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Buy In for Less and Win More

Another buy-in strategy

by Ed Miller |  Published: May 06, 2011

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Ed MillerIn online poker, a “standard” buy-in for a no-limit hold’em game is considered to be 100 big blinds. That would be $200 in a $1-$2 game and $1,000 in a $5-$10 game.

In live no-limit play, 100 big blinds is not quite the standard buy-in, but it’s still a popular amount. Perhaps it’s your habit to buy into a $2-$5 game for $500, or maybe you buy in for more. I think many no-limit players, however, would do better to buy in for somewhat less. In fact, I think some players would actually win more money per hour if they bought in for about 50 big blinds instead of 100 or more.

The biggest mistakes that live no-limit players make come on the river. The best no-limit players, therefore, often like to buy in to cover the table, so that they can play big pots and take maximum advantage of these huge river mistakes.

But let’s say that you’re not the world’s greatest no-limit player; you’re only a good player. You play tight. You’re patient. You don’t often make daring calls with ace high or run big bluffs. Instead, you mostly wait for good hands, put your money in the middle, and hope to get paid off. Buying in for 50 big blinds instead of 100 will enable you to take full advantage of some consistent mistakes that live players make.

Live players are too loose in playing for a raise preflop. Consider this action: In a $2-$5 game, one player limps in, and another one makes it $30 to go. The cutoff calls, the button calls, the small blind calls, and the limper calls. That’s $155 in the pot already, and at least two of these players probably have no business being in the hand. Live games play like this all the time.

An easy way to exploit these mistakes is to buy in for 50 big blinds and then move all in preflop when the action comes to you and there’s already a goodly sum in the pot. For instance, let’s say that you have Q-J suited in the small blind. A bad player limps in, the next player makes it $25 to go, and two players call. There’s $87 in the pot. You have a $250 stack. You move all in. This is a profitable play.

Let’s say that you are called by anyone holding 9-9 or better, A-K or A-Q, or A-J suited. (Many players will fold some of these hands, and a few will call you looser.) According to PokerStove, you have about a 33 percent chance of winning the pot against this range. So, when called, you will win $87 plus $225 more, or $312, about one time in three. Otherwise, you lose $250. This averages out to a loss of about $63 when you are called.

But usually, you won’t get called. The preflop raiser will often have something like 4-4, A-9, or 9-8 suited, and will fold. The preflop callers are even less likely to show up with a hand to call you. When you don’t get called, you win the $87 in the pot. So, you’re risking an average loss of $63 when called to pick up the $87 in the pot. Therefore, you effectively are getting odds on your steal; yet, if you try this semi-frequently, you’ll find that you’ll succeed significantly more often than 50 percent of the time.

It’s not that Q-J suited is any great hand. The profit comes purely from other players putting too much money into the pot preflop with bad hands. You can move all in here with many other hands and also show a profit.

If you play an otherwise tight, conservative game, running this play from time to time offers you another advantage: It will earn you calls on future hands. Let’s say that you double your $250 buy-in to $500, and flop a set. You bet the flop and turn, and get called by someone who likely holds top pair. If you shove on the river, opponents who have seen you shove preflop with Q-J suited (or a similar middle-tier hand) might convince themselves that you could be bluffing, and call. Of course, the situations are completely different, but your occasional “wild” preflop plays will plant seeds of doubt in your opponents’ minds. This will earn you calls.

The all-in preflop play isn’t the only way to make extra money with a half-stack. You also can make money with half a stack by flopping top pair and getting it in on the flop or turn. Here’s the idea: If you play with stacks of 300 big blinds, hands like K-J offsuit have so-so value. You flop top pair with it, but there’s enough money left that someone holding 8-6 suited can call a bet or two and make your life miserable on the river if the board gets scary.

When you have 50 big blinds, however, K-J offsuit is simply a better hand than 8-6 suited. You can flop top pair and get the money in before the board gets scary. The thing is, live no-limit players don’t adjust to this reality. Even when many stacks are 50 big blinds or less, they keep on playing 8-6 suited and 9-8 offsuit as if these hands were as valuable as K-J offsuit.

So, you profit by raising preflop with K-J offsuit (while folding 8-6 suited and 9-8 offsuit) and getting the money in when you flop top pair.
If you normally play $2-$5 and start your sessions with $500, try buying in for $250 next time. Within the first hour or so, look for a spot to use one of these plays. You’ll find that in many sessions, you’ll get your money in quite good and be up to your usual $500 buy-in in no time. If nothing comes up for you, you can always buy more chips whenever you want to do so.

There’s one more intangible advantage to buying in for half: You’re less likely to lose your pocket bankroll. Your pocket bankroll is the amount of money you bring with you to the cardroom for one session of poker. Let’s say that you play $2-$5 and usually bring $1,500 with you. If you buy in for $500 or more, you could be down to your case money in one or two bad hands. Being forced to go home early because you lost all of your money can feel humiliating. Playing on your case money means fearing that humiliation on every hand you play. For all but the most hard-core gamblers, playing on case money means playing with a little bit of fear, which in turn means playing less than your best.

If you buy in for $250, though, and play sensibly with it, you’ll almost never lose your $1,500 before you’re ready to go home. That means less tilt, more clear thinking, and more high-quality play, which all translates into a higher win rate. ♠

Ed’s latest book, Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em, is available for purchase at smallstakesnolimitholdem.com. Find him on Facebook at facebook.com/edmillerauthor, and you also can check out his online poker advice column, notedpokerauthority.com.