Bankroll Management

Knowing When to Move Up

Bankroll management is different for everyone. The number of buy-ins required for a stake before moving up depends on your ability to rebuild and your age. If you are young (18 years old) and have no problem moving down when you lose a few buy-ins at your shot taking, I would try to move up as quickly as possible.

In fact, if I were to start over again, I would implement the 30 buy-in (50 for PLO) rule for whatever stake I am playing and move down if I lose 5 buy-ins at that stake. I would only play 4 tables so I could focus more on both my and my opponent’s play. I would take notes religiously and would try to move up as fast as possible. This is because how much you can win is highly disproportional to your poker skill. For example, a 1/2NL regular can make $100K/year and a 2/4NL regular can make $200k/year even though the 2/4NL regular isn’t that much better. In some instances, their skill level is the same.

Another reason why you should try to move up as soon as possible is that as you grow older, your willingness to gamble and take risk decreases tremendously. You have worked hard to get to where you are; the risk of losing it all is disheartening and at times, scary. You don’t want to deal with an enormous amount of stress anymore.

When you’re young, you don’t know any better, and that’s a good thing. You have a lot of hope and aspiration to be the best. You have that gamble in your blood. You want to play because you truly love the game. It’s exciting. The high when you win is comparable to the low when you lose. During this phase in your poker career, you should be as aggressive as you can with your bankroll. You have time and age by your side. If things go wrong, you can always rebuild. After all, it’s easier to rebuild a $1,000 bankroll than a $100,000 bankroll.

My friends and I have talked about the older generation and how nitty they are. What we don’t often realize is that, compared to the 18-year-olds of today, we are the nits. Just when we think it’s tougher to be more aggressive than we already are, a new generation of poker players comes in and proves us wrong. Thus, it’s not surprising that every year, a new young superstar appears who challenges the pecking order of the current poker establishment. Those who have been around kind of accept their place in the poker hierarchy. They know who they can beat and who has an edge on them. They no longer want to deal with the swings and are content where they are. Do they still want to improve? Sure. But not enough to go through enormous swings against better players. Age has caught up to them.

It’s not uncommon for nosebleeders to admit their reluctance to play super under-rolled as they grow older. These are the same nosebleeders who definitely wouldn’t hesitate to gamble if they were younger. In fact, they probably wouldn’t think twice. But now that they are older and are content with what they have, the idea of playing stakes that can ruin them isn’t appealing anymore.

So, whoever said you’re only young once was right. Considering that your earnings improve exponentially relatively to your skill level, you should try to be as aggressive as possible with your bankroll.

You’re Young Only Once

Imagine for a minute that you are working at a corporate job and there are ten rankings on the company ladder. The CEO is at the top and the cashier is at the bottom. You were a cashier last quarter and got promoted to a higher position this quarter. You love your field. You are willing to work hard and hope that one day you will be at the top. It doesn’t matter why you want to be at the top (pay, status, power, etc.); the key is you want to be at the top and you will try your best to get there.

How come some people don’t have the same when it comes to poker?

Why is it that in every job when we are at the bottom, we want to get to the top? But in poker, some players are satisfied with grinding out a decent living. There’s nothing wrong with being satisfied with where you are. That’s not the problem. The problem is being satisfied with where you are without taking a shot at the top. In poker, it is extremely profitable when you are the best player at your given stake. Other regulars will stay out of your way. When you create tables, you get to play fish heads-up for a while before other regulars join. You also improve a lot because you’re playing heads-up. Most important of all, your earning potential increases dramatically.

The best strategy when becoming a poker player is to be as aggressive as you can regarding your bankroll when you are first starting out. You want to move up as soon as possible.

If you ask high-stakes players what they would do differently if they were to start again, most will likely say, “I wish I had been more aggressive with my bankroll.” This is coming from players who were playing on 15 buy-ins. Looking back, they understand that the opportunity to improve at a fast rate is very important. Few, if any, regretted putting their bankroll at risk, as they were moving up. In fact, some kind of wish they had been more aggressive. Because they understand that if their shots fail, they can always rebuild. They are still young. Of course, if you ask the same players if they would use the same bankroll management at their current age, they wouldn’t. Time is no longer on their side. They wise up a little. They don’t want to lose it all when they have so much to lose.

I remember when I first started playing poker. All I wanted to do was play. It was a rush to improve every time I sat down at the table. There was so much to learn. Of course, I was young and didn’t know better.

I remember playing 100NL on Paradise Poker and getting sucked out on over and over again. I had enough money and went to a local casino to play live. I played a $300 buy-in game, ran incredibly hot and won about 10 buy-ins. It felt awesome. I came back the next day with $600. At this time, I was using my two buy-ins rule. After my big win, I felt pretty dangerous inside. My confidence was sky-high. I wandered around the casino and noticed a $5-10NL game ($500 buy-in) was taking place. I sweated for a few minutes and realized I could beat this game. I did what any young kid would do. I sat down.

