When I meet poker players who find out that I play for a living, they often ask me about bankroll management. The question is usually phrased in a way that indicates how little they know about money management in poker. Something like:
“How much money do I need to play $2/5 no-limit?”
The answer to this, like so many poker questions, is usually,
It depends on so many factors. Are you talking about playing for a living? Sitting down at a table one time? Do you think that if you have a certain amount of money in your bankroll you will just become a winning player? Are you a winning player? What is your long term win rate in the game? Do you play a high variance style? Are you tired of my questions yet?
That barrage of questions is just a start for all the things I would need to know in order to answer this question. Luckily, the answer usually doesn’t matter. Most people who are asking the question in such a basic way, and expecting a simple number as an answer, could never provide the information I would need – they are just looking for a number to make them feel better and set as a goal.
The truth is that most casual or recreational players don’t need to worry about bankroll management at all. Around 90% of players are long term losers because of the rake, and if you are a losing or break even player, no bankroll is big enough. If you haven’t kept accurate records of your last 30 sessions, then don’t worry about bankroll management, just play with money you can afford to lose.
If you are looking to get serious about poker, reading books, keeping accurate records of your results, and trying to put together a separate bankroll, then it’s nice to have a goal. Start off by getting a separate bank account that you only use for your bankroll. Talk to someone at your bank and you should be able to get an ATM card that allows you to pull out $1,000 per day and most casinos have ATM machines that allow this number as well.
Whether you win or lose in a given session, keep that money separate and don’t spend any of it until you reach your goal. Some reasonable goals for starter bankrolls are shown in the chart below. These aren’t the kind of figures a pro would use to make a living, but they are nice goals for a recreational player who is looking to get serious about the game.
Starting Bankroll Goals
No-Limit Holdem – 2,000 Big Blinds
Pot-Limit Omaha – 2,500 Big Blinds
Fixed-Limit Holdem, Omaha/8, or Mixed Games – 600 Big Blinds
Tournaments with fields smaller than 150 players – 30 buy-ins
Tournaments with fields larger than 150 players – 50 buy-ins
Single Table Tournaments or Satellites – 20 buy-ins
If you are playing satellites to sell the seats into the tournaments after you win them, then you can get by just fine with around twenty buy-ins. If you plan on playing the tournament, then you can fall into a trap that causes you to commit bankroll suicide. If you are only investing $200 in an attempt to satellite into a $1,000 tournament, you may only be spending $200, but you are much less likely to cash than you would be in a regular tournament.
An above average player might cash 15% of the time in a typical tournament. And that player might play a qualifier where 15% of players get a seat and because they are above average they might get a seat 30% of the time. Now how often will that player win a seat and then make the money in the tournament?
30% * 15% = 4.5% of the time you will both win a seat and then cash in the tournament. This obviously requires a much bigger bankroll. How much bigger? Almost as big as the bankroll you would need to play the tournament you are playing the satellite for. The basic rule is that if you can’t afford to play the tournament, you can’t afford to play a satellite into it.
Do I play satellites myself? Yes. Usually I treat them as cash tournaments because I would play the tournament anyway and if I win a seat it will just save me the amount of the buy-in. I also sell a lot of action in bigger tournaments. If I win an entry into a $10,000 buy-in event, I will usually sell around half my action for that tournament, which cuts down my variance significantly and keeps me within my own bankroll requirements.
Taking a Shot
I hear the term “taking a shot” so often in tournaments that you would think it is a legitimate strategy. It isn’t. Taking a shot is just something you say when you are playing way above your bankroll. It’s an excuse. It’s not something you should do once in awhile and it isn’t okay as long as you don’t do it very often.
If you are playing for fun, then go ahead and take all of the shots you want, but don’t take that money out of your bankroll. If you are taking shots out of your bankroll then you will probably lose the whole thing anyway, so you don’t really have a bankroll. If you take a shot with your entertainment money, or some other savings, then your bankroll doesn’t suffer the hit and it feels like it should, like you are paying for the thrill of buying into a big tournament or a big cash game.
You probably don’t need much advice on moving up. If you are bankrolled for the next biggest game, and you are beating the game you are playing soundly, then go ahead and move up. But what about when you are running bad, and your bankroll is getting short?
If you drop below the bankroll you need to play a game, it’s probably time to move down to a smaller game, work on your skills, rebuild your bankroll, and beat up that smaller game to get your confidence back. Almost every pro I know has had to drop down a level a few times, myself included. And almost everyone I know who refuses to drop down a level when it’s necessary has gone broke. Which way you choose to go is up to you.