Tuesday, September 15, 2015

When Should You Move Up Stakes in Poker?

Moving up the stakes in poker
Finding the right time to move up stakes in poker is something that is difficult for a lot of people. If they are new to the game then it might be their first time trying a new limit. So it is natural that they are a bit apprehensive and want to make sure that they cover all of their bases.

The first thing that I will say though is that there is no right time for everyone. As usual in poker "it depends" on a multitude of different factors such as bankroll, previous results, confidence and your goals in the game.

The only common theme with moving up stakes is that it is not easy for anyone. In fact it is completely normal for even the very best players to fail multiple times before they finally stick at the new limit. However, it is a necessary step that you must take in order to increase your bottom line at the tables.

In this article I am going to discuss several different factors that should influence your decision on whether or not to move up. I will provide some recommendations in order to hopefully make this transition as easy as possible for you. 

You Gotta Have the Bankroll

Bankroll is of course always going to be the most important thing when moving up. You should have increased your bankroll at your current limit through a combination of table winnings and rakeback. At what point should you actually move up though?

Well as I talked about in my recent article on bankroll management I think that somebody who is relatively new to the game and has a marginal winrate should move up at 40 buyins.

A "buyin" is 100 big blinds. 

So if you are currently playing NL2 then I would suggest moving up to NL5 when you have $200 in your bankroll. 100 big blinds at this stake is $5. $5 x 40 = $200.

However, as I also point out in that article, if you are an experienced poker player with a big winrate at your current limit, then you can move up with less than this as well. You can also wait until 50 or 60 buyins or even more if you want. 

It is ultimately up to you.

However, the reason why I suggest 40 buyins to most people these days is because it provides a decent enough cushion to withstand nearly all typical variance in today's micro stakes cash games. It also isn't such a large amount that you are wasting your time needlessly padding your bankroll.

Moving Down is a Necessary Part of Moving Up

I know that this statement might sound a little bit contradictory at first. However, it is simply a fact of life in this game that we play.

As I mentioned before, even the very best players will regularly fail in their attempts to move up in stakes. I have failed many, many times myself in move up attempts. I will fail many more times in the future. 

The reason why is that when you move up you will always be at the mercy of short term variance. Anything can happen over a sample of 1k hands or even 10k hands. 

You can very easily run bad and lose a lot since it is twice the amount that you normally play for. On the other hand you can very easily run really good and skyrocket your bankroll very quickly. 

You need to prepare for anything. This is why I suggest giving yourself a 10 buyin shot before moving down to reload. That is, if you lose 10 buyins at your new stake then you must move back down no matter what.

If you never reach the point of losing 10 buyins (this is obviously the goal) then just keep plugging away at your new limit. 

It is important to approach moving up in poker as a calculated risk. It is perhaps comparable to investing in a new stock. You have done all your research, all the signs look good for this company but there are never any guarantees. There are always factors outside of your control such as variance in poker.

This is why moving down is a necessary part of moving up. You will fail on many occasions and have to regrind what you lost at your old stake. There is no need to feel bad about yourself or feel like a failure.

The greatest basketball player of all-time (who was cut from his own high school basketball team) once famously said:

"I have failed, over, and over, and over again in my life...and that is why I succeed" - Michael Jordan [Tweet This]

And you too will eventually succeed and stick at the higher limit even if it takes 5 attempts or more. Just don't give up. And heck, you might even make it on the first try and never look back. Remember, this happens a lot too. 

This is why we set clear rules with regards to bankroll so that it is simply a rinse and repeat process where you will eventually climb the stakes.

If you follow a simple plan like I have set out above (40 buyins move up, move down temporarily if you lose 10) then all of the guesswork is removed. It is just a matter of time until you succeed.

You Need to Be Clearly Winning at Your Current Stake

This one might sound painfully obvious but it needs to be mentioned anyways. If you do not have a history of success at your current stake then there is no point in moving up because the competition is always more difficult at higher limits and your results will only be worse. 

In fact, you should always expect a drop in your winrate any time you move up in stakes. This is why it is necessary that you have some sort of proven winrate at your current stakes. What does this history of success or proven winrate actually mean though?

