The Differences Between Micro Stakes and Small Stakes Poker Games

The Differences Between Micro Stakes and Small Stakes Poker Games
This article was written by contributor Ryan Lewis.

Ever wondered how poker stakes differ in difficulty? As someone who has grinded part time from tiny micro stakes NL2 up to small stakes NL50 (6max) over the past year I have gained my fair share of knowledge on how the stakes differ.

Are the higher stakes filled with GTO math wizards that suddenly check raise bluff the river 25% of the time? Well I’m about to shed some light on how the stakes differ in difficulty and what you can expect as you grind your way up the poker ladder.

To make things simple I will make the comparisons using NL2 and NL50. These by the way are the 1c/2c blinds games online and the 25c/50c blinds games online.

There won't be much of a difference in style of play if you compare NL2 to NL5, or NL25 to NL50 - however there will be some major differences by comparing the two extremes of NL2 and NL50.

Outlined below are some of the key differences I have noticed as I have moved up from the micro stakes to the small stakes games.

At the end I've also noted some things that stay consistent throughout, as well as some strategies you can implement right now to help you quickly move up in stakes and stay there!

1. You Will Get 3bet and 4bet More Preflop

This is probably the major difference I’ve noticed. As you move higher in stakes players increase in skill and realise that 3betting and 4betting preflop are effective money making strategies.

By the way:
  • 3bet = Re-raise preflop
  • 4bet = Re-re-raise preflop

It's not uncommon to see winning NL50 players that have a 3bet stat hovering around the 10% mark.

The average NL2 microstakes player though is usually way too passive preflop and is probably 3betting less than 5%. Realise that a 10% 3bet is not just AA and KK!

To hold your own against these aggressive players I suggest investing in some poker software where you can input preflop ranges and come up with a viable defending strategy.

I personally use PokerTracker and you can find the complete guide to ideal PokerTracker HUD stats right here.

2. 3bet Defence Ranges Are Tighter

One of the major leaks in losing poker players is calling too many 3bets preflop. This is especially magnified at the micros where people don’t care about calling an extra 30 cents to see a flop.

Because 30 cents of course doesn't even feel like real money to most people!

However about 6 months ago I looked into my PokerTracker database and filtered a report at NL5 to see how many of my 3bets forced a preflop fold from villain.

I was shocked to see villain only folded 35% of the time! That means they were defending the other 65% of the time.

As I've moved higher in stakes though I have noticed that people will defend their open raises to a 3bet more closely to what is optimally suggested. That is roughly around 40-50% of the time.

What this means is that to progress through the stakes you will need to learn how to play postflop better in 3bet pots.

Because calling ranges are tighter, you should think twice about relentlessly betting in the hope of blowing villain off their hand with mindless aggression.

Check the massive step by step guide that BlackRain79 wrote on how to play better in 3bet pots.

3. You Will Get Check Raised More Often

This is probably more evident in the tougher cash games like zoom and fast forward poker.

On boards where the preflop raiser is no longer at a nut advantage you can expect to get check raised a lot the higher up in stakes you go. This especially holds true on the flop rather than on the turn and river.

When I say on boards where there is no longer a nut advantage for the preflop raiser I mean middling to low boards such as:
  • 8 5 4
  • 7 3 3
  • 6 5 2♣
Again, to defend well versus a check raise requires more off of the table study. Just realise that continuation betting excessively is not an auto profit strategy the higher in stakes you go.

4. Probe Bets Are Stronger at Higher Stakes 

A probe bet is done on the turn or river by the out of position player when the player in position fails to continuation bet on the previous street.

For example, suppose you are on the button and raise pre flop and only get called by the big blind. The flop checks through. The big blind now bets on the turn. This is known as a probe bet.

The Differences Between Micro Stakes and Small Stakes Poker

It is quite common at micro stakes for villains to probe bet with any two cards. These are players that whenever you check they interpret it as weakness, and will probe bet aggressively to try and win the hand.

To counter this strategy all you need is to defend your checking range on the flop with some decent top pair and second pair hands, and simply call down the majority of the time.

This strategy still holds true the higher in stakes you go, however I have noticed that players at NL50 that probe will not show up with garbage hands as often as they will at the micros.

On average they will balance their range better and you will need to put more thought into hand reading before auto calling these types of bets.

For much more on hand reading, there is a huge section in the Daniel Negreanu Masterclass where he talks about this in-depth, since he is known as one of the best poker hand readers ever.

