You’ve put in long hours at the tables. You’ve studied the books, courses and training videos. But the results aren’t there yet.
This happens to the best of us.
Poker is not a walk in the park, even at the lowest limits. Many great players struggled for a long time to find success at the micro stakes before moving up.
However, there are proven strategies for achieving big time success in these games, and which can help you move up to higher limits where you can start making real money in poker.
I’ve personally played millions of hands at micro stakes, and achieved some of the highest win-rates ever recorded there. Today I want to discuss 8 strategies that helped me along the way.
1. Start really small
Many players are surprised by the quality of play in $25 and $50 games online. They shouldn’t be, though—lots of players in these games study hard and know their stuff!
This is why it’s best to start small online, even if you’ve played poker for years on the side at the casino or in home games. I recommend starting at the very lowest limit online, which is usually NL2 ($.01/.02 blinds).
Now, I know getting used to playing for small amounts of money can be tough. In particular, when the entire pot size amounts to less than the cost of a cup of coffee, it can be difficult to focus on making the best play.
But learning to focus when the outcome of a decision is financially inconsequential is one of the most valuable lessons you can learn as a poker player. The idea is that your decision-making process should be unencumbered by how much money you’ll win or lose—i.e., to become less apt to make emotional decisions.
In contrast, immediately jumping into the $100 games leaves you open to many solid players—some of whom are full-time pros—who have vast amounts of playing experience buttressing every decision that they make. And every one of those players is keen to pounce on less-experienced newcomers like you.
This advice applies even if you have the theoretical skills to win at higher stakes. The fact is there are many other things to consider when moving up, such as the speed of online poker generally, and trends that are unique to certain player pools and game types specifically.
The best way to acclimate yourself with these factors is to gain playing experience at lower stakes, and to move up gradually. And I do mean gradually. Remember that getting to the top in poker is a journey, not a sprint.
Indeed, it took Upswing Poker’s very own Doug Polk years and years to reach the pinnacle of this game after almost quitting early on at very low stakes.
The overall advantage to starting small with online poker is that you get to move up the limits at a comfortable pace, and develop a foundational skill-set that will help you achieve greater success at higher limits.
Another advantage is that you’ll be able to gauge the state of your game. Start at the lowest stake, NL2, and play for a week or two. If you are absolutely crushing that game, then move up to the next limit, NL5, and so on. Eventually you’ll discover the limits of your game: strategies that no long produce the desired results, leaks you probably didn’t know you had, etc.
I cannot stress enough how important to take your time and build your poker empire slowly. The games aren’t going anywhere. They run around the clock both online and live.
Start small, develop a world-class understanding of the fundamental principles of the game and your transition to mid, high and nosebleed stakes will be much smoother.
2. Start with an adequate bankroll for micro stakes
I know it can be tempting to toss $50 online and play whatever games catch your eye. But believe me, this is a recipe for disaster.
One of the biggest reasons players struggle at the micros is that they don’t know how to manage their bankroll properly. Often, they end up going broke again and again as a result.
First things first, you should always have at least 30 buy-ins for any game that you are playing. When I say “buy-in,” I mean 100 big blinds (bb) which is the maximum amount that you can put on the table in most online cash games.
If you are playing NL10 online, for example, which has $.05/.10 blinds, then the max buy-in will be $10. Multiply this by 30 and you should have $300 as a bare minimum bankroll for playing this game.
In my opinion, it is smarter to have even more than 30 buy-ins in today’s games.
The reason why is that downswings at the micros happen even to the very best players. And many players are surprised at how lengthy they can be.
In fact, according to Pokerdope’s variance calculations, there is nearly a 50% chance that a small winning poker player (2.5bb/100) will face a downswing of 3,000 big blinds.
In plain English, this means that if you had 30 buy-ins in your bankroll, then your bankroll would be gone. 30 buy-ins is, after all, 3,000 big blinds.
Now, there are many ways to mitigate against this. Simply having a higher win-rate, for example, will reduce these odds tremendously (keep reading this article for more on that).
But the bottom line is that variance in poker is real and it can be brutal—even at the very lowest stakes.
Make sure you start your poker career with a proper bankroll, and a solid game plan for moving up the stakes as well.
I recommend writing down exact bankroll requirements for each limit in a blog or a journal. (Write down when to move down in stakes as well). This ensures that you have a clear purpose and goal in mind every time you sit down to play poker.
