New poker players often go through a familiar sequence when just starting out. However they were introduced to the game, they eventually decide they enjoy it enough to play more often than occasionally or just with friends.
Playing online at sites like PokerStars makes it easy to play more often, since there are always games to join. Online poker also offers a wide variety of stakes to choose from, ranging from pennies to the “nosebleed” games with the highest buy-ins.
Once you begin to play more regularly, you probably need to start thinking more concretely about the stakes you choose to play and the money you’ve set aside with which to play poker.
Say you only have $50 with which to play. You likely don’t want to spend it all to buy into a single tournament or cash game. Doing so would make the chance of losing all $50 quite high. Even the most skilled poker players would have a high “risk of ruin” if they put all of their money on the table at once in a single game like this.
If you want to play longer, or even just on a somewhat regular basis, you need to choose stakes that are appropriate for you. There are two primary factors that should help you determine which stakes you should play.
One is the amount of money you have to play with — that is, your “poker bankroll.” The other is your skill level as it affects your ability to compete with other players who are playing at the same stakes.
If you search online, you’ll find endless advice about “bankroll management” for poker players. This advice takes various forms.
Sometimes the advice targets professional players, or those who want to become pros. Sometimes it accounts for those who don’t have such ambitions, but who do want to be smart with their money and choose stakes that are comfortable and that suit their own personal risk tolerance.
You’ll often also see advice about keeping your poker bankroll separate from the rest of your money. The idea there is that the money you set aside for poker is money you don’t need for anything else.
Meanwhile bankroll management advice often also includes concrete recommendations about how much money you need in order to play at certain stakes. These recommendations are different depending on which type of poker you prefer — cash games or tournaments.
If you play cash games, you’ll see advice about how many “buy-ins” you need to have in your bankroll when choosing stakes. There one “buy-in” usually means whatever the table maximum is. For instance, for the $0.10/$0.25 no-limit hold’em cash games at PokerStars you can buy in for $10 up to $25. If you have a bankroll of $500, you’d have 20 buy-ins for this game.
That’s actually a relatively small number of buy-ins, and in fact you’ll sometimes see the recommendation to have at least 75 or 100 buy-ins in your bankroll. Thus with a bankroll of $500, you might be better off playing lower stakes — say $0.05/$0.10 where the maximum buy-in is $10. There you’d have 50 buy-ins with your $500.
The format affects this advice, too. For short-handed games, you want a bigger bankroll because the variance is higher. Same goes for pot-limit Omaha versus no-limit hold’em. You want more buy-ins for PLO, since the swings are usually greater there than in NLHE.
If you play multi-table tournaments, you’re again wanting to think about your bankroll in terms of “buy-ins” or the entry fee for the tournament. However here the recommendation is usually to have a lot more buy-ins than in cash games. I’ve seen some recommend having at minimum 100 buy-ins for MTTs, and even as much as 500 buy-ins!
Thus if you have $500 in your bankroll and went the conservative route, you’d have to stick with $1 tournaments if you wanted to follow that advice about having 500 buy-ins.
Most of us probably aren’t going to do that, but you get the general idea. You obviously don’t want to blow your entire bankroll on a single buy-in, and it’s best to have a comfortable number of buy-ins left behind for whatever tournament you enter.
The format you choose to play matters here as well. For example, a single-table sit-n-go generally has less variance than a large field multi-table tournament, and so would require fewer buy-ins for your bankroll.
You also want to think about your own skill level and how it compares to the other players at the stakes you choose to play. Obviously if everyone else plays better than you, you’re likely not going to be able to remain in the game no matter how big your bankroll is. Ideally you want to find stakes where you can do well enough to maintain your bankroll — or even better, increase it.
It’s generally true that the higher the stakes, the tougher the competition. Of course, you’ll encounter strong, smart players at all stakes, including the micros. You’ll also find less-skilled players at all stakes, including in the higher-stakes games.
On the whole, though, expect players to get better the higher you go. If you’re just starting out at poker, you might want to begin with the play money games at PokerStars, and then perhaps try the “Micro” games with maximum buy-ins $15 and under.
On PokerStars, stakes for cash games are grouped into categories that you can filter in the lobby:
There are filters for tournaments as well:
You can create filters with a customized range, too, if you like.
As you play, keep track of your results and try to assess your decision-making, too, relative to that of your opponents. If you’re winning consistently and building up your bankroll, you can try the next-highest stakes. But keep monitoring yourself and be ready to step back down if things aren’t going well.
Often there isn’t just a single answer to the question “What poker stakes should I play?” Over time, if you analyze your play and consciously think about your bankroll, you’ll figure out the stakes that fit you best and where you’ll likely play most of the time.
But you’ll also probably want to play lower or higher on occasion, too, depending on the games available. So don’t necessarily restrict yourself too much when trying to choose your stakes, but do be smart about it and realistic with regard to your bankroll and skill level.
Most importantly, whatever stakes you choose to play, be sure to keep the game fun.