Well again, to throw out some rough numbers I would say a winrate of 2bb/100 or more at your current stakes over at least 20k or 30k hands. The truth is that even sample sizes like this are by no means solid. Somebody can easily run completely horrible or totally lights out over 20k or 30k hands.

However, it can take an eternity to play 100k hands or more which is the point at which I believe that you can start to make some confident assumptions about your winrate. For somebody who plays low volume online or who plays live this could be months or even years of play for them. 

So while you need to have a proven winrate at your current stakes we also need to be realistic in terms of the sample size. This is why I think 20k or 30k hands is a decent (minimum) benchmark.

While it might be tempting to move up if things are going your way after 5k or 10k hands it is better to wait a little bit longer. The reason why is because 10k or less hands is pretty much a completely meaningless sample size in poker.

Your "winnings" could very easily be pure luck. Same thing if you have losses instead.

If you are not winning at your current stakes after a reasonable sample size then it would be a much better idea to figure out what the problems are and look for ways to improve your game.  

Many people have a mistaken belief that if they just play against better opponents then somehow suddenly their results will turn around. 

The reality though is that if you are not winning at your current stake over a significant sample size then it is more than likely because there are some core issues with your game. Playing against tougher competition will only exacerbate and expose these problems even more.

Move Up in Stakes When You Are in a Confident Mindset

Predictably, nearly all winning poker players share one similar quality. That is, they are very confident in their abilities at the poker table.

But poker has so many ups and downs though that it can be completely normal for anyone to lose faith in their abilities when things go bad for a long period of time. 

On the other hand, when things are going well most people will over-inflate their abilities even if they are long term losing poker players. 

With regards to moving up in stakes, it is always much better to do so when you are on the good side of this confidence spectrum.

You should be running reasonably well or at least normal and feel confident that you are among the better players at your stake. You should feel like you can come back to this limit at any point in the future and make money. 

You should never move up during a downswing even if you know that you are a long term winner. Confidence breeds success and it is better to take a shot at the new limit when you are thinking clearly and have full belief in your abilities. 

Don't Change Your Game Drastically at the New Limit

So now that you have the bankroll and you are feeling good about your game how should you actually approach moving up?

Well it is important to not make a big event out of it. Yes the money is double and the faces are new but it is still the exact same game and the truth is that these new regs are only marginally better than the ones who you played against each day at your old stake.

It is important not to go in there and try to prove a point to all of them right away. You will notice an increased amount of aggression from the regs in all facets of the game. This is completely normal as you move up. The games always play more and more aggressive. 

It is important to resist the urge to start haphazardly firing back at them. The truth is that there might be a few more bluffs in their range but there are also a lot of value hands still as well. Remember that these new regs don't even know who you are. They aren't just picking on you out of the blue. 

If you try to go in there beating your chest to show all of the new regs who is boss you will quickly get put in your place. It is much better to just play your normal game and maybe make the odd bluff here and there. 

Just observe how your new limit plays, get to know the tendencies of the new regs and do what has brought you success up until this point. In time, you will feel more comfortable at your new limit, have more information and be able to make adjustments on a player by player basis. 

Give Yourself the Best Opportunity to Succeed

It is also a really good idea to give yourself the best chance to succeed by:
  • Moving up when the games are good 
  • Making the highest quality poker decisions
With regards to finding the right games, recreational players are of course the key. They fuel the entire industry and you should be doing everything that you can to find them and get a seat on their left.

But even if you still aren't convinced how important table selection is in today's games and choose to play in tight Zoom games for instance, there are still some ways to improve your odds of finding the fish. 

Firstly, move up on a weekend. Recreational players tend to play more on the weekends because this is when they have time off from work. The games are always a little bit better on Saturday and Sunday at any limit. 

Secondly, play during prime-time hours. This would be anywhere from about noon PST to late at night. Don't move up at 6am PST on a Monday morning and expect the games to be good.

Lastly, take whatever number of tables that you currently play and cut it in half for your first three sessions at your new limit. This will give you more time to relax and make high quality poker decisions. 

Final Thoughts

Moving up is a natural progression for all poker players. The higher you climb the stakes, the more money that you will make. 

However, it does get more and more difficult as you move up. The competition is tougher and the edges are smaller. This is why the large bulk of online and live poker players play for small amounts of money.

