When I tell people I like to nerd out on poker they don’t always grasp the depth of that nerdiness. Before I started breaking down poker with spreadsheets & calculators, there was another game I was doing that with: Dungeons & Dragons. I didn’t just play, I played optimally. I mapped the expected values of weapons & spells, created power charts of classes, and I hunted for imbalances I could exploit against our Dungeon Master. It was a lot of fun, I taught myself probabilities & game theory, and wasn’t really the nerdy part in my opinion. The embarrassingly nerdy stuff is how heavily that impacted the way I ended up visualizing poker.
Poker is a very complex game with a massive number of concepts to keep track of. I needed a mental framework for sorting through that stuff and my brain just reused what was already lying around. Fast forward twenty years and I still only think of poker strategy in terms of D&D tropes. The playstyles I rotate between are based on classes & alignment, the religion worships a well balanced mixed strategy, and magic encourages opponents to make mistakes. So yeah, it sounds ridiculous whenever I try to explain it to somebody. But sometimes ridiculous is fun to read?
One key concept you can use right now is to start seeing your bankroll as experience points (XP). And the size of your bankroll as your level. If you want to start improving your game, and reach those higher stakes without putting your personal savings at risk, it’s vital that you keep your poker funds separated into its own bankroll. Let’s take a look at what your levelling system would look like as a casual player.
This is the level where most players are at, you are buying into poker games with whatever money you have on hand. It should be money you’ve set aside for recreation, choosing to play poker instead of watching a movie or playing video games. You should be playing at the cheapest stakes you can find. If you can afford to play at higher stakes, it will likely be easier to beat the rake by doing so, but plan on losing that money.
It will be impossible to progress to level 2 until you start following a few rules. First of all, start cashing out all of your winnings into a bankroll. Let your recreational money flow into the game when you buy into tournaments or cash games, but when you cash out put that money to the side. You won’t be touching any of it yet, just let your XP grow.
You will reach Level 2 when your XP has grown to 50 cash game buy-ins and 100 tournament buy-ins. For example, if your cheapest games were $1/$2 cash games ($200NL) and $100 tournaments, you’d hit level 2 when your bankroll reaches $10,000.
Congratulations, you are now properly bankrolled for your game and have taken the first step towards leveling up as a poker player! You will now only ever buy into a game using money from your bankroll. If you’re a losing player you will eventually burn through your XP and have to start over at level 1, but it won’t be fast and you’ll have hopefully learned something in the attempt. Poker can be a rogue-like dungeon crawler at times, forcing you to continuously restart from the beginning until you figure out how to survive.
You have a large bankroll, so if you’re playing at a casino be sure to bring enough cash for plenty of rebuys. Long term winning poker involves aggressive risk taking, you do not want to play conservatively nor be overly concerned about losing the stack in front of you. For your cash games, be prepared to buy in at least four times in a single session. It’s a nice psychological trick to bring five buy-ins with you. Never use that fifth buy-in, it’s only there so you don’t feel like you’re playing with the last of your money.
Don’t take any winnings out of your bankroll at this point, you need to prove you’re a long term winner first. Plus it can be difficult to beat the rake at the smallest stakes, better to wait until at least level 3 or higher when rake may have less of an impact on your win rate.
If you’re a winning player, your XP should now be large enough to handle most swings and protect you from going broke before your edge can manifest. At its core, a healthy ratio between your buy-in and your bankroll is one of the most important elements of long term success. Not respecting it was Mike McDermott’s fatal mistake in the opening scene of Rounders. Good poker is about finding edges that provide a positive expected value (EV+), but you are guaranteed to go broke if your bankroll can’t survive the inevitable downswings along the way.
Imagine a game where you flip a coin. If it lands on heads, you will lose $1,000. If it lands on tails, you will win $2,000. It’s a pretty fantastic game, you have an EV of +$500 for every coin flip [ ( -$1,000 + $2,000 ) / 2 = $500 ]. You should be highly incentivized to play that game as often as possible. But no matter how good that game is, you’d have a 96% chance of eventually going broke if your starting bankroll was only $1,000. Play that game like a boss with a wad of $100,000 backing you up and your chances of going broke drop to less than 2%. It’s the same with poker. If you’re a long term winner, you can improve your chances of not going broke by at least 90% just by playing within the limits of your bankroll.
You’ve reached level 3 when you have enough XP to be bankrolled for the next higher stakes. For $2/$5 cash games ($500NL) and $250 tournaments, you’d need $25,000 to be at level 3. Whenever your XP drops below $25,000, you lose a level and have to drop down to level 2.
It’s soul crushing to lose a level, but you have to learn to accept the loss and move down in stakes with grace. Getting stubborn and refusing to drop down in stakes during a downswing is how excellent players go broke. Be disciplined and you’ll only ever add your own money to the game at level 1.
Now that you’ve proven you can overcome poker’s variance long term, you can start taking money out of your bankroll for other purposes. Don’t take cash out every time you have a winning session, you may need those winnings to cover a future losing session. It’s better to take out net earnings over a set schedule, like extracting 30% of your net profit every few months. How much you take out is a personal choice. Just keep in mind that the larger % you take out of your bankroll, the longer it will take to reach that next level.
You now level up whenever your XP is large enough to bankroll the next higher stakes and you’ll drop back down when you lose XP. The higher the stakes you reach, the tougher your opponents will get, and the more painful it will be to drop down in stakes. As you level, you’ll need to get more & more protective of your XP. Eventually, you’ll want over 100 cash game buy-ins to survive the worst downswings without losing a level. For tournaments, you’ll want a bankroll with at least as many buy-ins as there are players entering the tournament.
Start thinking of poker in terms of XP & levels to put yourself on the path to becoming a 20th level Loose Aggressive Maniac!
If you're interested in more about poker, check this article to learn when to bluff!