Having selected a game and found a seat, there is one further question that needs to be addressed before starting play – how many chips should you purchase at the start of a session? Typically, when you take a seat you will be prompted to buy-in for a certain amount, e.g. $80 for $2/$4 hold’ em, $200 for $5/$10, $800 for $20/$40 etc. These figures are perfectly reasonable for a single session at the respective limits. However, there is certainly an argument for buying-in for a little more than these amounts, since if you experience a bad run at the start of a session, you are less likely to be marked down as a target by the other players – bigger stacks do receive more respect. A buy-in of 20 or 30 big bets is certainly a perfectly acceptable figure when you first sit down. Players who sit down with 10 big bets or fewer immediately draw attention to themselves as perhaps either being inadequately bankrolled or taking a shot at a bigger game than they are used to, perhaps playing with ‘scared’ money. On rare occasions a player will manage to convert a $50 buy-in at a $5/$10 game into several hundred dollars, but far more often they will quickly run out of funds and be forced to re-buy or leave the table.
The issue of ‘money management’ is a somewhat controversial one in poker literature. Some players advocate the adoption of a single-session ‘stop-loss’ policy, whereby if you lose a certain predetermined amount you should immediately quit playing, whereas others argue that you should stay in the game until you are no longer favoured to be making money, regardless of whether you are winning or losing at that particular point.
Until you become an experienced online player, it is certainly worth considering adopting Annie Duke’s ’30-bet rule’, limiting single-session losses to 30 big bets. In an article published at UltimateBet.com, she argues that ‘unless you are able to accurately judge how you play compared to others, loss-limiting with the 30-bet rule effectively stops you from dumping off large sums of money in games you may not be able to beat.’ Furthermore, it prevents additional losses that may be incurred by being identified as a target by the other players in the game, or possibly either playing too softly or going on tilt: ‘By limiting your losses to 30 big bets, you are effectively minimising the time you spend playing with a poor table image, playing passively, or steaming at the table, and maximising the amount of time you spend playing your A-game,’ she adds.
Although $800 may be a sufficient sum for a single session of $20/$40, it is just that – a bankroll for a single session. To allow for the vagaries of chance, a minimum online poker bankroll of $4,000 would probably be required to compete in this game on a regular basis. Indeed, many experts recommend that your total bankroll should ideally be of the order of 300 big bets (i.e. $12,000 or more in this instance), although naturally the higher your hourly earnings rate, the fewer big bets you will require in your bankroll.
If you play only for fun, risking small amounts in micro- or low-limit games with no real aspirations of developing into a higher stakes player, then your bankroll requirement is simply what spare cash you have available and are prepared to put at risk. After all, many people spend thousands of dollars each year on other recreational pursuits such as golf, tennis and skiing, and they do not expect to make a profit from these activities. By the same token, there is of course nothing wrong with playing online poker purely as a hobby rather than as a means of earning money, just so long as you enjoy it and have the spare discretionary income to finance any losses.
Having said that, many people do naturally aspire to be winning players at the higher levels, perhaps one day competing in the big $40/$80 hold’em game at Paradise Poker or the $30/$60 game at PartyPoker. You should aim to maintain a bankroll of around 300 big bets at the limit at which you play, gradually moving up in limit as your bankroll increases and you become a proven long-term winner (averaging at least one big bet per hour over the course of at least 100 hours’ play) at each succeeding limit.
If you are unable to win at least one big bet an hour in the long run then 300 big bets is insufficient to guard against the going broke, and you would be well advised to play at a lower limit. Furthermore, as Mike Caro has pointed out, the larger your bankroll, the more you should seek to protect it. There is therefore a strong argument for maintaining a larger proportional bankroll as you move up through the limits and your risk-exposure increases.
These figures could perhaps be doubled if you are playing exclusively heads-up, where the swings can be up to twice as great (that is, unless you are a truly exceptional heads-up player). However, if you are an Omaha hi/lo rather than hold’em player, a bankroll of 100 rather than 300 big bets might be sufficient for a winning player, since the variance in split games such as Omaha hi/lo is so much lower. (Incidentally, the ante and bring-in structure of online seven-card stud is so variable that it does not lend itself to this kind of linear analysis. For example, the $3/$6 game at PartyPoker and $6/$12 game at PokerStars both have the same $0.50 ante structure.)
One problem which many players run into eventually is that, having worked their way up through the limits, gradually building up their bankroll, they then experience a really bad run. At this point it would probably be most prudent for them to drop down in limit in order to replenish their bankroll (and perhaps restore some lost confidence). However, this kind of decision is problematic for many players, since their ego won’t let them take what they perceive as a backwards step. It is also important to remember that losing players actually require a bankroll that is sufficient to finance their losses over a lifetime – the only useful recommendation for such players is to work at their game and become a winning player; bankroll requirements are clearly redundant in this instance.
Whatever the size of your bankroll, it is inadvisable to not keep large sums of cash with a single online poker site, unless that amount is required to finance your regular play. There have been instances in the past where sites have gone out of business, leaving a trail of unhappy depositors in their wake, and there is always the possibility that it could happen again. When in doubt – cash out!
If you are used to playing in live-action games, it is worth remembering that in an online game at the same limit your hourly swings will inevitably be much greater, due to the many more hands that you will be dealt every hour – you may therefore find yourself effectively playing ‘higher’ than you would ordinarily be comfortable with. Whether you are playing in high stakes games or at micro-limits, there is one golden rule to bear in mind – never gamble with money that you cannot afford to lose. Please gamble responsibly.