I’m starting with some talk about the poker economy. In no-limit hold ’em, the goal of the game is to win money. While you shouldn’t get hung up on daily wins and losses, there’s no question that the idea is to win money over time.
In order to be a long-term winner, you must understand how money moves throughout the entire no-limit hold ’em system. How does money come into the system, how does it swirl around, and where does it end up?
Consistent winners are those players who insert themselves into the no-limit hold ’em system in such a way that money swirls toward them and accumulates with them over time. Money will come toward them and money will flow away from them. But winners are the ones who consistently have more moving toward them than away.
The trick to this is twofold. First, you have to figure out the right niche within the no-limit hold ’em system in which to position yourself. Second, you have to develop the game skills to become an accumulator rather than a donator.
This section covers the first of these two tricks—finding the right niche. I’ll talk about all the possible places to position yourself, and then I’ll tell you what I think of each of these places. The rest of the book will cover developing the game skills to accumulate (rather than donate) in the niche I recommend most players start.
Broadly, there are two different ways to play no-limit hold ’em: cash games and tournaments. And broadly, there are two different arenas in which to play: live and online. I’ll cover each briefly.
LIVE CASH GAMES
Live cash games are played in casinos and card rooms throughout the world. For the moment, I’ll ignore home games, as they are a unique beast (and one I personally have little experience with).
The stakes of a live cash game are determined by the size of the blinds. The smallest games commonly spread are 1-2, meaning the small blind is always $1, and the big blind is always $2 all through the game. Other commonly spread blinds are 1-3, 2-3, 2-5, 3-5, 5-5, 5-10, 10-20, and 10-25.
Roughly, you can group the games by the size of the big blind. So $2 and $3 big-blind games are the most common stakes played in the United States. Then $5 blind games. Most cities can support only a few $10 blind-and-higher games at any one time.
As of this writing, pretty much anyone who regularly plays live cash games is lousy at the game.
This may sound like a bold, almost reckless claim. But it’s true.
I don’t mean they’re lousy compared to one another. In any given player pool, someone’s got to be the “good” player and someone’s got to be the donkey. I mean they are absolutely lousy compared to an objective standard of how to be good at no-limit hold ’em. Like, for instance, the Phil Ivey standard. Or like the most proficient computer bot playing the game.
The vast majority of live no-limit hold ’em players in card rooms around the world right now—playing 1-3, or 2-5, or even 10-25—would be absolutely brutalized by someone truly good at the game.
You might say, “Well, duh, Phil Ivey is one of the very best players in the world. Of course he’d beat the folks down at the casino playing 2-5.”
That’s fair. But I want to emphasize the enormous skill gap. Think of the best players you know. People you see in your regular games. These people wouldn’t just lose to Phil Ivey. They’d be embarrassed. Tortured. If they were forced to sit at a table full of Phil Iveys, they’d lose so fast and so surely you wouldn’t believe it.
I point this out for a few reasons.
First, it’s to motivate you. The players at your local card room are all terrible at no-limit hold ’em. So you can learn to beat them. Even if you’re starting out at the bottom of the totem pole, a little bit of study—the right kind of study—can leapfrog you to the top in relatively little time.
Second, I offer these dire statements to warn you about listening to your opponents at your local card rooms. Advice you get from a live cash-game regular will nearly always be wrong, oversimplified, and unhelpful. These guys don’t know what they’re doing. They really don’t. Learning from them will merely keep you at their level. Furthermore, as you become a regular player in a certain pool, subtle social factors come into play. There’s a level of groupthink that manifests among regular live cash-game players that creeps into your brain without you realizing it. You must actively fight it. Because the more you think and play like these guys, the more certain it is you’ll never become a good player.
Third, I think it’s important to understand the dynamics that create these situations in the first place because it will give you insight into the game on a deeper level.
I played my first hand of Texas hold ’em in 2001 and became a regular at a card room for the first time toward the end of 2002. Back then, no-limit hold ’em was not played—not outside of tournaments at least. With a few exceptions, live cash games did not exist. All the cash games were limit hold ’em, so that’s what I played.
Quickly I realized how terrible everyone’s limit hold ’em play was. (I, too, was terrible at that time, but they were even more terrible than me.)
In the intervening years, poker has changed dramatically. No- limit hold ’em took over. The game has exploded in popularity. Online play has become a huge thing. A young, math-oriented generation has gone about trying to analyze the game systematically.
And yet, through all of these changes, live cash-game players are still lousy. I will admit, they are not quite as lousy today as they were in 2003. But the best players have gotten better far, far faster than the average live cash-game player.
It’s almost like live cash game players are stuck in a time warp, unable to benefit from the quantum leaps in understanding that the most plugged-in players have generated.
By and large it’s because many who play live cash games (at least at the higher stakes) are moneyed professionals and business owners who treat the game as a hobby. A hobby they are passionate about, no doubt, but just a hobby. They play because they have money and want to play, not because they have “paid their dues” and grinded their way up.
The format of live cash games lets these players enjoy the game. Compared to online play, live games are very slow. The slower speed caps how many hands you can play. Even if you’re a card room rat who plays 100 hours a month, at 25 hands an hour, you can play at most 2,500 hands per month.
Compared to the online folks, that’s a tiny number, even for a high-volume live player. Most regular live players play even fewer hands than that.
Most of our well-to-do higher stakes recreational players make more money in their regular lives than they can reasonably lose in only 2,500 poker hands a month. The format of live cash games is also very protective of hobbyist-type players, and it allows them to enjoy the game over the long term, while permitting them to play as much as they want to and still absorb the financial losses.
These hobbyists simply haven’t learned how to play the game well. They’ll tell you they know all about it. Experts they are, according to them. But if they kept track (many don’t), they’d see they were losing money over time.
So, you might be thinking, if live cash-game players are so terrible, why don’t the best players converge on these games for the easy money? Because the same natural hand cap (a few thousand hands per month maximum) that protects the bad players puts a cap on what good players can win. The best players don’t want to cap their upside like that.
So generally speaking, what you have in live cash games is the ready opportunity to become the big dog in a relatively small park. If you’re willing to start out at the smallest games in the room—usually 1-2 or 1-3—it doesn’t take a whole lot of study and commitment to get to the point where your average result over time is positive rather than negative.
But you also can’t win much in these small games. A typical winning player at this level might average maybe $10 an hour. This is not a path to riches. But winning is winning. And of course it’s a whole lot better than losing.
With focus and work, you can acquire the skill to beat 2-5 games, where the typical winner might win $25 per hour.
With more work and commitment, you might learn to beat a 5-10 game, where the typical winner might win perhaps $40 per hour.
Excellent players might double these win rates.
These are numbers for typical winners at the various levels— players who are better than the average, but who still make lots of errors compared to world-class players.
Someone like Phil Ivey might be able to quadruple these numbers. It’s impossible to say, because world-class players simply don’t play these levels. So I can only speculate about how someone of his caliber might perform.
In reality, there’s a fairly hard cap on how much you can win playing live no-limit cash games at the stakes available on a daily basis in most places around the United States and the world. In a regular game, you can’t really expect to win more than a couple hundred dollars an hour—and few players who put in fulltime- like hours can even hit that $200-hourly mark.
So, it’s relatively easy to win at live cash games. But it’s considerably harder to learn to win at more than $50 an hour. And it’s extremely difficult to win at more than $200 an hour.
Nevertheless, live cash games are my favorite type of no-limit hold ’em.