Cash Game Strategy Guide: How to Win Online Ring Games

There are 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. Tournaments have more variance, so many long-time poker pros prefer the more stable environment of cash games.

Online cash game poker is popular, where you can log in, play as long as you want, and log off at your leisure. Playing online ring games is much different than live cash games, so we’ve provided a guide to poker cash games strategy both for offline and online play. 

What is Cash Game Poker?

Cash games, sometimes 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.

  • Freezeout Events: Tournaments only give players a finite amount of chips and when those chips are gone the player is eliminated.
  • Cash Game Dynamics: In cash games, people can play as long as they have still have money and the desire to play. 
  • Poker Rules the Same: Tournaments and cash games use the same general rules and poker hand rankings but there are many differences in strategy.

The Benefits of Online Poker Cash Games

Cash games have certain advantages over multi table tournaments (MTTs). Here are some of the main benefits to play in an online cash game. 

  • Control Your Time and Action: Unlike tournaments, the player when they play, how long they play, and when they get involved in the action. Tournament raise the blinds to force the action and have day-long sessions. If you feel bad or need a break, you simply leave the table in cash games. 
  • Smaller Bankrolls: Because cash games have less variance, you won't need as big of a bankroll. Tournaments have a larger luck factor, so you'll have longer losing streaks. The smaller swings in fortune during a cash game assure you a more stable income. 
  • More Abiliity to Improve: Cash games offer more information about your opponents, so you can improve quickly. Using tools like Poker Tracker 4 or Holdem Manager 2, you can analyze opponents fairly quickly in a number of situations. MTTs would require millions of hands, because of the disparity in situations and chip stacks in a tournament. 

Cash Game Strategy Tips

Keeping that in mind, let’s take a look at specific cash game tips. Here’s a look at some of the key ways you can improve your cash game play.

Cash Game Tip #1: Try to Categorize Opponents

Most poker pros use a couple of 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 Players: 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: 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: 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.
  • Passive Players: However often they get into pots, the passive player tends to call instead of raise or re-raise. 
  • Reading Players is Shorthand: It’s somewhat of an oversimplification to assign your opponent one of those characteristics, because most players are a combination of traits.

Cash Game Tip #2: Play the Player

Tournaments have a large number of players. As soon as you're getting a good read, you’ll be moved to another table. Cash games offer more control. If you don’t like the table you can always just quit the game and look for a better one.

  • Player the Player, Not the Cards: The best cash game players combine poker math with an intuitive understanding of their opponents. They have a solid understanding of odds, but also have insight to their opponent's tendencies. 
  • Take Advantage of Passive Players: In Rounders, 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.

Cash Game Tip #3: Take a Long-Term Approach

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 Sportsbook is and it’s possible to win 100X to 500X your initial buy-in. Cash games let you build your knowledge slowly, then use it to your advantage. 

  • Scout Yourself, Too: Keep track of your win-rate over time and try to stay in the black. It’s OK to lose a buy-in or two during one session if you just won five buy-ins in your previous session.
  • Hourly Rates: 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.

Cash Game Tip #4: Don’t Be Afraid to Rebuy

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.

  • Poker Mastery is Dynamic: Become comfortable with losing hands -- it’s just going to happen. Use the hand for information, then apply it to improve. Losing can be improvement. 
  • Don't Play Scared: If you lost your stack, don't play scared. It's generally helpful to avoid thinking about the actual cash value behind chips and just play your game.
  • Learn From Your Mistakes: No one can avoid variance completely. The best thing poker players can do is try to learn from their mistakes. Just like the stock market, you’re going to see your investment dip at certain times.

Cash Game Tip #5: Don’t Go Broke

Be economical. If you combine cash game strategy with a solid bankroll strategy, it’s almost impossible to grow broke in poker. A solid bankroll strategy means you walk away from the table at certain times. Go back to the lab, learn more, and come back stronger. 

  • Bankroll Management Defined: 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.
  • Poker Bankroll Management: An Example: 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.
  • Play Small Stakes Games First: 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.
  • A Conservative 50 Buy-In Standard: 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.

Live Cash Game Strategy

Players often wonder what a playable hand is in live games. Here's a rough sketch of the playable hands, speculative hands, and everything else. 

