5 important tips for proper poker bankroll management

Published by:
Last updated: June 15, 2022 2:42 pm EDT

In poker, your bankroll is the money you use to play. By itself, the word bankroll indicates that this fund is separate from the money you use in your everyday life.

You can start a poker bankroll with discretionary funds or money set aside for recreational use. As long as you don’t need that money for anything else, you can use it to start a bankroll. It should remain in the bankroll as the base of that fund.

Some people start with zero money in their poker bankroll and play online poker site freerolls to build a balance. They then add money earned from free-to-play tournaments that offer real-money prize pools. This can take more time and discipline, but it forces the use of necessary poker skills. 

What is poker bankroll management?

Poker bankroll management is the skill you need to make a bankroll work and last. The base of your bankroll is the money you’re not willing to risk. It will stay there until you decide to quit poker (thoughtfully quit; not just quit after one tough loss). That base amount is your minimum balance. 

Bankroll management, or BRM, is like accounting. It is the art of managing your poker playing fund so that it never dips below a certain number and consistently grows. The overall goal is to grow a larger bankroll.

Since you won’t always win, you must make allowances for losses. You should always figure downswings into your calculations as a natural part of the game of poker. As in any business, you’ll have times of loss, but also profitable swings that put you back on the right path as a winning player. 

Why is poker bankroll management important?

The most important reason to properly manage your bankroll is to keep money available to play poker. You should never dip into your personal bank accounts — checking or savings — to withdraw money for poker. The entire bankroll should always cover your play, with a healthy balance left over.

To be a good poker player, you must exhibit skills like discipline and patience. The way you manage your bankroll should put those skills into play. Both are required to stay within your limits until profits dictate that you can move up in stakes.

Successful poker players also demonstrate the ability to calculate odds and manage risk. You’ll need those same skills to keep track of your bankroll and expand your range within it. Proper management will let you change to higher stakes (or lower stakes) when the balance says you can. Even the occasional measured risk must happen within the confines of your bankroll limitations.

Without your bankroll, you have no money to play poker.

5 strategy tips for better bankroll management

Poor poker bankroll management will prevent you from success in this difficult but rewarding game. Many skilled players have failed in poker because of their inability to properly handle their money. If you’re playing for a living, you must have the proper funds available, so you can always remain in the game.

1. Approach proper poker bankroll management like running a business

There’s a reason some of the top poker pros such as Doug Polk and Fedor Holz have had great success in various business ventures outside of poker. They know how to manage their money. Poker and business are similar in that both require a certain bankroll to survive. If you owned, say, a candy shop, you’d need enough money for start-up costs right off the bat. But you’d also need money to continue purchasing inventory, as well as paying for rent, insurance, marketing, and many other expenses.

Those who aren’t properly bankrolled to run a business will go out of business quickly. The same can be said about poker. Proper poker bankroll management is crucial because bad beats, bad luck, and bad runs are bound to happen at times. Even the best players in the world will go days and weeks without winning. If you aren’t properly bankrolled to get through those rough patches, you’ll end up broke and applying for jobs, and no one wants to go work a 9-5.

2. Know how much money you’ll need

Before you start playing poker for a living, you should set an annual salary goal. That’s the amount of money you need to make from poker to pay your bills and live comfortably. For some, that’s $50,000, while others need a six-figure income or higher to get what they want out of life. If you feel the need to live a lavish lifestyle, you won’t get there playing low-stakes games, so take that into consideration.

Regardless of the amount you need to make playing cards, proper poker bankroll management suggests you should have at least 25 buy-ins in the bank for the game you play. You should also have an additional 3-6 months of living expenses in your bank account. So, if you play $2/$5 no-limit hold’em cash games, you shouldn’t begin playing for a living unless you have, at minimum, $12,500 set aside to play ($500 average buy-in times 25). To be safe, it wouldn’t hurt to start with an additional 4-5 buy-ins in your bankroll. You just never know how long the bad runs will last, or when they’ll begin.

3. Don’t spend your winnings

There’s nothing more satisfying in poker than a big win. Immediately after hitting a big score, nearly everyone’s initial thought is to go buy a new car, that expensive pair of shoes you’ve been eyeing, or some other big purchase. But we’re urging you to fight the urge.

As we’ve already discussed, you must have a certain amount of buy-ins in your bankroll to start, but you should also look to move up in stakes as your game progresses. You won’t be able to do that if you’re always spending your winnings. It’s okay to occasionally make a nice purchase after a big win. Just don’t make a habit of it.

4. Know when to move up in stakes

The goal of every low-stakes poker player is to one day move up in stakes. And everyone wants to do it as quickly as possible. But there are two reasons players often fail and go broke when moving up in stakes. The first is that they don’t have proper poker bankroll management. The second is that they don’t realize how much more difficult it is to beat the higher stakes games.

