There are essentially two dramatically different formats for No-Limit Hold’em poker: Cash games and tournaments.
Cash games are generally easier to organize you’ll find them more frequently in casinos and home games. Cash game poker is also massively popular online where you can log in, play as long as you want and log off.
Tournaments are considered to involve more variance so many long-time poker pros prefer the more stable environment of cash games.
Cash games are also a great place for new players to start their poker journey because they don’t have to worry about playing long hours or losing a big tournament buy-in.
What is Cash Game Poker?
Cash games, which were previously known as ring games, constitute any poker game where real-money is on the line and players can re-buy or leave the game at any time they choose.
Tournaments only give players a finite amount of chips and when those chips are gone the player is eliminated.
Meanwhile in cash games people can play indefinitely or as long as they have still have money. Tournaments and cash games use the same general rules and poker hand rankings but there are some differences in strategy.
Here’s a look at some of the key ways you can improve your cash game play.
Play the Player
In tournaments you tend to get moved around a fair amount and will be exposed to a large number of opponents. It’s difficult because sometimes you’re just getting a good read on an opponent and you’ll be moved to another table.
Meanwhile in cash games you have a little more control over where you’re playing. If you don’t like the table you can always just quit the game and look for a better one.
It’s especially important in cash games to play the individual player in front of you. If you can get good at reading people and figuring out potential marks then you’ll succeed at cash game poker.
You know that famous quote in Rounders where Mike McDermott says that if you can’t spot the sucker in the first 30 minutes of a game then YOU are the sucker. It's not just fiction. Some poker pros have built their entire careers from a handful of soft games.
Try to Categorize Opponents
When people are just learning poker they sometimes get overwhelmed by the idea of figuring out what their opponent is up to.
It doesn’t have to be that complicated.
Most poker pros use a couple shortcuts to narrow down how their opponents play and what kind of cards they might be holding. One of the easiest ways to categorize players is by the standard “tight”, “loose” and “aggressive” styles.
Tight refers to players that only play the very best hands and spend a great deal of time folding 95%+ of the time.
Loose players are the opposite of tight players and they love to play as many hands as possible but spend most of their time calling and will usually fold to aggression.
Aggressive players don’t necessarily play a huge percentage of hands but when they do they tend to avoid calling and instead make aggressive bets or raises.
It’s somewhat of an oversimplification (most players are a mixture of those styles) but try to assign your opponent one of those characteristics. Reading your opponents is the next step to becoming a better poker player.
Take a Long-Term Approach
It’s important to think about the long game when you are playing cash games.
The difference between winning or losing a cash game is subtle. Quite often you’ll simply break even. That’s a stark contrast to tournaments where it’s very clear who the biggest winner is and it’s possible to win 100X to 500X your initial buy-in.
In cash games you’re going to hit some rough patches where you lose a buy-in or two but that happens to everyone.
Just keep track of your win-rate over time and try to stay in the black. In other words it’s OK to lose a buy-in or two during one session if you just won five buy-ins in your previous session.
Some professionals like to do the math and figure out what their hourly rate is. As a beginner there’s a good chance your hourly rate won’t even be in the red but it’s important to think about the game in those terms.
Don’t Be Afraid to Rebuy
As we mentioned above you are going to go through some rough patches.
Even the best poker players in the world lose a buy-in or two when they get aces cracked by kings or some other horrendous bad beat.
It’s just going to happen and the sooner you become comfortable with that the better you’ll play. It's very difficult to play good poker when you're playing scared. It's generally helpful to avoid thinking about the actual cash value behind chips and just play your game.
Just like the stock market or any other risk-prone venture you’re going to see your investment dip at certain times but hopefully recover and hit record highs in the future. No one can avoid variance completely. The best thing poker players can do is try to learn from their mistakes.
Don’t Go Broke
New poker players are often scared of losing all their money to a bad run of cards but the reality is that if you use a bankroll strategy it’s almost impossible to grow broke.
Using proper bankroll management is as simple as setting aside an amount for playing poker and not risking that much of it at a time.
For instance let’s say you want to get started with $100. Most poker players don’t want to dedicate more than 5-10% of their bankroll on a single table. So that means you should stick to games where the buy-in is $10 or less.
If you’re playing $.02/$.05 (where the max buy-in is $5) that means you have a total of 20 buy-ins for that game. It’s very unlikely to go on a downswing where you lose 20 buy-ins so there’s a good chance that $100 will last you a very long time.
Some players like to be even more conservative and make sure they always have at least 50 buy-ins in their game of choice so they might play games where the buy-in is $1. It's all up to the individual player.
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