience bad luck all the time is to get better at poker.

Winning on Tricks

In softer poker games, you can become a winner with simplified strategies that are based on rules and tactics rather than on common sense, logic, and a deep understanding of game theory. I like to call these rules and tactics "tricks," and you can develop a winning style and a game plan built of tricks without really developing a full understanding of how poker should work.

An example of a trick might be 3-betting light against late position opens. Or check-raising K-7-2 rainbow flops and similar dry flops. Or it might be folding to river check raises.

Each of these are exploits that have a theoretical foundation underneath them and exploitative logic to them, but most players who are employing these tactics or tricks don't actually understand why they work.

Now obviously, as you move up in stakes, the average skill level of your opponents increases, and this is why every trick in your book has a ceiling. At some point, the players you're up against can no longer be tricked; you have to actually outwit and outplay them. So if you're doing well at the $1/$2 tables but struggling every time you take a step up to try $2/$5, you've got to ask yourself whether your game is built on tricks or on theoretical knowledge and logic.

Here are the two most common tricks that might allow players to find a lot of success in softer games but cause them to hit a wall as they move up. Interestingly, they're opposite from each other.

Trick Number One: Aggression

The first trick is aggression. Now, aggression is an important part of a good poker strategy; however, blind aggression is something that works really well in certain kinds of soft games.

Players are uncomfortable not being the one who has raised, not being the one who's betting.

So, when they're facing somebody who's doing all the betting and raising, they kind of retreat into their shell; they might overfold. They might make the mistake of calling down too light. There are a lot of mistakes they make without the betting lead. So, aggression works really well in soft games and actually even in medium to tough games. But once you're up against really good players, they're not only going to be able to handle your aggression — they’re going to use it against you.

Trick Number Two: Nittiness

The second trick that works really well in soft games is nittiness. The average player at the $1/$2 tables is too loose and too passive. They're playing too many hands, they're not bluffing enough. So, if your trick is to play better hands than them preflop and to fold when they start betting, you're going to do quite well. 

It's actually a good exploit to those tendencies. But if you take that nittiness up at higher stakes against better opponents, a couple of things are going to happen.

First of all, they're going to notice, and they're going to bluff you more often. And second of all, and this is the one that people don't think about too much, when they see that you're not bluffing.

When they see you're only playing premium hands, they're going to start folding to you all the time. Now you may think, "Oh, that's fine, I'll take the pot". But trust me — it’s not fine. The only way that nitty players win is when other players call them down. Their nittiness works because they still get action when they put in big bets on future streets. So, they get involved with better hands and then they get other players to pay them off. 

And what nittiness tends to give up is they miss out on bluffs and they overfold too much. So they get pushed around. If you don't have that element of getting called down light because your opponents have suddenly become observant at higher stakes, you're just going to get smashed. 

The bottom line is this: At some point, there's simply no substitute for doing the work and getting really good at the game. Some of you may not have the time or the desire to put in a bunch of work on your poker game, and that's okay. 

Just recognize that your game as it is might be good enough to win in certain lineups but not in others.

And you're not going to have the time and not going to have the resources to get skilled enough to win at those next levels. So simply stay where you're winning.

There's nothing wrong with continuing to play, having fun, and winning at the level that you can. Now, this might not apply to you. Maybe you are working hard and you have the skills, logical ability, and understanding of the game to win at higher levels, but you're simply not. Why might that be? Maybe your game is not built on tricks, but maybe you're tricking yourself.

Obstacle One: Are You Tricking Yourself?

Now, I want to talk about some ways in which psychology could be holding you back from the next level. The first one of these is confidence. If you've been playing in a game for a long time and you've been winning, you've got confidence in your skill level. You've got the confidence to make the moves that you think you need to make. You've got the confidence that you can read your opponents and trust those reads.

And due to that confidence, you make good plays. You make smart adjustments to your opponents. You make good exploits. You make theoretically sound bluffs that might be scary if you didn't have the confidence to make them. And due to all that, you win.

