In my last column I noted three considerations when deciding whether to move to a higher game: bankroll, ability to win, and psychology. I dealt with the first, bankroll, in the last column and will address the remaining two, ability to win and psychology, in this one.
Ability to Win: Ideally, you want to demonstrate that you can beat a smaller game before you move up to a bigger game. Even if you have a huge amount of capital, if you are a losing player you will eventually go broke at any level of play. Generally speaking, the higher the game the better the players and the tougher it is to beat the game. If you can't beat $1-5 it's fair to assume that you can't beat $5/10 or $10/20.
But how do you know if you're beating the lower stakes game? If you win on one night does that qualify? What about for five sessions or ten sessions? How can you be sure that your winnings are the product of good play more than good luck?
The answer is that you can never be certain. I've done simulations for 100,000 hands (that's about 4,000 hours of live play – or two full-time years of play) with identical players matched against each other in computer simulations. In those contests with identical players some lost thousands of dollars over the two years while others won thousands of dollars. Were the losing players worse than the winning players? Certainly not, because they all played with the identical computer-simulated strategy. But the "luckiest" program made thousands more than the "unluckiest" – proving that even over a relatively long time luck still plays a role in how a poker player does.
That being said, experts generally agree that a player may properly consider himself a winning player if he can net a gain over 200-500 hours. If you have managed to make money during that time you can safely (though not certainly) conclude that you're beating your game.
But there's a reason why you might want to move up more quickly – especially if you're playing in a very low stakes game such as the no ante $1-5 game I described. The reason you may not be beating your low stakes game may not be because you are no better than your opponents. It may be, rather, that you are not sufficiently better to beat them and beat the large rake. As you move up, the percentage of your winnings that is taken by the rake is often reduced. Ironic as that is, the lower stakes games are often more heavily raked, as a percentage of the pot, than the low stakes games. This is because, as I explained in an earlier article, rakes are capped by a fixed dollar amount. Paying the $4.00 max out of a $35 pot in a $1-5 game is a much higher percentage of your winnings than paying the $4.00 max out of a $400 pot in a $20/40 game. So I recommend that players move out of these low limit spread limit games as soon as they can muster the necessary capital.
Psychology: This is an admittedly tough matter to define concretely. But there is a comfort level that some players have at certain levels of play that they don't have at higher levels. Though this is sometimes directly connected to their bankroll; it often isn't. Some of us, and I include myself in this, are uncomfortable above a certain level even though we have sufficient funds and are adequately skilled to play there.
Here's an example of what I mean. I know a guy who is a millionaire. He not only is worth many millions of dollars, but he's very thrifty and has over a million dollars in the bank – liquid – to spend as he sees fit. We go down to Foxwoods together from time to time.
I like to play $20/40 stud. He is a good player and I think could probably beat the $20/40 game. He has the bankroll to play the highest game in the house — $75/150 if he wanted. In fact he could easily afford to play $2,000/4,000 if he so chose. But he never, ever plays above $1-5. He wins – generally $30-40 for a five or six hour session. I tell him that he's throwing money away to the rake and that he should at least step up to $5/10 which I'm sure he'd beat. But he tells me he doesn't feel comfortable playing that high. It's just not in his nature.
I know another guy who hardly has any bankroll at all. But he's a gambler. Whenever I see him he's either on the rail or sitting in the $75/150 game. I know he'll borrow money sometimes just to make the minimum stake of $1,500 that's required in that game. But he won't play anything lower. He just gets bored, he says, and doesn't enjoy himself in a "small" game like $20/40. At least he has the discipline not to play it. I'm sure he'd lose at a lower stake – either because of bad play or boredom or both.
My advice when it comes to this intangible consideration is to play no higher than your comfort level – with one exception. From time to time, I recommend that you play higher for a relatively brief period in an effort to expand upward your comfort level. If this notion doesn't appeal to you, or if you attempt it once or twice and still can't relax at the higher stakes, then forget about it and just stay at your current level. There is no reward for becoming a losing player at a higher level.
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