Surviving at the Lower Stakes and Moving Beyond Them

Surviving at the Lower Stakes and Moving Beyond Them 0001

The vast majority of poker players never make it past the lower stakes whether they play online or live. The main reason why is because they aren't winning poker players. Changing this requires more than I can possibly address in a short article like this one.

However, for those who do beat the small stakes games — even with a very small win rate — you often still see them playing at those same limits years later as well.


Well, I think it is a combination of not fully understanding all of benefits of playing higher stakes and — perhaps more importantly — not having a good plan to get there.

In this article I am going to discuss how to survive at the lower stakes and ultimately move above and beyond them.

Nobody Gets Rich at the Micros

I actually have plenty of experience with grinding it out at the lowest stakes since I am well known for having played millions and millions of hands of online poker at the "micro" limits.

Even though I have played a lot at higher stakes as well with similar success, I will be the first to admit that all of those hands at the lower limits were largely a waste of time — at least from a monetary perspective.

The problem with the lower limits — that is, NL2, NL5, and NL10 online, or $1/$2 or $2/$5 live — is that nobody really has enough money in front of them for you ever to win a lot. Also, if you play online, the ability to make significant amounts of money from rakeback doesn't really start until you have moved past these stakes.

If you are happy making a small side income, then by all means keep grinding it out at these limits. However, if you want to pay for that luxury vacation, a new car, or even replace your job, then you will need to play higher stakes.

They Aren't as Good as You Think at Higher Stakes

I think one of the main reasons why people don't move up is a largely unfounded belief that players at higher stakes are way beyond them in skill level. You can see this belief being most readily shown in the way that some high stakes players (both live and online) attract large followings and are almost worshipped like gods.

The reality is actually a lot different. Of course the competition will get better as you move up, but generally not by as much as you think.

A few years back I was coached and mentored by a mid-to-high stakes online pro. I remember him commenting that the regulars in my $50 buy-in games were just as good as the ones in his $500 and $1,000 buy-in games. If you go to online poker forums these days you can often see this truth being well demonstrated in the strategy sections. The amount of highly technical knowledge that even very low stakes players possess today is often quite impressive.

So what is the problem here? Why aren't they all high stakes pros yet?

Well, what they are missing is the ability...

  • to put it all together at the tables when it actually matters,
  • to manage their emotions in the heat of the moment,
  • and to have a solid plan for getting to the higher limits.

The first two of those three items I can't possibly do much more than mention here. But doing something about the last one is actually pretty simple.

Calculated Shots at Higher Stakes

Most people do not move up because they don't know how to take calculated shots at higher stakes. Let me explain.

You basically set aside a small portion of your bankroll that you are willing to risk in order to give yourself a shot to stick at a higher stake. This could be as little as 10 percent of your total bankroll if you want — you decide.

The biggest key here is that if your "shot" at the higher limit fails, then you must move back down and grind it back. And the biggest kicker of all? You should absolutely expect to fail multiple times.

I don't say this to discourage you. Quite the opposite actually. Many of your attempts at moving up will result in failure simply because of short term variance. We are talking about incredibly small sample sizes here — a few thousand hands at the most. Literally anything at all can happen during a stretch as short as this.

It is important not to get discouraged even if you fail on multiple occasions. If you keep throwing something at the wall enough times, eventually it will stick.

And this is the whole point.

Moving up is essentially a rinse and repeat process where you will have to deal with failure many, many times. You can let this discourage you and keep playing for nickels and dimes at the lower stakes, or you can keep trying until you eventually succeed.

Improve Your Odds Greatly With Some Simple Table Selection

You can improve your odds of success substantially by simply paying a little bit more attention to table selection.

Make sure there is always at least one player who is playing too many hands and calling too much at the table. You can simply watch the table (or several if you play online) for a few minutes before joining to ensure this is the case. If you use a HUD ("Heads-Up Display"), then it is even easier. Play a couple of orbits and begin looking for anybody with a VPIP over 40 (their "Voluntarily Put Money in Pot" percentage).

The main point here is do not just sit down at any random table. By making sure there is always at least one weaker player at the table, you improve your odds of success at the higher limit greatly. This is because bad players play badly no matter what the stakes are.

Such players are also the whole reason why we play the game. Even though regulars will be by far your most common opponents, you essentially will be just trading money back and forth with most of them in the long run. And therefore you ultimately both lose to the rake.

The recreational players make up the difference (and then some), allowing profit to occur for you by their making egregious mistakes on a regular basis such as calling off their whole stack with top pair, tilting badly, and so on.

Focus on playing against players like this at all times, but especially when you are trying to move up to a higher limit.

Final Thoughts

Many people are content to hang around at the lower stakes forever. Perhaps they just play poker for fun or a small side income. Let me be clear that this is completely fine. In fact I still often play at the lowest stakes all the time myself both for fun and because I teach them as well.

But if you really want to turn this game into a real profit source, then it is necessary you start raising the stakes.

The biggest thing to know is that the players at the higher stakes are not really as big, bad, and scary as you might think. They are in fact probably only marginally better than the regulars with whom you battle it out every day right now. And — much more importantly — recreational players still make huge errors and tilt badly no matter what the stakes are.

If moving beyond the lower stakes is a goal of yours, then the most important thing is to have a solid plan and take frequent calculated shots at higher stakes games.

You should expect to fail multiple times. The keys are not to give up and to learn from your failures. Eventually you will succeed.

Nathan "BlackRain79" Williams is the author of the popular micro stakes strategy books Crushing the Microstakes and Modern Small Stakes. He also blogs regularly about all things related to the micros over at

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