3. Focus on one game type
Make sure that you are focusing on a single specific game type, whether that is cash games, sit n go’s, or tournaments.
All three of these formats require different skill sets for success, and demand widely different strategies.
The problem with trying to play everything—and this includes merely dabbling in other games like PLO, limit, triple draw, etc.—is that you risk becoming a jack of all trades but a master of none.
Look at any of the top players out there you will typically find they are specialists at a single game type. They are the best at what they do, whether that is 6-max, cash games, Heads Up SNGs or live tournaments.
It is fine to branch out a little bit, and to learn some new games, but you should spend the majority of your time trying to master one specific game type.
Which one should you choose, though?
Well, this is really just a matter of personal preference. There is money to be made in all different types of poker games.
What is most important is that you actually enjoy the games that you play in. I believe that some people are “hard-wired” toward full ring games, 6max, or heads up for example.
When you consistently play games that you enjoy, you’ll be motivated to play more and improve your game as well. Both are vital keys to your success in today’s poker world.
4. Find your foundation
The micros are the ideal stakes to build your foundational knowledge of the game. And what this really means at the micro stakes is mastering the art of tight and aggressive play, also known as ‘TAG’.
Here’s the thing about the lower limits: They are filled with beginner-level players who don’t have a solid understanding of the game, and don’t know why they make certain plays.
In fact, many of the players you will encounter at the micros make decisions based on their gut instinct, or a random “hunch,” rather than on mathematics or logic.
This means that you are going to see some of the craziest plays on earth all the time, such as players cold-calling a 3-bet out of position with a small suited connector.
You would never expect someone to have a 4 in their hand in a 3-bet pot when the flop comes K44
But they can and sometimes will at the micros!
This is why it is important, when you are first starting out, to keep everything as simple as possible and to be very selective about what hands you play.
What does this actually mean in practice?
Well, if you are playing in a 6-max game, for example, then I would suggest playing no more than the top 20% of your hands unless you’re on the button or in the blinds.
Here is a visual idea of what the top 20% of hands might look like:
And if you play in full ring games (9- or 10-handed), then I would suggest playing no more than the top 15% of hands unless you’re on the button or in the blinds. (You can probably go a bit looser from the cutoff as well.)
Here is a visual idea of what the top 15% of hands might look like:
By keeping your standards high like this you will prevent yourself from getting into too many difficult marginal situations against unpredictable players.
Furthermore, it is important to play these hands aggressively. This means that you should be entering the pot with a raise, and sometimes re-raising with the top end of these ranges.
After the flop, you should be betting for value frequently, and making plenty of semi-bluffs if you catch any piece of the board.
Generally, by playing a solid TAG strategy you will give yourself the best chance of success at the lower limits while keeping yourself out of awkward and potentially tilting situations.
5. Keep it simple and profit more
Building on everything I’ve said so far, you also want to keep things as simple as possible at the micro stakes.
One of the biggest mistakes I see players make in these games is over-thinking common situations. They even have a name for this: “fancy play syndrome” (FPS). And it means death for your win-rate at the micros.
You have to remember that most of your opponents at these stakes are relatively new to the game. Some of them are just recreational players–aka “fun players”–who have little rhyme or reason for the decisions they make.
If you try some advanced river check/raise bluff against one of these fun players because you saw a high stakes pro do it on TV, you are setting yourself up for disaster.
The problem is that most of the time your high-level fancy play is going to go right over their heads, and they are just going to call you down with their middle or top pair, anyway.
You also need to remember that at micro stakes you are playing for amounts of money that don’t really matter that much to most people. This is especially true at the $10 and below games.
It is really hard to raise somebody the price of a Big Mac and make them lay a decent hand down. It’s just not scary enough to them. They are going to get curious and look you up.
So, one of the best things you can do at the micros is just keep everything as stupidly and mind-numbingly simple as possible.
And yes, believe me, it will be boring sometimes. I know how it feels when you haven’t made a hand in an hour and you just want to make something happen.
But save it for the higher limit games especially where the money is actually meaningful to most people. The only way to crush the cheeseburger stakes is by keeping everything as simple as possible.
6. Fast-play most of your strong hands
The overwhelming majority of micro-stakes players are way too passive. This means you won’t win a big pot by trying to trap them—you have to build the pot yourself.
