Monday, March 7, 2016

Moving From NL2 to NL5: What to Expect

The differences between NL2 and NL5 online poker cash games
A question that I see very frequently on poker forums and in my inbox concerns the differences between NL2 and NL5 online cash games. Unfortunately there is a lot of bad advice out there on this topic though.

They are not the same game. Not even close.

As somebody with arguably the most experience in history at these two limits (this isn't really a brag lol), I am going to try and provide a comprehensive answer in this article.

NL2 Versus NL5

NL2 is the lowest stake available to play no limit hold'em cash on most major online poker rooms. The blinds are 1c/2c and the max buyin is typically $2 (100 big blinds).

This is the level therefore that a large amount of people begin playing at. So you get a ton of people coming over from play money, live poker or even those who are completely new to the game in general.

The same cannot be said for NL5. This is typically the 2nd lowest stake available at online poker rooms with blinds of 2c/5c. The max buyin once again is often 100 big blinds ($5).

A much larger percentage of the people that play NL5 have "graduated" from NL2. There are very few people who are complete beginners at this stake. If someone were inclined to skip a few stakes (which I do not recommend) they would probably start much higher than this where it feels more like "real money."

So most of the regs (regulars) who you will encounter at NL5 come from that small subset of players who have actually beaten NL2 over a decent sample. They have probably therefore studied the game a bit and aren't total beginners.

Huge Relative Skill Difference

So this is why I believe that the relative skill difference between NL2 and NL5 is actually among the largest that you will find between any two stakes in online poker.

This is not to say that either of these games are overly difficult. With the right strategy, table selection and tilt control both of these games are still extremely easy to beat.

But for somebody who is fairly new to playing online poker they will problem notice a big jump in skill level. What do I mean by this?
  • You will get 3Bet more often preflop
  • You will get 4Bet more often preflop
  • You will get floated more often postflop
  • You will get raised more often postflop
  • You will get barreled more often postflop
Basically you will notice a marked shift in aggression both pre and postflop between the two stakes. The answer is not to start bluffing the crap out of every reg yourself. This is actually a huge mistake that a lot of people (including myself) make when moving up.

You should instead just keep doing the same things that brought you success at NL2. After you have played several sessions at NL5 and collected some HUD stats on the regs, then you can start exploiting their specific weaknesses based off of what the data is telling you.

NL2 Regs Versus NL5 Regs

At NL2 you will still find a huge amount of regs whose only real strategy at the tables is to "play tight." They will have little to no creativity in their game. They will often have the nuts when they make a bet or raise at any stage of a hand.

Nearly all regs at NL2 are what are often referred to as "bad regs." This is because they are very easily exploited. For a complete breakdown of all of the different types of regs that you will encounter at the micros check out this article of mine.

Regs at NL2 also typically have very little experience with the long run in poker. Even if they have played live for years they will still have issues due to how slow the cards are dealt compared to online.

Therefore, they are much more likely to tilt hard when things aren't going their way. They will also have a lot more superstitions (favorite hand, bad beat stories etc.) as they are less likely to view the game in a detached business-like manner.

This doesn't mean that all NL5 regs on the other hand are world class professionals. Far from it. Most of them are just learning the game as well. They will also tilt hard on occasion.

But by and large they will have a broader understanding of how the game works on a fundamental level including basic concepts such as position, initiative and tilt control.

NL2 Fish Versus NL5 Fish

There really isn't a ton to say here. Fish are pretty much fish at any limit. They play the game purely for recreation. They don't try to learn or improve.

As you move up the stakes though you will typically notice a significant increase in the aggression levels of the recreational players. Their aggression is still almost always misplaced and devoid of all logic but an aggressive player is always going to be more challenging to play against than a passive donk.

I actually just recently wrote about how to play optimally against the aggro donks. So you can go check out that article for more strategy advice versus these types of players.

By and large though, most of the fish who you will encounter at NL5 will be the exact same as the ones who you encountered at NL2. They will be playing far too many hands, limping a lot and calling way too much postflop.

So all of the same rules apply. Get in lots of pots versus them and value bet them to death.

Winrates Between NL2 and NL5

One of the most popular articles in the history of my website is all about winrates. Everybody wants to know what a "good winrate" is!

As I speculate in that article, you can expect your winrate to pretty much be cut in half when you move from NL2 to NL5. This has certainly been my experience.

So if you are currently winning at 6bb/100 for instance at NL2, then you should probably expect that to be reduced to 3bb/100 at NL5. I don't think that there are any other two levels in online poker where you can expect this big of a decrease in your winrate.