5. Overbets Start to Occur More Frequently

At NL50 you will probably start encountering more overbets. Although still quite rare at these stakes, they are implemented by regs when they know your range is capped or that you are at a severe range disadvantage.

Once you start playing higher than NL100, or even small stakes zoom poker, then they will become even more frequent.

I wouldn’t worry too much about overbets at the micros or even in small stakes games. You do not need to incorporate them in your play to beat these games. If you stick to one or two bet sizes with both your value and bluffs, then that should suit you just fine.

There is also no need to become emotional when facing an overbet and try to play sheriff by calling down your bottom pair on the river simply to prove that you're not going to be pushed around.

Realise that it's okay to overfold versus overbets especially at low or microstakes games where they are primarily used for value.

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6. Your Win Rate Will Be Lower

This is just a plain and simple consequence of moving up in stakes. Do not expect your 15BB/100 hand win rate you were experiencing at NL2 to continue as you move higher.

The reason being is that the amount of money you are playing with at the micros is simply worthless to most people and therefore they often don’t mind splashing around to try and hit their 2 outer on the river. 

After all, $2 can’t even buy me a cup of coffee in my home country!

At NL2 you can value bet extremely thinly and get called down by weak middle pair and bottom pair hands regularly.

That simply doesn’t happen as much when you move up in stakes. The players now take the game more seriously and most will be doing off table study to try and improve and reach even higher levels.

So you must realise they won’t chase every draw or even set mine when the odds aren’t correct for them.

For all of these reasons good poker winrates at higher stakes are much lower than at the micro stakes.

With all that said though, you can still make $500+ per month pretty easily at the micros with regular play, as I discuss in my latest video.

7. Variance is Higher in Small Stakes Games

This is a continuation effect from having a lower win rate. The lower your win rate becomes, the higher your variance will be.

Variance by the way refers to the natural ups and downs of the game that everybody goes through, no matter how good they are.

The Differences Between Micro Stakes and Small Stakes Poker Games

The reason why variance is higher as you move up the stakes is because most players start playing roughly the same ranges.

As ranges between players become similar, then you can expect more ‘cooler’ type situations, such as two pair losing to a set, and a set losing to a flush etc.

Now it’s important to realise that variance is normal and forms a massive part of the game. To overcome the variance rollercoaster I recommend keeping a larger number of buy-ins as you move up the stakes.

If you have recently moved up to NL25 or NL50 for example, then at least 30 buy ins is advisable.

It is not uncommon for winning high stakes players to break even for 100,000 hands, or have 30-40 buy in downswings!

What Stays the Same As You Move Up From the Micro Stakes to the Small Stakes Games?

There is one factor that holds true the higher in stakes you go: The majority of your winnings come from bad players. And yes, there are still plenty of them at NL50.

Realise that you shouldn’t be wasting your time getting into raising wars with good regs or trying to outplay them based on the latest GTO poker strategy advice.

Rather the majority of your profit will come from ill-disciplined players who play too many hands pre flop and who have trouble folding mediocre hands.

There are also certain plays that you should pay enormous respect to, which symbolise a lot of strength. This is something that does not change between the micro stakes and small stakes.

These are:
  • Turn and river check raises
  • Cold 4 bets
Now unless you have a super-premium hand yourself, my advice would be to fold the majority of your range versus these plays unless you have a very specific read on player.

Another thing that you should be paying attention to is bet sizing. What seems to be consistent across micro and small stakes are that pot size bets generally represent strong value on the river.

Now I'm not saying that you should nit it up and only rely on two pair or better to call these bets, but rather to gain an understanding that generally a pot size bet symbolises big value and you should be looking to play more cautiously against them.

This is something that BlackRain79 discusses in much more detail in Crushing the Microstakes.

As he states:
  • Turn raises are usually the nuts in low stakes games
  • River raises are always the nut in low stakes games.

Use These Strategies When You Move Up From the Micro Stakes to Small Stakes

Just because you're going to encounter increased levels of aggression as you move higher up in stakes does not mean that your opponents suddenly have the nuts more often.

Realise you are still playing the same game of poker, everybody get's dealt pocket aces and kings at the same rate, and they still flop a set about 11% of the time.

It is important that you develop a solid routine and structure in order to prepare yourself for tougher games though.

Below I’ve outlined some strategies that you can implement that should help you move up in stakes, and more importantly stay there.

1. Practise Good Bankroll Management

I cannot stress how important it is to be properly bankrolled for the games you are playing.

There is nothing worse in poker than playing with scared money because you're afraid of stacking off with a strong draw, simply because your bankroll does not allow it.

