Moving on up – when to slide into bigger games

Lee Jones
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Posted on: August 20, 2022 5:36 am EDT

One thing almost all poker players think about is: “How can I move up to the next higher stake?” The $1/3 players want to play $2/5. The $100 buy-in tournament fan thinks about the $500 tournament. Not surprisingly, the poker literature and media are full of suggestions about how to do it.

But a couple of days ago, a colleague at the Hand History Lounge wrote that they wanted to move up to bigger games. They got some very good advice, most of which hewed to the usual things that you hear. I actually had a couple of unexpected thoughts pop into my head, so I’m going to share those here.

But first, let’s run through the traditional list, just for completeness:

  1. Take your first shot at the bigger game when you’re in your best poker place. Do it coming off a win in your regular game, and are feeling great about how you’re playing. Very specifically, do not do it to try to quickly recover losses from your regular game. This rarely ends well.
  2. Game-select carefully. If you see a couple of the fish from your regular game splashing in the bigger game, that’s a good first sign that it’s time to try stepping up. Wednesday morning at 11:00am will rarely be the best time to take your first swing in a bigger league, especially if the stakes are high enough to support professional players. Go on a Friday evening or Sunday afternoon when the recreational coefficient will be much higher.
  3. Do not be afraid to buy in short-ish. Maybe you’re used to playing 100 or 150 BB deep. It’s totally fine to buy in 100 or 80 BBs. That limits your dollar exposure while you adapt to the new surroundings. However, if you buy in much shorter than 80 BBs (and are used to 100 BBs or more) then you have to adapt your game to the new shorter stack. For instance, you may find that you can’t correctly set-mine with your pocket sixes. If you’re not sure how to play a 70 BB stack, either buy in for the full 100 BBs, or do some study and make sure you can correctly play 70 BBs. Either choice is totally acceptable, but playing a 150 BB strategy on a 70 BB stack is not.
  4. Do not succumb to Fancy Play Syndrome just because you’ve stepped up a stake level. Yes, the competition may be a little tougher, but I promise you, they’re still making plenty of mistakes. Just play your steady game, and avoid some marginal spots. If you’re a comfortable winner in your usual game, you can hold your own at the next table up, as long as you play your A-game and don’t let the numbers freak you out.
  5. To the point of numbers freaking you out, they will, initially. When you’re used to a 3-bet being to $25, and suddenly the 3-bet is to $90, all of your baked-in alarms about money will go off. See if you can adjust your lens to think big blind units (BBs). That’s a 4-BB raise. That’s a 14-BB 3-bet. That’s a 30%-pot bet, that’s a 75%-pot bet. Practice in your regular game, and then translate when you move up. It will mitigate (though not eliminate) the absolute dollar shock.
  6. Don’t be afraid to hit and run (or “get hit and run”). If you play for an hour, and have learned something and adjusted a bit to the dollar amounts, it’s fine (perhaps advisable) to slide out of your chair and hit the cage. Especially if you happened to flop a set and win a healthy pot, take your win and enjoy it. Ignore – ignore, I say – any looks or comments from the regulars. You have zero obligation to stick around, win or lose. If you want to book a win and go celebrate it after an hour, I’m explicitly giving you permission to do so, right here.

Okay, that’s a synopsis of the usual advice that you get. Heed it. Now here’s Lee’s two extra bonus suggestions.

Move out to move up

My friend in the Hand History Lounge lives in Las Vegas, and they want to advance from $2/5 games to $5/10 games. Here’s the thing: Las Vegas $5/10 games are notoriously tough. Why? Because there’s a constant influx of tourists to provide fodder for the pros. And the whole Las Vegas vibe encourages people to play bigger, play above their bankrolls, take shots (bigger stakes and/or distilled spirits), etc. Did I mention free booze? Furthermore, the relatively low cost of living there allows a competent $5/10 pro to have a decent lifestyle. Except for all the other $5/10 pros, it’s a great place to be a $5/10 pro.

My suggestion: get out of town. Go play somewhere where games are softer. It’s a quick trip down to L.A. from Vegas. Certainly, there will be some pros in the L.A. $5/10 games, but the cost of living in L.A. does not rest well on a $5/10 pro. There’s plenty of bigger action, too, so the toughest players will be in larger games. Of course, this is true in Las Vegas as well, but the tough pro coefficient in an L.A. game will be lower than Las Vegas. The same is true of any place that, well, that isn’t Las Vegas. The San Francisco Bay Area, Washington/Baltimore region, Florida. Find a place where the game you want to play isn’t the biggest game in the room, and the cost of living is higher than Las Vegas.

A sneaky side benefit of this play is that you won’t be recognized as a shot-taker. If you move up in your regular room, everybody is going to notice it. “Hey, look – Bob is playing the $3/5 game. He’s a $1/3 grinder, isn’t he?” And yes, the $3/5 regs will notice too. Don’t expect flowers and chocolates as a welcome. Go somewhere that you’re anonymous, and don’t tell them it’s your first shot at $5/10. For all they know, you’re a $5/10 crusher. And you know what – you might be one.

Share the risk

People get backing for tournaments all the time. If you’re considering moving up in tournament stakes, you’re probably already thinking about asking friends and buddies if they want a piece of that. There’s no reason you can’t do it for a cash game too.

Of course, you need to do it with people who understand the risks involved. And that they’re not going to get a 10x return on their investment. I would probably lead with, “You’re probably going to lose this money, but…” Simply tell them that you want to put together a $1200 bankroll to try the $2/5 game. Would they be interested in investing $400 to own a 1/3 share of the results, good or bad?

One of the nice things about this is that you and your friend can jointly decide to end the experiment at any time you wish. You can call them after an hour and say, “Hey – we’re up 90 BBs! You wanna press on, or take our profit and go eat ice cream?”

As with any backing arrangement, make sure the ground rules are clear on both sides, and that your backer is aware of the risk involved. Most importantly, be sure that if you dust off the entire bankroll (coolers happen), it won’t damage your relationship with the backer. No shot at a bigger game is worth that.

In short…

Taking a shot at higher stakes is one of the most enjoyable and exciting things you can do as a poker player. Don’t deny yourself the opportunity, but do it with open eyes and reasonable expectations. Who knows – that temporary visit to the $2/5 table could end up being a permanent change of address.

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