But when you move up in stakes, that confidence can often go away, and with it, a lot of the skills that made you a winner in the first place. You move up into this new game, and you think:

"Well, these players are going to be better than the ones I was up against before. Maybe I can beat them, maybe I can't. Maybe I can trust my reads, maybe I can't. Maybe they're making mistakes, maybe they're not". 

And without that confidence that you had at the lower stakes, you're not going to make those theoretically sound bluffs; you're going to shy away.

You're not going to make those reads because you're going to assume:

"Maybe my opponents here are better than me, and if I think I have a read, they might be trying to fool me. I'm not going to trust that; I'm just going to play nitty. I'm going to retreat into my shell and just play a solid game". 

And now, all the things that made you a winner at lower stakes are no longer part of your game.

Obstacle Two: Identity

The next thing that might be standing in your way is your identity. If you've been a $1/$2 player for long enough, you think of yourself as a $1/$2 player; you identify as a $1/$2 player. When you think of yourself in one way, it's hard to break free of that, even when you move up to the $2/$5 tables and play there for weeks. 

When you think of yourself as a $1/$2 player, you're going to be lacking the confidence to win at $2/$5 for much of the reasons I talked about previously, but also our minds have a funny way of bringing us back to what we believe ourselves to be.

If you believe yourself to be a $1/$2 player, your mind is sometimes going to subconsciously find a way to get you back to $1/$2. One of the ways around this is going to sound kind of silly, but it has been proven to work in other circumstances. Not specifically in poker, but I don't see why it wouldn't. 

Effectively, you need to call yourself a $2/$5 player. You need to forcibly change your identity, and so this could be the way that you talk to other people. You could tell people you're a $2/$5 player. You could, in the morning, write down three times, "I am a $2/$5 player," or you can say that to yourself.

Often people visualize this kind of exercise as affirmations that you would say in the mirror. You can absolutely do that. You could say them not in front of the mirror. You could yell them. You could just think them in your head, but all of these things to shift your identity from a $1/$2 player to a $2/$5 player, or whatever stakes you're trying to move up to, is reasonably likely to have an impact on this specific problem. 

Whatever method is comfortable for you, where you find that works, is worth trying because worst case nothing's going to happen, best case you are going to get comfortable at the stakes you're at and you're going to shed yourself of those things that are holding you back. The last one I call F.O.B.P. (fear of big pots).

There are a couple of elements here. One of them is big pots can be scary, and when you move up in stakes to higher stakes, you're just playing bigger pots on average, just in terms of dollar magnitude. So this can get your heart rate going, this can make you less logical and more emotional during the game, and this is something you just get desensitized to as you go. 

Now the other problem here is that if you've been playing $1/$2 for a really long time, let's say you have a barometer in your mind of what kind of hand is worth $200 or what kind of hand is worth $300, but now when you move up and the stakes are higher, when you start putting in $200, it starts to feel kind of the same as it did at lower stakes. But in reality, the threshold that you have in your mind is off because to put in $200 at $2/$5, you need a weaker hand than you need to put in $200 at $1/$2. 

Both of these things get better with time, but it's also helpful to be aware of them.

Emotions factor

While you're playing, take note of your emotions. Pay attention to what you feel as you're playing. Early in my career, I used to pretend that I didn't have emotions, that I was immune to them, that I was just a purely logical player. So when I felt something, I suppressed it. I stopped noticing it. It wasn't until later in my career that I realized: No, I have these emotions. I am human. Feeling the emotion, recognizing it, and then asking myself: 

"Do I actually want to fold this because I think it's a good play, or do I want to fold it because I'm scared? Do I want to fold it because I'm up one buy-in and I don't want to have a losing session?".

Pay attention to your emotions, and you will get over Fear Of Big Pots more quickly. Now, I went through these topics in the order I did intentionally because you really have to break through the excuses before you're ready to face the actual things that might be holding you back and conquer them.

I hope that you identified with some of these issues. If you are somebody who's struggling to move up in stakes, I hope that the awareness that you take into your next session, the next month, and the next year can help you break through. Thanks for reading. I will see you next time!

There are no comments here yet, you can be the first!