Part time players at the bare minimum should keep at least 30 buy ins for the stake they are playing in.

So if you play NL10 for example this is $300:

$10 x 30 = $300

If you are a professional poker player though, I would advise a much larger bankroll such as 50 -100 buy ins.

Having a large bankroll is vital to ensure you survive the brutal variance this game can toss in your direction sometimes.

The Differences Between Micro Stakes and Small Stakes Poker Games

I like to keep a spreadsheet outlining my targets of when I should look to move up or down in stakes. This gives me some structure to work under and also helps me avoid slipping into a comfort zone of always playing at the same stakes.

I like to take a 5 buy in shot when I am looking to move up in stakes, and once that is exhausted, I will move back down in stakes.

I cannot emphasize how important that last point is. If your shot taking goes poorly, then you must move down and not try to win your losses back playing at the same (or even higher) stakes.

A 5 buy in shot is the absolute minimum as well.

As you move higher than NL50, you should allow yourself a 7 or 10 buy in shot (especially if you play zoom). As the games get tougher your variance will increase, hence the use of higher shot taking allowances.

2. Learn a Winning Poker Strategy and Stick To It

It's not surprising that a lot of winning strategies that work at micro stakes also hold up in small stakes games as well.

Here are some money making strategies that have stood the test of time and will serve you well no matter what stakes you are playing in:
  • Make strong hands and value bet them
  • Play in position more
  • Play a tight and aggressive strategy
  • Avoid fancy plays and slow playing
  • Avoid tilt

It is also important to not try and deviate from a winning strategy due to a run of bad results.

If you are running bad in the short term you must realise that this is part of the game and have faith that a winning strategy will eventually bring positive results for you in the long run.

If you constantly chop and change your strategy as a result of a bad session then most likely you have mental game issues that you need to work on.

This leads me to the next point…

3. Work on Your Mental Game

In my opinion the mental game is vastly underrated when it comes to poker success.

You can have all the ability in the world, however if your mental game is not on point, then you will not get far in today’s games.

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If you let your emotions dictate how you play the game, or you frequently tilt off stacks because you got too impatient, then you seriously need to revaluate this part of your game.

Here are some common situations that can lead us to experience extreme emotions during play:
  • Frequently getting outdrawn when you have a made hand
  • Constantly facing 3bets and 4bets by our opponents
  • Losing to players who open limp
  • Being card dead
  • Frequently whiffing flops
  • Being shown a bluff after you have folded

Remember its okay to experience emotions whilst you are playing - we are all human and experiencing emotions is normal!

Poker is a game where you can experience the highest highs and the lowest lows within a matter of minutes. What’s more important is the way we channel that emotion so that we don’t allow it to affect our gameplay.

As players, we need to be even more conscious of our mental game the higher in stakes we go. We will encounter increasingly skilled opponents, increased aggression, and an increased amount of variance.

All these things have the potential to affect us emotionally in this game.

When I suffer a few bad beats at the poker table I like to focus on my breathing and constantly tell myself that in the long run, I will be on the winning end more often than not.

I also like to sit back and find the funny side when my opponent shows they just bluffed me on the river with Q4 offsuit!

You should quickly be able to put these occurrences at the back of your mind and review the hand off table. Concentrate your energy on the next hand only and playing it the best as you can.

You could also watch certain twitch streamers and learn how they respond to bad beats. Usually the winning players are extremely calm, stoic and ice cool and don’t get overly emotional when they lose a big pot.

Check out BlackRain79's recent article on controlling tilt at the micro stakes for much more as well.

4. Sign Up to a Good Rakeback Program

Signing up to a good rakeback program is a prerequisite today for online poker success and can give your bankroll a boost every month.

For those of you who don’t know what rakeback is, it is simply the percentage of rake that you receive back after you have contributed to a pot.

For example, say your poker client rakes 5% of the total pot. If the pot is $100, then the rake would be $5, which you contribute $2.5 to.

Suppose your rakeback program entitles you to 25% rakeback. This means you will receive 25% of $2.5, which is $0.63.

Multiply this by thousands of potential hands played per month and then your rakeback earnings start to become very significant.

Even part-time players who play 10 hours a week, can potentially earn 100-200 more big blinds per month!

You can imagine that during those difficult times where you had a losing or break even month, the amount of rakeback you receive can ensure you stay in the black at your current stakes.

Now every rakeback program and poker client has their own structure so be sure to do your own research so you can begin earning this easy money.

