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While the glitz and the glamour these days in the poker world is focused on million dollar poker tournaments, cash games are the true lifeblood of the poker economy.

Cash Games

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While the glitz and the glamour these days in the poker world is focused on million dollar poker tournaments and the satellites that can get a player into these events, cash games are the true lifeblood of the poker economy.

While the basic rules of the game do not change when playing a cash game versus a tournament, the philosophy and theory change entirely. The two variations are so different that they might as well be two different games. We have all heard of the TV star tournament player who loses all his winnings to the cash game sharks in the other room a few hours after the big win. The difference in decision making between the two games is massive different.

Winning consistently at cash games over a number of years is what many consider to be a crowning achievement in poker. The game’s best players may be tournament stars, but their true talent is their cash game prowess. To truly understand poker theory and philosophy, one must have a solid knowledge of cash games.

Differences between Tournament and Cash Play

As I mentioned above the differences between cash and tournament play are vast, even though the game is played with the same rules. A play that may be standard in tournament poker may be a terrible play in a cash games, and vice-versa. Cash games have their positives and negatives.

You Will Know How Good Are

Unlike multi-table tournaments, cash game players will know rather quickly if they are skilled enough to win while it may take months or years for MTT players to know their true skill level. Why is this the case? Because, the amount of tournaments one must play to know if they are profitable will take much longer.

Even with the internet’s large selection of tournaments, it is tough for new players to quickly tell if they are profitable, even if they start off with a big win. There is a lot of luck in tournaments, which makes it tough to how skilled a player is without a large sample size.

While there is plenty of variance in cash games too, it is much easier for a player to determine their skill level after several months of playing, especially if they play a large volume of hands. Online poker players can multi-table thousands of hands per day, making it simple for even part-time players to be able to view their results and have a general idea about their profitably.

Generally, a cash game player can start to see luck even out after 100,000 hands and begin to draw some conclusions about their play. After several hundred thousand hands, the results are less about luck and become more skill based. The trend of less luck and more skill based results continue as the numbers of hands played continues.

Tournament play is quite different in this regard. It is tough to get a large sample size quickly, and even if you hit it big in a multi-table tournament or go on a six month losing streak, it could all easily be chalked up to luck.

The bottom line is that cash game results are much easier draw conclusions from and can be done in a much faster timeframe than in tournament play.


Instead of having to be on your computer or at the poker room at a specific time – as you would have to with certain tournaments – cash games are almost always available. You can simply jump in and play, and if you happen to lose your stack, you will be able to rebuy.

This is not the case with tournaments, making players build their schedule around their tournament play. While some players are fine with this, many despise having “a place to be” and love the freedom of the poker lifestyle. It’s true. It is more convenient to be able to sit down virtually 24 hours a day, 365 years in a cash game.

Also, if you bust out of a tournament, unless it’s a rebuy tourney – you’re finished. You can’t buy back in or reload your buy-in to get after the poor players at your table. This is one aspect that makes cash games so much more lucrative. Not only can you buy back in to take on the poor players if you happen to lose, but your opponents can, as well.


This is something that many in the poker world look for, not only because everyone seemingly wants to be famous but because of the endorsements and potential money that may come their way with winning a sizeable tournament. This is one area that cash games do lag behind.

For example, Phil Ivey is regarded as the best poker player in the world by many but would likely not have reached his level of fame without his voluminous tournament wins. Likewise, many TV-star tournament players have had their cash game prowess questioned. However, the million dollar tournaments are what drive ratings.

With internet poker’s popularity increasing across the world, the biggest cash game action does get plenty of ink with poker blogs and online news sites. Still, other than the nosebleed limits, there is little news reported on other cash game players.

Game Types

Cash games, which are called ring games at most sites will be the bread and butter for players. The most popular forms of the game are heads-up, 6-max and full ring. These are offered at every online poker site in the world and at brick n’ mortar card rooms and casinos. Limits will range from the micro limits, low to middle stakes, high limits and then the nosebleed limits.

Bankroll Management

Managing your bankroll is crucial for any poker player to understand, whether they play cash games or tournaments. Generally, 40 buy-ins is recommended for each level. This means, if you are playing at $1/$2 No Limit game, the max buy-in would be $200. So, most experts think you should have about $8,000 to work with to play $1/$2.

At the very minimum, 20 buy-ins should be the least amount a player should have at each level. There is no maximum amount a player can have in his or whole bankroll. Also, there is no pressure to move up in stakes even if you are “over-rolled” in your current games. Meaning, your bankroll is much larger than needed for the stakes you are playing.

Win Rates

Analyzing your game through your own personal study or review and through software programs is a vital part becoming a better poker player. Many beginning players spend more time studying and learning the game than they do on the tables. To gauge your skill level, it is beneficial to have an idea of win rate ranges.

I should preface this by saying that even breaking even at poker long term is above average. The vast majority of poker players are losers, so even a marginal win rate or a breakeven game is a minor accomplishment. With that said, poker may not be worth your time if you can’t become at least a marginal winner.

Win rates in no limit cash games are usually defined or calculated by bb/100 which stands for big blinds per one hundred hands. This is the amount of big blinds a player wins per 100 hands played. So, if a player won 4 bb/100 in a $1/$2 cash game, they would be winning $8 per 100 hands, a strong win rate.

Win rates will vary depending on the number players and the stake level. The higher players go in stakes, generally, the lower the win rate. Of course, high stakes players will earn more money despite the lower win rate because the big blinds in those games are much larger.
A general guideline for bb/100 win rates is 2-4 bb/100 is an average win rate for a professional type player. A win rate from 5-9 bb/100 is excellent and above average. Anything 10 bb/100 or higher is elite. Few players will be able to sustain a win rate of 10 bb/100 or higher.

Remember, win rates are relative to the number of hands played. Several hundred thousand hands are certainly meaningful in determining your true skill level, but variance must be accounted for in these results. Advanced statistics can be employed to determine the effect of luck on a player’s results.  

Cash Game Strategy

There are many schools of thought when it comes to poker theory and overall strategy regarding cash games. One of the most vital things to remember in No Limit Hold’em is the importance of stack size. Decisions that are instant calls short stacked become much tougher decisions if one is deep stacked. Playing your stack size correctly is one of the most crucial aspects of No Limit Hold’em cash games.

Tags: poker online poker cash games real money strategy short stack strategy big stack strategy

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