And the reason why just goes back to everything that I have talked about thus far. NL2 is still largely a joke with tons of brand new players. I have long called it "the circus."

At NL5 though, while there are still plenty of fish, there are far less truly awful regs. Since regs will be by far your most common opponent in either game, this will affect your winrate in a big way.

It is important to note once again though that this discussion is entirely relative. If you currently crush NL25 for instance, then the vast majority of NL5 regs will be complete fish to you. If you beat NL100, then most NL25 regs will seem easily exploitable. And so on.

Everything is relative in poker.

Bankroll Differences Between NL2 and NL5

Something else that often gets overlooked between NL2 and NL5 is the difference between the blinds. NL5 is a 2.5x bigger game than NL2 whereas the difference is just 2x between most other stakes in online poker.

So what this really means is that for somebody who is used to playing NL2, the size of the pots at NL5 will probably seem quite a bit bigger at first. Even though the money in either game is still largely insignificant for most, it can be intimidating at first.

So this is why it is so crucial that you employ a proper bankroll management strategy. And it is also important that you take controlled shots when moving up.

This means that you set a certain amount of buyins aside that you are prepared to lose before moving back down to NL2 to rebuild. Of course the plan is to hopefully stick at NL5 the first time so that you never have to do this. But short term variance can sometimes get in the way.

When to Make the Move

Beyond bankroll there are a few other factors to consider before making the jump between NL2 and NL5. The first is a history of success at NL2.

You might say "well duh" to this point but many people make the mistake of moving up way too quickly. I would suggest playing a minimum of 20k hands at any limit before coming to any sort of conclusions about your winrate there.

Just because you had a couple of winning sessions at NL2 does not mean that you have crushed the game beyond belief. It could mean that, but more than likely you were running good as well and therefore short term variance played a role.

There is absolutely no rush when moving up. The games aren't going anywhere. Put in some real time there (at least a week or two of consistent play) to make sure that you are definitely beating NL2.

Lastly, and again this might sound like a "well duh" point, but only move up when you are playing well and feeling confident. Moving up when you are in a downswing (i.e., losing a ton) is about the worst thing that you can possibly do.

Moving up because you are sick of the NL2 donks who never "respect your raises" is also just as silly. The answer to a lack of success against the worst players in the world at NL2 is not to move up and play against better opponents.


The differences between NL2 and NL5 online cash games are much larger than most people think. This is probably the biggest relative skill difference in all of online poker. However, for any seasoned grinder with a solid grasp of the fundamentals and a little bit of tilt control, both games are still very easy.

If you are fairly new to the online poker world though, and are currently trying to make the jump between these two limits, then I hope this article helped shined a bit of light on what to look out for.

If you want more on the differences between these two stakes, and how to crush them,  I actually wrote an entire book about it.

If you have any questions or comments about making the jump from NL2 to NL5 please leave them in the comments below. What has your experience been like?

If you found this article helpful then please do me a big favor and share it with your friends on Facebook and Twitter below!

How to get a tell on your opponent in poker.


  1. I would say play on a Ipoker skin. 5 + 10nl on Ipoker is about as strong as 2nl on pokerstars.

    1. What I-Poker skin do you play at mate ? I used to play on Bet365 but don't like the new software as you can't table or seat select which makes it a lot harder in terms of having a decent win rate.

  2. i was very cocky when i start to play NL5, i thought all the players were bad "if they were good they won't play NL5"... but guess what the same way they are playing i am playing too LOL. i thought it was be easier to beat. at least for me it's acessible to play NL5 but i was expecting much more facilities

    1. I think this sort of mentality happens to a lot of people especially at these extremely low limits.

  3. I remember having a hard time when I made the jump to NL5 at stars a while back, but then again I guess it's supposed to be hard at first. Been moving from sites ever since. Recently I started playing on Unibet and even though I can't use a HUD the games are so ridiculously soft that even NL10 feels fishy. Great blog btw! Really enjoy your posts here and on Pokernews, keep it up!

    1. Thanks Jorge! And ya I agree. I was sort of writing this from a Stars perspective as most people play there. On different sites there are sometimes much softer games at even higher limits than I discussed in this article.

  4. Hi Nathan, huge fan of u. Great article BTW. I'm grinding 2nl almost 2 month ago over a 37k hands. I started with 20bi and now I've 55bi (almost 5bb/100). I wanna take the risk moving up to 5nl now cause I feel confident and of course I wanna improve like always my game and strategy. I'm sure that in 5nl things are gonna be different like u said but that's the hole idea of moving up right? Improve and get better poker player. So thx for the great article and keep it up!