If you go from $2/$5 to $5/$10, not only are the players better and tougher to beat, the buy-in is also much higher. In most $5/$10 games, the average buy-in is $1,000 or more, and sometimes closer to $1,500. That means you’ll need at least double the bankroll compared to $2/$5. You should only move up in stakes if you feel your game is strong enough and you’ve built a bankroll large enough to play at those stakes.

5. Be careful who you loan money to

Befriending other poker players, especially those who are more skilled than you, is a great idea. You’ll have someone to share hand histories with and learn from. But you should be careful when your poker friends ask to be staked or for a loan. Unfortunately, many poker players aren’t so trustworthy and fail to pay back these loans. Or, they aren’t as skilled as you’d hoped, and your investment goes down the drain.

It’s one thing to lose a bankroll on your own. But it’s far more tilting when you don’t have money to play anymore because you loaned it all out to someone who will never pay it back. Never loan any money out to anyone — not even the most trustworthy person you know — if doing so puts your bankroll below the 25-30 buy-in threshold. Ever. Under any circumstances.

Different games pose different kinds of bankroll risks and come with the potential for varying-sized swings. This means that players should maintain a certain bankroll size for each game type in their repertoire, especially for beginners. 

When your bankroll can’t contain a particular downswing, you can adjust the blinds or limits you’re willing to play. Moving up and down in stakes is a necessary part of proper bankroll management and indicates a level of maturity as a player. 

Similarly, an upswing can allow for more action and more risks — possibly even a jump up in stakes. However, moving up to high-stakes play without keeping a certain number of buy-ins, big blinds, or big bets in your bankroll can be a ticket to bankruptcy.

No-limit cash games

Live poker cash games require fewer buy-ins in your bankroll than online games. Online poker cash games move so much faster, especially when multi-tabling, so you should maintain more of a cushion for the swings.

Here’s an example bankroll size for no-limit cash games:

  • Online no-limit cash games: 100 or more buy-ins
  • Live no-limit cash games: 30 or more buy-ins

Limit cash games

Limit cash games don’t have the all-in factor, which means losses are somewhat limited. Even so, players should maintain a certain number of big bets in their bankroll. Limit poker has swings, too.

Use this as a guide for a limit-cash-game bankroll size:

  • Online limit cash games: 50 or more buy-ins
  • Live limit cash games: 20 or more buy-ins

Heads-up games

For heads-up sit-and-go (SNG) games, you’ll need a specific bankroll size. It won’t be as high as with other forms of poker because heads-up games are easier to finish and analyze. Losses are limited and can be adjusted much more quickly than in cash games.

  • Online heads-up SNGs: 40 buy-ins

Live heads-up SNGs are rare. For a live heads-up tournament, players should have at least 50 buy-ins in their bankroll.

Multi-table tournaments

Multi-table poker tournaments (MTTs) carry the biggest variance and require the largest base bankroll. MTTs online and live are also very different beasts with the ability to lose or gain bankroll money at varying rates of speed.

Here’s a suggested bankroll for MTTs:

  • Online MTTs: 500 buy-ins
  • Live MTTs: 250 buy-ins

These figures pertain to normal structures, not those in the turbo or hyper-turbo categories. The speed of fast-play tournaments requires players to double the numbers above.

Tools & apps for poker bankroll management

The easiest way to track your bankroll is with an app or specific software. These can cost money — from a one-time fee to a monthly charge — but some are free. The analyses that these services provide can be well worth the cost, and many even contain poker training tips.

There are several tools and apps you can use to manage your poker bankroll:

  • PokerCharts is an online service with session and opponent tracking options.
  • Fergulator is a free downloadable bankroll management tool.
  • Poker Stack is a free app in Google Play and the App Store for bankroll tracking.
  • Poker Bankroll Tracker is an app best used for online poker tracking and analysis.
  • Pokerbase is a free app for all devices to help manage bankrolls and share hands.
  • Poker Notes Live is an app for live poker players to take notes.

Or use a simple spreadsheet

At the beginning of your poker career, the easiest way to track your bankroll movements is with a chart. You can do this in any notebook or in a simple Excel spreadsheet or Google doc. 

Create a chart where you can input each session of poker, including blinds, buy-in, rake paid, hands played, time played, expenses (food and drink, parking, etc.) and wins and losses. You can also include notes about players, atmosphere, and other factors that affect your play during a particular session.

From there, you’ll want to do some calculations with those figures to determine your win and loss rates, average earnings over time, return on investment (ROI), hourly rates, and trends. 

Don’t count on success

Finally, no matter your bankroll management skills, success in poker isn’t guaranteed. It takes a great deal of skill, a little luck, and deep pockets to survive the bad beats and come out on top. Don’t get in over your head. The vast majority of poker players never make it to pro status.

Featured image source: Flickr