Playable Hands vs Speculative Hands

  • Big Pocket Pairs: Pocket pairs like AA, KK, QQ, JJ, or TT are good starting hands. Raise with them, and often even re-raise with AA, KK, QQ, and JJ. The big value is flopping a set, where loose/passive players will call your bets. 
  • Good Top Pair Hands: A top-pair hand is one with a chance to make top pair and has a good kicker. AK, AQ, and AJ fit into this category. KQ also works here if the board comes King-high. Often with these hands, the kicker pays off because passive players went into the pot with a lesser kicker. 
  • Speculative Hands: Speculative hands are those with a chance to draw to a set, a full house, a flush, or a straight. While they rarely win without improvement, they offer the player to win big-pot hands. Speculative hands rely on implied odds, so you hope to see the flop for cheap. These work best when you play from position, so be warned against playing them from up front. 
  • Everything Else: Should be folded (in most instances). Know the pot odds and take calculated risks, but also know your opponents. Bluffs are worthwhile occasionally, but a player should usually have the nuts if they're betting against loose players. If several opponents call bets often, bluffs don't necessarily work. 

Live Cash Game Tips

Playing online cash games is much different than playing live cash games. The reason is simple -- it draws different sorts of players. While mid-to-high stakes online cash games tend to draw more skilled players, local live games often have a few recreational players. When playing in live cash games, adjust your strategy accordingly. 

  • Play More Hands from Late Position: Players tend to be more passive in live cash games. If you notice that players in the blinds are playing more passive, take advantage by Sportsbook with big bets. 
  • Target Those Who Limp: Many more players limp in to pots in live cash games. Raise aggressively when you spot this behavior, because it helps you steal the pot preflop or make everyone fold after a c-bet. 
  • Use Different Bet Sizes: Live poker players often don't care as much about the size of a bet -- they chase their draws no matter the bet. If you notice this in a live game, punish the opponent. Many won't fold to big bets, so it's a good place to make money. 
  • Adjust Strategy: Most live tables have a couple of weak players who are having fun and aren't that focused on their money. When you play recreational players, open more when they're in the blinds and isolate them when they're limping. 

Keep honing your poker strategy by reading some of the helpful articles below. 

Poker Strategy 101

How to Play Poker

Cash Game Strategy FAQ

How can I be a good cash game player?

Read cash game strategy books and articles, then gain experience with the tactics by playing ring games online and in live settings. Start with lower blind levels until you consistently win, then move up to the next level. If you want something more specific, play tight/aggressive poker until you get comfortable with varying play. 

Mastering poker is like mastering art -- you master the basics first and then develop your own style. Thus, avoid getting into pots with medium-strength hands first. Play only strong hands, learn how to bet with premium hands, and then move on to more advanced tactics. 

How do you beat low stakes cash games?

If you want to make a little bit of money, follow old school poker strategies. Low stakes cash games have a lot of fish, so you'll succeed if you have patience and use sound strategy. Play tight, be patient, don't bluff, and win small pots. 

If you want to crush low stakes cash games, then you'll need to use sound strategies AND exploit your opponents. Size-up your opponents' weaknesses, then exploit those weaknesses as the game progresses. Strong preflop strategies include betting 2.5x or 3x the big blind. Play tight and aggressively. That's lower than many of your opponents, but they're still in low stakes games, so don't take advice from them. 

From there, we could branch out in several directions. When you're in the pot, play aggressively. If people raise in front of you, then re-raise. Use overbets to your advantage in postflop play, and stop slow playing big hands. Typically, you'll push people out of the pot. In postflop play, cut your losses when you know you're beat. Don't pay people for the sake of your ego. 

What is a good cash game ROI?

A range of results are considered good. Frankly, any positive winrate in live poker is a good result. In online cash games, a 0-10bb/100 hands is a good result. 10+ is exceptional. In live cash games, 0-30bb/100 hands is a good result -- 30+ is considered exceptional. 

Should you limp in cash games?

Many cash game experts advice that you shouldn't limp into pots in cash games. Most experts suggest players should play tight, but play aggressively when they do bet. That being said, sometimes limping is okay in the right circumstances. For instance, if most of the play at the table is passive, then limping in the right scenarios lets you see flops without paying a premium. If you see flops with low risk and great implied odds, it's not always a bad thing. 

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