    1. Hi Victor, great job! Yup, if you are feeling good then I would suggest taking a shot at NL5. You can definitely beat it. GL!

  5. Thanks Nathan good read, I wish there was some type of promo sites ran were regular players could win a shot to play agent the best in the world (sauce, ike, ben,)seems like to go from 2nl to playing 1 day vs these guys is a very daunting task. . . As always take care

    1. Thanks David! That is an interesting idea. I think the problem would be that the micro stakes reg would get destroyed very quickly against one of these world class players. The journey up the stakes is where you learn how to play at that level.

  6. Hi! Thanks for your books and articles! They are very helpful.
    How do you think, what is the top limit where a simple strategy should work in a log run?
    Till when is it possible not even to think about solid balance, GTO and so on?

    1. Thanks Sergan! That is hard to answer because it depends on the site. As someone said above NL10 on some sites is easier than NL2 on Stars. With the right table selection though a simple TAG strategy will do fine at any level of the micros.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. I'll explain a little. I am currently beating nl5-nl10 with up to 20 bb/100. I'm not a grinder. I play a few tables, trying to maximize concentration. I make around 30-50k hands a month.
      As to my skill, it is somewhere above your first book, plus a few not really systemized concepts, plus fairly balanced (yet still more exploiting) ranges. What I'm not yet good enough in is figuring out how ranges fit flop, distributing ranges through postflop actions and counting fold equity based on opponents range and board structure (I'm currently working on this, but don't have much practice).
      Now I want to try becomming a pro and making for a living with poker. I can afford depositing (and loosing) a BR for nl25 or even nl50 if necessary. But my plan is to try an agressive BRM first (well planned and strictly executed) to find the upper comfortable limit. If it works for a few month, I'll consider quitting my job and spending most of the time on poker. But till then I won't really have time for a significant skill improvement.
      So I seek for an advice, what is the highest limit on PokerStars I should plan as a goal for my try-out?
      I'm pretty sure about nl25, and I think nl50 is definitely worth trying.
      But what about nl100? Is it insane to go there considering my current level?

    4. Hi Sergan, these are not really questions that I can answer, only you can. You should play the limits that you can beat and then take shots at the next highest one.

  7. it's funny, because all my moves up stakes were "forced".
    black Friday moved me off of 2NL at Stars onto 4NL (the lowest limit) at Carbon/Merge).
    then when I decided to play on Bovada, I had to move to 5NL.

    so, while I kept "moving up", I was always at the lowest stake for the given site.

    1. I hope your next move up is voluntary! :)

  8. Hello, Natan! Thank you for this article!
    I'm moving to nl5 (6max tables) for the 3rd time this year. Hope this attempt will be successfull.
    Nl2 is not a problem (9 bb/100, 45'000 hands this year).
    But EACH attempt to move on next limit was disastrous for my bankroll.
    Of course, the main problem was tilt which is caused by money pressure, higher aggression etc.
    But I thought first that there was no any difference between nl2 and nl5. So when I was faced with a higher level of agression, I felt like I moved to nl200 or smth. Now the difference is obvious.

    1. Ya there is a big difference between the two limits as I discuss in this article. But since you are a big winner at NL2 already you should have no problem winning at NL5. Just keep playing the same as you have at NL2 and over time you can adjust for specific regs at the new limit. Also stay relaxed even if things don't go your way. Eventually you will run decent and stick there. GL!

  9. I pretty much agree with everything in this article. The jump from 2NL to 5NL can be very difficult for many players, and due to variance (and some of the adjustments you need to make) it can require several shots at the higher level before you're finally comfortable at it. The curious thing is that once you *have* become a reg at 5NL, you suddenly realise just how soft the lower level 2NL games are, and you wonder why you ever had trouble beating them! (I think confidence and bankroll has a lot to do with it. When I was at 2NL, I got quite upset about losing a $2 pot, but once you know you can beat 5NL, you can actually kind of laugh at how bad some of the 2NL players are, and you don't mind the bad beats so much, because losing a stack is less than half a 5NL buyin, and you know you can win it back with interest). It can be really hard to make the leap in the first place though.

    1. Ya it is funny how you look back and wonder what the fuss was all about. And this happens again and again as you move up.

  10. Thanks for another great article. I noticed the starscoins go much faster at NL5 too, more than 2.5 times NL2. Probably because there are more pots where rake is taken at NL5.

    I bought both your books and went from a breakeven player to a winning player at NL2 and winning at NL5 after 22k hands too. So thanks for the books and articles, they helped alot and payed for themselves.