Over the course of the night, I won and won and finally got into a big hand for all my chips, and my hand held. I do not know what would’ve happened if I’d lost that pot. It was over $3,000, which was about 25 percent of my bankroll. If I have to guess, I would go on tilt and go home and sleep and come back the next day to grind the $300 games. Luckily, I won the pot and ended up playing $5-10NL from that point on. To my amazement, the $5- 10NL ($500 buy-in) games were as easy as the $2-5 games ($300 buy-ins).

For my online bankroll story, I was playing 400NL on Party Poker for a month during my senior year in college. I remember limp-re-raising all my strong hands in 6-max games. That’s the ultimate move in live poker, so I did it online. I don’t know how I won, but I did. Then one day, I got bored at 400NL and played 600NL. At this point, I’m positive I had less than $15,000 to my name because I would remember if I had more than that. It’s fifteen- thousand for a broke college kid. I played 600NL for less than 10 hands and for some random reason decided that I could play $5-10NL, the highest stake at this point. I ended up winning a little bit with “unorthodox” plays such as open-limping under-the-gun, limp- re-raising in the cutoff because the button kept raising pre-flop, and check-raising flops with bluff-catchers. I didn’t know any better. Then I found out about rakeback and asked Party Poker to close my account because it’s bad luck. They closed my account and I created the account SlowHabit. My friend transferred me $1,000 and I split that into two tables at $5-10NL. I ended up busting one table and ran the other table up to about $8,000. I was afraid I would lose it all so I left and played 4-tables. I wasn’t good enough to 6-table yet. I am very bad at video games. Next thing I know, I ran that account to about 250K and closed that account when I ran bad.

Looking back, I don’t think I stopped to think for a second that I might bust my account. The thought of me losing buy-ins didn’t even register in my head. I had two! Of course, knowing what I know now, it was a very stupid thing to do because the probability of me losing it all was extremely high. But do I regret it? No, because even if I busted my account, I could deposit and rebuild at lower-stakes. Luckily, I ran hot and continued playing the biggest games on Party Poker until legislation passed and I can no longer play on the site. I know I wouldn’t have the chance to make as much money as I could if I were to follow strict bankroll-management guidelines.

Let’s pretend I can go back in time and knowing what I do know, would I still take the same risk? If I’m 20 like I was, yes. If I’m 25, no. I would definitely think it over because time is no longer on my side. If I’m 25, I have more responsibilities. I’m likely a college graduate. I have to repay my parents for taking care of me and making me who I am, except for the gambling part.

There is always an opportunity to be better. You have to embrace the risk. After all, what’s the worst thing that can happen? You lose a buy-in and move down to rebuild. Not exactly a risky situation, is it?

100 Buy-in Rule

I have never been a fan of X buy-ins rules. My philosophy is that if you are running good and playing well, you can afford a few buy-ins to take a shot at the next level. After all, with living expenses and variance in poker, your bankroll might never reach 100 buy-ins until half a year later. By that time, your game might be stagnant because you are playing against the same types of regulars over and over again without learning anything new. You might risk playing down to your opponents. Or worse, everyone is improving so you keep staying at one stake and it’s tougher to move up.

Of course, when using an aggressive approach to bankroll management, you have to be honest with yourself and ask if you can grind lower games if taking shots doesn’t work. If you get tilted easily by taking a shot and losing, then approach the situation cautiously. Take all the time you want. Though, like what my man Mike McDermont once said, “If you’re too careful, your life can be a fucking grind.”

One thing I want to be clear about is that I’m not advocating for you to go take shots in tough games full of regulars. I’m talking about the situations where you feel the timing is right and you’re feeling good about your game and luck. If that is the case, go for it. You eventually have to defeat them, why not start now when everything is going your way?

Shoot, Reload, Try Again

If Phil Ivey suddenly got in contact with you and offered to play you HU at one stake higher than your regular game, would you take it? I know I would because I would learn a lot. What if a lineup of the top five nosebleed players invites you to play a game of 6-max game at your regular stakes. Would you take it? I know I would, because I would learn a lot. Or am I just being delusional, not learning that much and just wanting to play against great players for a small price?

In terms of learning a lot and also future potential earnings, you learn more by playing a tough regular HU or taking a shot at stakes higher than yours. You have the most to gain when you are playing against these players because you learn more. What Ivey or other nosebleeders do, you cannot apply to your game. They play differently. Their opponents are also different. So if you aren’t afraid of losing a few buy-ins to Ivey, why are you afraid to lose a few buy-ins at one stake higher for the chance to greatly improve your game?

Taking shots is one of the most important things you can do to improve as a player. First, it

gives you a reality check—you might not be as good as you think. Second, you might realize that the players playing one stake higher than you aren’t that good and that you can beat them. Third, you can run good and never look back again.

