Ryan Fee

How to Make Winning Adjustments in Low Stakes Games

Low and micro stakes poker is different…

…but not as much as a lot of you guys seem to think. I saw countless comments during Doug Polk’s Bankroll Challenge like this:

“How could Doug bluff there?! They NEVER fold at the micros.”

This assumption may seem right to some of you, but assumptions have limits, especially when they have no real evidence supporting them. It’s best to avoid blanket statements like the one above, and instead focus on thinking about each spot individually.

That said, there are some general adjustments you should be ready to make at low stakes poker, both live and online.

In this article, I’ll be reviewing a session Doug Polk played for The Poker Lab at $0.50/$1.00 where he demonstrates key adjustments, some of which apply only to low stakes players (live $2/$5 and lower, online 200NL and lower).

This is part 3 of Dissecting The Lab, an article series where I review content and share highlights from the Upswing Poker Lab. Part 1 can be found here, and part 2 can be found here.

Fine Tuning Your Pre-flop Game

In part 1 of this series, we discussed a way to utilize pre-flop hand charts, specifically the ones recommended in The Poker Lab. Here is Doug’s take on using such charts:

“We feel comfortable creating ranges for your general game template, but you should always consider all factors when constructing your ranges in a specific game—your ranges should change based on the game you’re in. There are a lot of situations where you want your ranges to be much looser, particularly in some of these smaller-stake games.”

When to Tighten Your Pre-flop Ranges

Doug goes on to present a number of specific scenarios that can (and should) impact whether you utilize a looser or a tighter pre-flop strategy.

  • Play tighter if you lack experience.

If you are a relatively inexperienced player still building a solid foundation, then applying stricter hand selection requirements to your ranges is necessary. Doing so will make your life a lot easier by limiting marginal post-flop spots.

Similarly, if you’re unfamiliar with a pre-flop concept, start with a tight range and expand it as you learn the nuances of the situation.

For instance, let’s say you want to implement 3-betting light with suited connectors into your game. You should begin by bluffing only the strongest combos, like 98s and 87s, and refrain from 3betting hands like 54s and 75s until you’ve become more confident with your post-flop decisions.

  • Play tighter against a tight player’s open.

If your opponents are playing relatively snug, you should unquestionably be tightening your continue ranges against their raises.

In a game filled with nits—I know…the horror!—you’ll want to focus less on balancing your pre-flop ranges with bluffs, and more on avoiding battles against super strong ranges.

  • Tighten up if the game has relatively high rake.

An unfortunate reality of online poker at low stakes is that the rake influences optimal strategy.

Since PokerStars doesn’t rake pots that end pre-flop (at least not currently), one adjustment you can make is to reduce the number of hands you see a flop with. This can be achieved by tightening your flatting ranges and by 3-betting more with the worst parts of your range to increase their EV via fold equity.

(Note: Ready to take your poker game to the next level and make more money? Discover the secrets that helped our high stakes pros make it to where they are today in The Poker Lab. Click here or below to learn more.)upswing lab banner

When to Loosen Your Pre-flop Ranges

When we find ourselves as the aggressors in the steal position, we can actually widen our ranges more than usual for a few reasons:

1. Generally, recreational players at low stakes play too tight against steals.

2. Thinking players, who are trying to limit their post-flop action due to rake, will usually fold to steals more than thinking players in other games.

3. We get to play more hands post-flop against the weaker competition.

A good general rule in low stakes, high rake games is to loosen your pre-flop raising ranges and tighten your pre-flop calling ranges.

The Importance of Constant “Re-categorizing”

One of the key concepts presented in our Post-flop Game Plan and The Poker Lab is the use of hand categorization through a 4-category hand strength system.

If you aren’t a member, here’s a brief explanation so we can all be on the same page.

  • Category 2: Medium strength hands with which to check and/or call.

C2 hands are best played passively; they aren’t strong enough to bet because they will too often be behind when called, but they are strong enough to call when facing a bet.

These are hands that we should use for checking back, calling a bet, or checking with the intention of calling a bet.

  • Category 3: Bluffs and semi-bluffs/draws with which to bet or raise.

These are the bluffs we use to balance our value bets and take advantage of the times our opponent folds.

These hands are (usually) played as bets or raises immediately, in conjunction with hands in Category 1 (strong value hands).

(Note: If you want a detailed breakdown of this categorization system, learn more about the Post-flop Game Plan by clicking here.)

The hand categories are meant to simplify your decision-making process, but there’s a critical element to it that Doug went on to explain:

“You want to be constantly re-categorizing hands, and become very efficient at that process.”

In other words, hand categorization needs to be fluid. When a hand is categorized on the flop, it is not set in stone. It’s important to re-examine its strength again on the turn, and then again on the river. For example:

100NL on PokerStars, $95 Effective Stacks

Preflop (Pot: $1.50) Doug is in the big blind with:

folds to btn, BTN raises to $3, sb folds, Doug 3-bets to $12, BTN calls

Flop ($23)
Doug bets $8, BTN calls

Turn ($38)
Doug checks, BTN bets $24, Doug calls

River ($86)
Doug checks, BTN bets $52 all-in, Doug calls

BTN shows

Doug wins with a flush

In this hand, Doug flops a flush draw after 3-betting pre-flop. This is a clear Category 3 semi-bluff hand, so Doug treats it like he would his value hands by betting.

Doug would continue barreling this Category 3 hand on most turns, but once he turns a pair his hand shifts to a Category 2 hand, which you’ll recall is not strong enough to bet and get called by worse, but is strong enough to call with when facing a bet.

For this reason, rather than blasting chips into a pot with a hand somewhere between a bluff and a value bet, we need to proceed in the same way we would with most of our C2 hands—by check-calling.

doug low micro stakes strategy

The mistake many inexperienced players make is failing to consider the hand in its entirety, and in turn acting based on just a small piece of the puzzle.

So, the next time you’re working on dividing hands into different ranges, make sure to pay close attention to how each new card impacts your strategy. Otherwise, all of your work will be for nothing.

Next time on Dissecting The Lab, we’ll complete our exploration of Doug Polk’s 2-part PokerStars 100nl cash-game session by checking out a couple of hands that highlight the need to balance our aggressive post-flop strategy with a bit of passiveness.

Until then, best of luck on and off the tables!

(Note: If you learned from this peek into The Poker Lab training course, why not check out the whole thing for yourself? Learn more about The Lab and check out Doug Polk’s video walk through by clicking here or below.)low micro stakes lab banner


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About the Author


Yaniv Son, known online by the poker moniker Sentin7, is a professional player and author with over a decade of poker experience who owns and operates the poker strategy site spinandgostrategy.com

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