Regular Poker Tables are Not as Difficult to Beat as You Think

Regular tables are still very much beatable in today's games just as long as you are properly bankrolled and your mental game is strong enough to ride the ups and downs of the poker rollercoaster.

Notice the keyword in the heading are regular tables. There are still on average 2 players (yes, even at NL50) at each table on my poker client that are your typical loose passive weak players (Fish).

These are the players that are open limping too much and their VPIP’s are over 30%. If you can get on the left of one of these players and stick to a TAG strategy then you will simply be printing EV (expected value) in the long run.

I usually avoid the zoom and fast fold poker games because they are notorious for being infested with TAG players and Nits.

That's not to say those games are unbeatable, but your win rate will be significantly lower because TAG and Nit regs won’t make as many mistakes as the loose passive recreationals.

Final Thoughts

So in a nutshell, the major differences between NL2 and NL50 is the amount of aggression preflop and post flop. You can also expect your winrate to steadily decrease due to the increased skill level of your opponents as well.

Part of being a winning poker player is to come up with your own plan of attack (or defence) to counter your opponent’s strategy.

Do you know what to do when you face a 3bet, 4bet or a check raise? If the answer is no then you need to study more! And preferably an advanced poker training program.

Furthermore, when you're moving up in poker stakes you need to be sure to have a proper shot taking bankroll strategy, keep your mental game tight and make sure you are signed up to a good rakeback program. This will make it easier for you to beat these higher stakes games.

Please realise though that there are still plenty of bad poker players at regular NL50 tables and the games are still very beatable.

My advice would be to develop a solid TAG strategy and implement that day in and day out at the poker tables. Learn to be patient and your progression will soon follow.

Lastly, if you want to learn the proven strategy to crush both the micro stakes and small stakes games, make sure you grab a copy of the free BlackRain79 poker "cheat sheet."

It has helped over 100,000 people now start achieving much better results at these stakes.

You can download it for free right here.


This article was written by contributor Ryan Lewis. Ryan specializes in 6max cash small stakes online poker. He focuses on playing a fundamentally strong tight and aggressive strategy. He particularly enjoys the statistics and game theory side of the game. You can follow him on Twitter right here.

Make sure you let me know your thoughts on the differences between the micro stakes and small stakes in the comments below. What stakes are you playing now?

The Differences Between Micro Stakes and Small Stakes Poker Games


  1. a great story, will help me in my games as well.

  2. Great article Ryan! Comes at the right time again as I am now between nl10 and nl16 on Pokerstars and I'm experiencing a downswing and dead cards currently. It sucks but this article reassured me that this is normal and I learnt many things I can implement.

    Good reminder is always:
    Respect check-raises or any raises on turn and river. I usually don't call with anything less than a set or a really big draw.

    Still respect 3bets and fold more than you call.

    I am still hesitant to push all-in on big draws, outer flush draw or better. But I think I must realise that it also often can win me the pot straight away. And if they call I have decent equity. It's still something I struggle with. So I will implement your 30-50 buy-in bankroll advice so I can let go of the money mindset a bit easier.

    Best regards,

    1. Thanks tino! Remember straight flush draws come in 55%, so long term you should feel comfortable getting the money in. Good luck!

  3. Thanks Ryan!

    I think microstakes players really underestimate the implications of playing with a high standard deviation and how their win-rate is going to wildly vary between each session.

    Imagine you play $1-$2 6max and average 6bb/100 with a standard deviation of 100bb/100; your winnings over a 80,000 hand sample could be anywhere from -$5,000 to $25,000 using a 99% confidence interval. That means your monthly income can vary by as much as $30,000. That's a monthly difference of 150 buy-ins due to chance alone!

    There are successful pros who rose to the top on 30-40 buy-in bankrolls. Well they just got lucky! Literally hundreds of players who could have been just as successful did the same thing and went broke. If you play on 30 buy-ins, it's only a matter of time before you too bust out.

    1. Yep that's true. I've been on a 30 buy in downswing myself. LAG players tend to have those bigger downswings as well. Just keep a massive bankroll and you will never go broke! - Ryan

  4. Thanks for this article Ryan. I haven't been playing long but my goal is to get to nl50 someday.

    I've been reading a lot of articles on this blog and am currently crushing nl2 by relentlessly harassing the fish.

    As you say bank roll management is important so I'm going to use a conservative and disciplined approach. Move up when I have 50 bi's and move back down when I have 40.

  5. Good luck! Put your targets on a spreadsheet.
    Also if your playing part time then be sure to shot take at least 2 times a year, otherwise your progress will be slow - Ryan