So, when you feel good about your game and there’s a softer game at a higher level, take a shot. Give yourself three buy-ins and move down if you lose it. I don’t care why you lost. Move down. Once you start to lose an amount of money that seems big to you, you will play badly. And you will play scared. You will feel that you’re not. But trust me, you are and you will.

Move down. Reload. Try again.

You should also take shots to improve your game. If I ever teach a poker course at university, my final exam will be take a shot at higher stakes. Some people are afraid of losing, of getting embarrassed. But think of it as college tuition if you lose. You paid for your lessons. Go home and analyze why you lost. If you lost with AA pre-flop, then go back down and grind as fast as you can so you can take the next shot to show yourself that the last failed attempt was a fluke. You are better than that.

Just remember to move down once you lose three buy-ins, because if you continue playing, you might end up losing more than you can handle. This will make it hard for you to grind the lower games because now, you have to win a lot to just break-even over a long stretch of hands. If you can withstand long break-even stretches, more power to you. Some people cannot fathom the idea. The thought of breaking even over 100K hands can tilt people and create an enormous amount of stress that can be very tough for you to overcome. Thus, the best solution is to avoid the situation altogether. Of course, you will probably go past your loss limit the first few times around. I know I did. However, we learn. Just like the first time we touched that burning stove.


People often ask me how many buy-ins do I lose before I quit? The answer depends heavily on how good your game is compared to your opponents. If you are playing against a bunch of morons, then keep playing until you don’t feel comfortable losing X amount. The cutoff for the majority of people is six buy-ins. After that, their games go downhill.

As a professional, it’s always best to play your A game and quit when you no longer operate at a high level. Of course, it’s difficult to be rational when you are tilting. No one can. Thus, I developed a system to help me put things in perspective.

A simple strategy I use for stop-loss is to think of my biggest winning days and average them out. If I’m having a losing session and it passes the average, I try to quit. That doesn’t mean I’m constantly checking my cashier to see whether I’m up or down (I don’t do that). I usually keep track of how many all-ins I lost and once I feel I’ve had enough, I quit. Of course, it’s easier said than done because we always want to get back to even. But knowing that there’s no way in hell you are coming back helps you to step away from the tables. It’s going to be very tough to do it upon command. I still have trouble with it to this day. However, I’m much better at quitting now. The main reason I got better at quitting is to look over my game log.

Game Log Analysis

If you look over your game log for the past year, you will notice that your total earnings for the year are almost equivalent to the sum of your 15 biggest sessions. That is the number of buy-ins for me at 10/20NL. If you play higher, then that is a little less than your total earnings. If you play lower, then the earnings are a little more than your top 15 winning sessions.

Now, look over the worst 15 losing sessions. If you somehow cut half of those sessions down, you are a much richer man. I know it’s tough to quit when you are stuck but hopefully, by looking at this data, you will realize how important stop-loss is to a player’s earnings. This was how I realized that minimizing losing sessions can increase your income tremendously.

Cash-Out Versus Moving Up

It’s important to try to move up as quickly as possible to the stake where you can comfortably play for a decent living. This stake should be 200NL.

I think it is important to be the best poker player that you can be before you settle down and grind the games. The enthusiasm for learning the game has a relatively short span. For some people, a few downswings and they get discouraged and will be content with grinding 12 tables at small-stakes. There is nothing wrong with this. It is just not how I want to live my life.

Now, imagine yourself as a business. Any business in the real world isn’t going to be very profitable in the first three years. They have to develop a system in their company. They have to improve their infrastructure. They have to incur a lot of expense to improve. A business doesn’t generate a lot of profit if it isn’t good at what it does. It doesn’t make as much if it doesn’t have a market share in its niche. Thus, as a business owner, your goal is to become the best business in your niche.

For this reason, you shouldn’t be cashing out that often. I should be clearer. You shouldn’t cash out to spend a lot. You can cash out and put it in the bank in case one of the poker sites collapses. But besides that, you should try to cut down your expenses and work hard to improve your craft. Spend as much money as you can to improve your game. Use it for coaching and taking shots. That’s your expense.

There will be a day when your learning curve will slow down dramatically. In other words, there will be a day when your business has little growth potential. This is when you want to settle down and grind the tables to reap the profits. You have worked hard and now you can see your reward. Hopefully, the stakes that you are grinding at are bigger than 50NL.

If you keep cashing out and spending it, you are keeping yourself from moving up. What if there’s a great game and you can’t play in it because you are not rolled for it?

Many people think the Dang Brothers, Phil Galfond and Durrr are lucky because they have the rolls to play Guy Libierte in the ultra-nosebleeds game. Not many stop to ask how these players manage to have the roll to play Guy. They probably don’t. They were willing to take a risk when it presented itself, and they prospered from that decision.

You can too. Just on a lower scale.

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