    1. Nice work Yorick! Glad my books and articles helped :)

  11. you still dreaming in your fairytale, blackrain

    NL2 is full of regs since 2015 and it wont get any better

    your videos are handpicked from the worst players you played with witch are less than 5% of the situations you get to. keep making such videos , they are so nice to watch LOL

  12. Hi Nathan. More than one year ago I was an NL5 player on stars with 5bb/100. My shots to NL10 were crappy and soon after I decided to quit for a while.I was somehow arrived.

    Begin of February I decided to restart with 60€ (some like USD) from NL2. In the first 3 weeks I mantained 8bb/100. Then I started applying some of your tips and I played with a wider range (was nitty before).
    From 18 Feb till today I mantained a 11bb/100 after 50.000 hands.
    I guess I'm ready to move up, I used to play NL5 in the past so I shouldnt be scared but somehow I feel I need to wait more.Dont know why.
    The winrate after 50k hands is high, if I include all my previous hands after 130k hands I've 7bb/100 but i was a different player.
    I bought CTM recently.
    I think I'll make a shot when I'll have agan 30bi for NL5 (I did some cashouts in the past weeks).
    Do you think I should make the move immediatly? Currently I've 25bi for next limit.


    1. Hi Simone,

      Good job on the winrate! Only you can really decide when is the right time for you to move up. But with your winrate there is no reason why you will not easily beat NL5 as well.

  13. Oh moreover when I decided to restart playing I approached zoom poker. So I'm currently mantaining 11bb/100 zoom poker 3/4x tables.
    I tried to play 6/8x normal tables but I risk to fall asleep. :| I hate in the past Zoom but now I feel somehow comfortable and I cannot really manage to move back to normal tables despite I'm quite sure the WR could be bigger in the long run. :(
    Do you suggest me to "force" the comeback to normal tables if I play NL5?

    1. If you feel comfortable playing Zoom then I would just continue playing there. I think there is no question that the winrates will be higher at normal tables in the long run but I don't think it matters quite so much at NL2 or NL5.

  14. Good article, thanks. I skipped it when it was originally released, because I knew I`d be coming back to read it soon (hopefully). I started a small challenge for myself with 10$ and played FR zoom on stars to grind it up a bit. Currently on 35BI and counting, so hoping to take a shot at 5NL soon. This article serves as good starting point on what to check in my game and what to prepare for, thanks!

    1. Thanks Lubomir and good luck with your challenge!

  15. Hi Nathan,

    Thansk a lot for all those articles !

    So I've been taking a shot at Nl5 for a couple of month now and it's going fairly bad over 60 000 hands.

    Which is why I regularly run database analysis, and after messing around with filters fo a while I came to realize that I'm doing awesome in pots of more than 25 bbs and quite bad in anything less than that.

    Question is, should I be worried, and if so, do you have any lead on what leaks to look for?

    thanks for reading.

    Cheers !

    1. Hi Thomas,

      Hmm, that is interesting. I never really run tests like this. I assume that you have filtered for hands that go to the flop or something. You could further filter by the actions that you took to see if there is any big profit differences. And also, just start reviewing them one by one.

    2. Hey !

      Me again, shot at nl5 going worse than ever, 2 buy ins left, already made peace with the fact that I'm gonna have to go back to nl2 soon :)

      So, I've fixed the 15 to 25bb pot size leak by narrowing my 3betting range.

      To find out that my main leak is 7-10bbs pots coming mainly from the fact that nobody folds to my cbets.

      I apply the cbetting rules from crushing the micros as well as possible, I have an AF of 3.9 and a Fcbet of 69 over 60k hands.

      I do not cbet to a guy that has less than 40% fold to cbet over 100 hands(since I cbet 60% of the pot it just makes sense), I just don't know how to plug this one.

      I'll go hand by hand again and again to try to find out what and if I'm doing something wrong but if u have any tips please enlighten me and if u don't thanks for reading anyways :)

      for the record, my over all cbeting shows very positive results it's just for 7-10bbs pots that things go south.

  16. Hi Guys, where can you see the number of hands that you played? I play live poker (tournaments and cash) for a little more than 7 years now and I just started the online in microstakes NL2. I wanted to know how much I have to win in an hour session with 2 or 3 tables, to be considered a profit? I made 10 dollars in 3 days playing probably a total of 5 or 6 hours. How much time do you guys recommend for me to move up to NL5 and how much bankroll should I have? Thanks.

    1. And what does it mean to be 5bb/100?

    2. Hi bangsok,

      For answers to your questions here I would suggest checking out the following 3 articles of mine.

      HUD and tracking your online poker results

      Bankroll for moving up stakes

      What does bb/100 mean?