So, when you pick up your over pair, top pair, or any other strong hand, you need to keep betting at the pot until you have a clear reason to slow down.
The key thing to remember about the passive, recreational players is that they hate folding and love calling. In fact, one of the greatest thrills for recreational players is to catch you in a big bluff.
They are also highly superstitious players who hold a deep belief that everyone is always trying to bluff them.
So how do you profitably counter someone who thinks like this? Answer: You bet big, and frequently, with all of your good hands. And you lay off on the big bluffs in all but the best of spots.
7. Try to improve your game at least a little bit every single day
One of the best things about poker today is the ease with which you can improve your game.
There are countless educational resources out there, from modern books, poker courses, training videos, streaming video sites, forums, and personal coaches.
When I first started playing poker online a decade ago none of this existed. I had to learn primarily by just playing the game. In other words, by pure trial and error.
That meant that in some cases I had to keep making the same mistakes over and over again before I finally figured it out.
You don’t have to do that anymore. You can study the top strategies from the very best players at all levels of the game and massively reduce your learning curve.
Now, there are a couple of caveats with this wealth of poker information. With the sheer amount of educational resources available it can be easy to overwhelm yourself.
So, this is why it is important to focus on a few select poker training resources or authorities on the game that you trust, and listen to what only they have to say.
I also think that one of the main strategies for improving your game should be reviewing your own hands and plugging your leaks.
If you play online, the easiest way to do this is to load up a poker tracking program like PokerTracker or Hold’em Manager and review key hands after each session.
You can also run filters in these programs to really zero in on exact mistakes that are holding you back.
The poker training resources out there today are outstanding and you should be taking full advantage of them.
8. Don’t be so serious
The last and most important way to start crushing the micros is to remember why you started playing this game in the first place: to have fun!
We often tend to get way too serious at the poker tables especially when things aren’t going our way. It is important to remember that at the end of the day this is just a game. The whole point is to enjoy yourself.
Micro stakes games in particular are pure madness. As I touched on before, this is where you are going to find some of the craziest players on earth.
You are going to face a countless and never-ending amount of bad beats at these stakes. I often joke that I have taken more bad beats than anyone in the history of poker. I am only half joking.
But because they play so bad, this is also why your win-rates can be so insanely high at these stakes. In fact at the very lowest limits variance can almost be removed from the game.
I often refer to the micros as the “circus.” Because that is truly what they are at times. One of the best things that you can do for your game is to learn to start simply laughing it off more often and quit obsessing over your day to day results.
If you choose to get frustrated or angry over every ridiculous river card that they hit, then you are simply going to be miserable most of the time, and probably tilt and play bad too.
This in turn will make you less likely to want to grind hard and improve your game, which are both absolutely crucial to your success.
You simply have to embrace the madness that is micro stakes poker. Breathe in the bad beats and exhale them with a smile. Remember that this is just a silly card game at the end of the day.
And the bottom line is that if you consistently use a solid strategy against bad poker players, the chips are all coming your way in the end anyways.
Final Thoughts on the Micro Stakes
It is easy to look at your favorite poker superstars on TV or online and imagine how nice it must be for them. The fame, the riches, flying around the world playing in exclusive games.
But what you don’t see is the struggles that they often went through for years and years in many cases at the beginning of their careers at the lower limits.
The vast world of micro stakes poker is where you are going to develop the fundamentals and work ethic necessary to take you to the very pinnacle of this game.
But unfortunately for most, they never actually make it out of the micros. This is why it is so important that you focus on the proven strategies for success at these stakes that I outlined above in this article.
This means starting small and building your way up one step at a time. Making sure that you have the right bankroll and staying dedicated to one specific type of game.
You should also focus on a basic TAG strategy at the micro limits and keep everything as simple as possible against your very simple opponents.
Lastly, you want to make sure that you are focusing on what really moves the needle for your poker winnings, the recreational players.
And you should also be committed to consistently improving your game by studying training materials and reviewing your hands as well.
Look, all the money, the fame and the bracelets can be yours one day. But it all starts with a few small steps at the micro stakes. Go out and conquer this world of low stakes poker first, and your path to the top will be that much easier.
Nathan “BlackRain79” Williams is a poker pro with some of the highest winnings in online poker history at the micros. He is also a multiple time best selling poker author and writes about small stakes poker strategy on his blog: www.blackrain79.com