What Stakes to Play in Online Poker Games
There is a well-established hierarchy of buy-in levels in online poker. This ranges from micro-stakes right through to the ‘nosebleeds’. Which buy-in you choose will depend on your experience level and the size of your poker bankroll. If you are new to online poker, you need to be aware that the games at similar buy-in levels to live poker rooms are much tougher. If you are a winning player in a $2 / $5 game at your local casino (for example), then you will need to step down significantly - or risk losing your bankroll fast.
This page covers what to expect at different buy-in levels when playing online poker – covering both cash games and tournament formats. After that I have factored in your bankroll level, and how the natural variance in online poker affects what stakes you should play at.
Cash Game Buy-in Levels
Micro stakes have blinds from 1c / 2c ($2 max buy-in) through to 10c / 25c ($25 max buy-in). This is where most players that are new to the games will head.
Even the smallest buy-ins, the $2 and $5 games attract multi-tabling grinders. These are people from lower GDP countries. For these players, harvesting $1 per hour over 8 tables can make for a reasonable income.
Expect the play to be both loose and passive at these levels. Lots of players limping before the flop and calling raises, players staying in hands with any pair and any hope of completing a draw. These are not the stakes to be bluffing too often. Instead play your value hands strongly to get the maximum value.
#2 Low Stakes
Buy-ins here range from 25c / 50c ($50 max buy-in) through to $1 / $2 ($200 buy-in). If you are an experienced live player transitioning to online poker, then I recommend testing the waters at the lower end of this scale.
Depending on which site you play at, you’ll find a lot of grinders in this range. These players are often multi-tabling using 3rd party tracking software. As soon as this software shows a player who plays outside of predefined starting hand ranges or with different betting sizes, players will flock to the table to relieve that player of their bankroll!
You can still find soft games at the low stakes – though avoiding the grinders is key to winning over time.
#3 Mid Stakes Poker Games
Here the $2 / $5 ($500) up to $10 / $20 games are the focus. Unless you have a ton of experience with online poker, you will not stand a chance at this level. All the players will be pros, all of them will be using software tools (at sites which allow this), and most of them will know each other (by screen name at least).
#4 High and Nosebleed Stakes
These stake levels are the realm of real pros, with buy-ins of $10k and up. Railing (watching) the celebs play at this level has become its own spectator sport.
How Your Bankroll Affects Your Choice of Buy-In
Experience should be the main determinant of which poker buy-in level you choose. Even if you have a big bankroll, choosing a buy-in that is full of pro grinders will millions of hands under their belts is never a good idea!
Your overall bankroll is also important. Even if you are a winning player, then you will experience some volatility due to the fall of cards. This is known as variance.
The general rule of thumb is that you should have no more than 5% of your total bankroll in any one game. This means that if you have a $1,000 poker bankroll, then the highest buy-in played should be the $50 games. Using this 1/20th rule will allow you to move up and down levels as your total bankroll grows and shrinks.
If you are not reliant on your poker profits, then you can always take shots with money you make above your usual level. Using that same $1000 starting bankroll, if you win $300 more you could take a shot at the $100 buy-in games. If you win then you might be able to move up regularly. If you lose it, then you can stick with your regular games and try again next time you build up.
Tournaments have a lot more volatility than cash games. For this reason, the bankroll management ‘rules’ employed by pro players are even stricter. Here the recommendation is 1% of your bankroll as your average buy-in. For non-pro players you could lower this, though keep in mind that tournament play is characterized by a lot of losses, followed by the occasional final table – poker at its most volatile.