The Realities of Moving Up
Feb 16, 2006  
2006 Jason Kirk  

If you stick around low-level limit hold'em games long enough you'll begin to notice that, contrary to popular belief, there most certainly are players at these tables who take the game seriously. More often than not these are the players who have invested time and money in seeking out the best advice that a book can offer. You'll also find that these players are usually on a bankroll that limits them to smaller games, even if their skill level would allow them to keep up in a higher-limit game. They are either being conservative with their bankroll management, allowing themselves to stay in play as variance runs its course, or they believe that they should move up the ladder one limit at a time to "earn" their way into bigger games. Whatever the reason, the point is that good players do exist at the smaller games - maybe you're even one of them!

Because the rake hits harder in low-limit games than it does players at bigger games, it's not uncommon to spend more time in these small games building a bankroll than you would like. That's the sort of situation that can lead to a great deal of frustration. It's definitely not easy to find yourself immobile in a game that you know you're capable of beating. Any player who takes the game seriously but finds himself stuck often experiences a lot of psychological pressure to move up in limits quickly. It's hard to get respect from your peers playing $1-2 limit hold'em, after all, and if there's one thing a serious player usually craves it's respect. It's this pressure that leads to one of the most dangerous thoughts a player on a small bankroll can have: "If I could just play higher limits for a while, I'd have a shot at really moving up." There are two main problems with this line of thinking. Both of them derive directly from a common assumption that serious low-limit players have: that the competition at higher limits will be better, giving them a shot at finally playing some real poker.

First, there is absolutely no advantage to be had in playing against better competition. This can sound counter-intuitive to someone who's logged many hours playing in the donkey pastures of online low-limit games, but it's true. If you play against better players, your chances of winning will go down. That doesn't necessarily mean you're going to lose your entire bankroll, but you're certainly putting it in more jeopardy than if you play against weak opposition. To paraphrase Mike Caro, the key to winning at poker lies in being better than the bad players you play against. You don't have to be the world's best poker player to make money - you just have to beat the people who are scrambling to give their money to you.

The second problem is that the competition at higher limits really isn't that much better. The tables at these limits are still populated by the same kinds of players you'll find playing $2-4. The main difference is that the games are simply more aggressive than they are at lower limits. People with more money than they know what to do with can sit down at a $40-80 table and treat it like a penny ante, kitchen table poker game. Just because you respect the stakes at which you're playing doesn't mean there's any reason to believe that everyone else does.

If you play small-stakes games and find yourself entering the zone of frustration that makes you think playing above your bankroll is the key to moving up, take a reality check. It's certainly true that you could score big and never have to play a small-stakes game again in your life - after all, anything can happen at a poker table. The basic mathematics of bankroll management, however, say that the most likely result of consistently playing above your bankroll is going broke. Be sure to consider how willing you are to lose all your bankroll before you decide to start playing $10-20 with only $2000 to your name. Grinding through the lowest limits can often be frustrating, but it's also a great way to learn the more subtle ins and outs of the game that a book can't always teach you.

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