Matt Hunt: “Nobody playing high stakes poker has as much money as you think” 

Matt Hunt
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Posted on: July 5, 2023 10:44 am EDT

The sums of money thrown around in high-stakes poker games these days are eye-watering. In February, Patrik Antonius and Eric Persson played an almost $2m pot on the No Gamble, No Future show. At the end of May, Tom Dwan won a $3.1m pot, the biggest in televised poker history. Meanwhile, it seems like everyone and their grandmother are currently involved in some kind of $200/$400 heads-up challenge with half a million on the table. But these numbers can often be deceiving, and they can lead to a public perception of poker players that’s a long way from reality.

The casual assumption when a player is seen playing for massive stakes is usually one of two things – either they have so much money that the stakes are inconsequential for them, or they’re gambling for a substantial portion of their net worth. Unfortunately for anyone who’s invested a lot of mental energy in either of these two beliefs, neither is usually true.

How big a bankroll do you need for high stakes poker?

As is often the case, the truth is mostly somewhere in the middle. If you see a player playing in a cash game with $500/$1,000 blinds, it’s pretty likely that $1,000 means a lot less to them than it does to the average person; but it’s also extremely unlikely that it means absolutely nothing. In fact, the only players to whom that amount of money does mean absolutely nothing are usually the recreational players, who made massive amounts of money from outside poker and enjoy the game purely as a fun pastime.

I ran a few calculations using a variance calculator to figure out how big a bankroll you’d need in order to be comfortable playing in a $500/$1,000 cash game with 250bb stacks, or a $250,000 tournament. For the cash game, it’s somewhere between $3m and $6m, depending on your actual win rate; for tournaments, it might be as high as $8-12m, depending on how many you wanted to play over the course of, say, a year.

The number of professional poker players worldwide with bankrolls that big is virtually impossible to discern, obviously, but it’s not a high number. So if nobody has as much money as it seems, then how do these high-stakes games even exist?

Tom Dwan drags in a monster pot on Hustler Casino Live
You’d be smiling if you’d just won a $3.1m pot – Tom Dwan on Hustler Casino Live

Selling action in big-money poker

The short answer is that almost any professional poker player with a decent sense of bankroll management will be selling a good chunk of action when playing for stakes that high. It’s unlikely that any pros in the field of your average six-figure buy-in tournament have all of themselves – in fact, I’ve heard stories of one particular past Super High Roller Bowl winner only having 6% of himself when he won.

The slightly longer answer is that most players – myself included – actually play slightly closer to their best poker when the stakes are high enough for them to get excited about. It’s very difficult to hype yourself up to play your best when the stakes are low. We’ve all heard the old cliche (which is essentially now just a meme) of “move up to where they respect your raises”. It’s a nod to the fact that players at low stakes tend to play very casually and don’t really try hard to win.

As a result of this basic reality, there exists a kind of sweet spot when it comes to a professional poker player’s exposure to variance. We want to be in a position where the stakes are significant enough that we’re motivated to play our best poker, but without the potential downside being significant enough that it alters our perspective on each decision. If a player is thinking at all about the potential consequences of losing, then they’ve more or less already lost. You can’t make good decisions if you’re not able to weigh up the risk and reward of each spot in an unbiased way.

Gambling high and working hard

Maneuvering oneself into this exact sweet spot of risk is a very tricky prospect. It usually requires some combination of conservative bankroll management with aggressive shot-taking at the right times, and selling the right amount of action to the right people. It also requires having the self-awareness to recognize when the stakes are high enough that your performance has been compromised; this is often the hardest part of the process.

Nobody at high stakes has as much money as you think, but that doesn’t diminish the level of skill and mental fortitude it takes to compete at that level; it just means that the players are exercising a slightly different skill set. They’re still gambling for nosebleed stakes, and they’re still working extremely hard to get to that point – but they’re also working smart. You should do the same – whatever stakes you’re playing.

Matt Hunt is a pro player and Solve For Why instructor, and writes a regular column on finances and variance in poker.

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