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Poker Strategy With Ed Miller: What Should You Buy In For?

Miller Explains The Benefits and Drawbacks of Each Buy-In Size

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Back in 2005 I wrote a book called Getting Started In Hold’em. It was mostly a book about limit hold’em, since that was still the dominant game at the time. (Though that changed within a matter of months.)

But I could see at the time that no-limit hold’em was on the rise, so I wanted to include a relatively small section on no-limit. I wanted to outline a strategy that would work, beginning to end, and keep you afloat. Fifteen pages or so aimed at the beginner level wasn’t going to make you rich, but it could keep you from losing.

I decided to outline a short-stack strategy. The idea was to buy-in for a small amount (usually the table minimum), and then stick the money in preflop and on the flop with good hands.

At the time I wrote that chapter, it was a generally profitable strategy in many no-limit cash games. If your sole plan is to make a good hand and stick all the money in you have to find opponents willing to call you with weak hands even though you always have a good hand. In 2005, these opponents were common enough that you could count on getting paid.

In 2017, these opponents still exist, but you can’t really count on them. If you pick the wrong table to try your short-stack strategy, you can go a very long time before you find someone willing to get their money in bad against you. Meanwhile, you end up folding away a whole lot of blind money.

If you add in that rakes have been creeping up since 2005, and that this strategy is very exposed to high rakes—particularly at the $1-$2 level where many players try this strategy out—it’s probably not profitable anymore in most circumstances.

On one hand, that’s a bummer, since I still regularly get questions from folks reading the book and wanting to try the strategy out. I have to tell them that the strategy won’t really work anymore. At least not to make money.

On the other hand, winning at poker—or any form of gambling, for that matter—isn’t about finding one angle and riding it for years and decades. The landscape is always changing. So truly the key skill is to be able to survey present conditions accurately and to devise a profitable strategy. That’s a lesson worth learning early on.

But just because my simple short-stack strategy probably isn’t profitable anymore, it doesn’t mean that buying in short is bad. There were two parts to my strategy. First, buy in short. Second, fold most of your hands, and go all-in with the few good ones. It’s this second part that’s too simple and obsolete these days. You could replace the second part with something smarter, and it would likely still be profitable in most games today.

So that leads us to the question. What should you buy in for? Is there an amount to buy in for that’s better than other amounts?

I’ll run down the plusses and minuses of various buy-in amounts.

Short Buy (About 30 big blinds or less)

Short buys emphasize preflop and flop play, because there tends to be little to no money left to play the turn and river. It means, of course, that if you get the money in preflop or on the flop, you need to have a strong hand most of the time. But a truly strong short stack strategy also involves bluffing—both preflop and on the flop.

This stack is best if you are overmatched in turn and river play by your opponents. While you won’t necessarily win against a table of opponents who all have more skill than you, buying in short will limit the damage and can, in some circumstances, even turn the tables.

A short buy is also good if your opponents play very loosely on the early rounds. If your opponents like to buy in deep and play a lot of hands, then your short stack can jump in here and there and create profitable opportunities for yourself.

As I said above, a short buy is very vulnerable to high rakes, particularly when the rake is high compared to the big blind size as it is at $1-$2 and $1-$3. You are paying a huge chunk of every pot you win, and that will be difficult to overcome in most circumstances.

Medium Buy (About 30 Big Blinds To 70 Big Blinds)

I’ve found medium buys to be particularly good in some situations—particularly at higher stakes. In low stakes games, buy-ins of these sizes are fairly common, and players are used to them.

In higher stakes games, these buy-ins are more uncommon, as most people buy in for more. As such, I’ve found this buy-in range to be a bit of a hole in the strategic understandings of many of the rec players in these games. In general I think players will see a 60-big blind stack, think “short,” and treat it similarly to how they would treat a 20- or 30-big blind stack. They will get all-in on the flop with a wider range of hands, they will take turn bets less seriously, and so on. There’s a stack size window here where you can get otherwise somewhat tough players to get bad money in against you because they’re not accounting for those extra 20- or 30 big blinds in the stacks.

Other than that, medium buy-ins are good for limiting play on the river. So if you feel like your opponents will tend to outplay you on the last round, it can be good to buy in for something like 50 big blinds. In the long term, however, it’s probably better to try to become a better player on the river than to try to avoid river play.

Regular Buy (About 70 Big Blinds To 150 Big Blinds)

These are the buy-ins that most no-limit players are familiar with. I won’t say too much about them, except that if you feel like you are among the best players in your game (especially for turn and river play), then you should probably buy in at least this much.

Deep Buy (More Than 150 Big Blinds)

Buying in deep allows for at least one extra raise on one betting round, and it also allows for large overbets on turn and river rounds. Both of these options, strategically, suggest you should bluff more often with deep stacks. With more money behind, bluffing frequencies earlier in the hand should go up. And your bluffing frequency when you overbet should be bigger than it is when you make standard-sized bets.

My experience is that when typical players buy in deep at the $1-$2 or $2-$5 level, they don’t really use the extra money properly. Mostly it just sits on the table as the players play roughly the same way they’d play with a regular-sized stack. But if you can figure out how to improve your bluffing game, a deep buy-in could give you a bigger edge than you are used to. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.