You need to be constantly improving in today's poker environment in order to stay ahead of the competition.

If you currently play at low stakes then I would suggest having a look at my "Start Here" page where I have linked dozens of my most popular articles on how to improve for all skill levels.

You can also hop on my newsletter to receive free strategy advice and updates on my latest blog posts right to your inbox.

Something that I didn't mention in this article though it that it is completely fine to simply stay put at your current stake as well. Many people grind the same stakes for years on end and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this at all.

It is not everybody's dream to challenge the very best in the world at the nosebleeds. The good thing about remaining at your current stake is that you know exactly what to expect and the variance will be lower. 

Simply put:

Chase your own goals and dreams in this game and don't let anybody else run your poker career.

This means moving up when you feel that you are ready, you have the right bankroll and you are confident. Or it might mean just staying exactly where you are. You are the boss. You make the call.

In any case, I hope that this article helped provide you with some useful tips to help make your next move up attempt a bit easier. 

Let me know your thoughts or questions about moving up the stakes in the comments below. What are some difficulties that you have faced when moving up? Feel free to brag about your success as well!

If you found this article helpful then do me a favor and "Like" or "Tweet" it below!

Moving up the stakes in poker


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  2. Hi Nathan, it's always such a real treat reading your poker articles. Always getting smth new and invigorating from your posts, smth that triggers thoughts in new direction. Strangely enough, I'm feeling no urge whatsoever in taking those "luck-oriented upward shots". Fish ponds are so lukewarm, better than all that roller-coaster mid-high stake ocean )) IMHO as usual. Take care and good luck.

    1. Thank you so much Taras! I am glad that my articles help you so much. And fair point on not moving up. I think this is the case for many people these days.

  3. Great couple of tips Nathan! I'm working to push my BR up to take my shot at NL10 when a reach the 30 buy-ins ($300) like I did when moving up to NL5. On another note, did you watch the cinematic intro of Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void? It was released yesterday and it looks just epic! Take care!

    1. Good stuff Jorge! I just watched it, wow that is cool! Brought back a lot of memories :)

  4. I just wanna say I've read both of your books and the content you put out is top quality your a boss happy grinding

    1. Thank you very much Brandon. That means a lot to me. I am glad that I could help!

  5. Great Job, As a coach myself, love reading your your blogs and newsletters. Keep up the great work.

  6. Hey Nathan, just got back fully to poker after a few month of real life smacking me sideways and glad to see you keeping to articles rolling :)
    I saw this graph for moving up and down stakes and i'd like your thoughts about it

    Also, could you perhaps make a article about some key differences about deepstacked ante cash games compared to normal ones, appart from the simple adjustment to play a bit looser?
    I find them very fun!

    1. Hey Simon,

      That chart looks like a good strategy to me. The authors of it suggest moving up with 30 buyins which I think is fine. They also have numbers in place for when to move down which is good as well.

      I may try and put something out about deepstacked cash games in the future. I have had a few requests for it. Thanks for the suggestion and all the best at the tables!

  7. Hey, Nathan. Is 1bb/100 really "clearly beating" a level? Doesn't seem to me like a ton of room for when the ol' winrate goes down and the variance goes up.

    1. Hi Thomas,

      You are right. I have just changed it to 2bb/100. Both of these winrates are still fairly marginal but having at least 20k or 30k hands was more the point that I was trying to get across.

  8. Hi nath another great article love your posts my question to you is your clearly a top player and IMHO could and will climb successfully.
    I just wondered if the hole moving up hinges mainly on the ability to read cards/ranges if one could become an amazing hand reader and had the bankroll is there anyting stopping you from trying much higher as apposed to climbing the ladder one run at a time.
    Cheers as always

    1. Hi Matthew and thanks for the kind words, I am glad my articles are helpful!

      An excellent hand/range reader will definitely have a big advantage moving up the stakes but it is not enough on it's own. People are gonna get it in bad and get lucky on you so you need to be mentally strong and avoid tilt. This is especially the case when moving up because the money is that much bigger.

      You also need to know how to pull the trigger properly even if you read somebody right. For instance it might be better to call rather than raise.

      So yes it is a key but there are many other concerns as well. This is why I think you should always just move up one level at a time.