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Texas Hold'em No Limit Beginner

Small Stakes Strugglers - Stripping Down Your Poker Game (Part 1)

9,894 Views on 15/5/15

Many small stakes poker players face similar challenges. In order to over come hardships at the tables, it is good idea to strip your poker game bare and return to the foundations. It will be worth your while

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Small stakes poker Background

I've been playing poker since 2005, Poker Quiz when the games were as soft they possibly could have been. After trying my luck at every variant available I joined a training site in 2008 and moved to 6 Max NLHE exclusively and slowly worked my way up to being a 50nl reg with the occasional 100nl table thrown in, and I had a steady win rate. But then literally overnight, one day in April 2011, Black Friday happened and the games became a whole lot tougher, and unbeatable for many at their current stakes.

Many players struggled on, with the low volume grinders not realising for many months that they weren't winners anymore. I realised fairly quickly due to the large volume i was playing that it might be a good idea to start over again. Move down to the smallest stakes, and find my level before I get overcome with frustration and end up giving up the game for good.

After a good look at which formats looked healthy following the almost total withdrawal of the US player pool I decided to stick with NLHE but moved to full ring instead. It was always considered good advice when I started playing to hone your skills playing 9 handed before chasing the potentially higher win rates at 6 Max or even heads up.

I had never played 9 handed cash games before, and decided to try my hand at Zoom hoping that the increased volume would help me make the transition as smooth as possible. I also set some ground rules for things that I would either do all of the time, or never do any of the time, to stay out of trouble in my new tighter environment.
But then literally overnight, one day in April 2011, Black Friday happened and the games became a whole lot tougher, and unbeatable for many at their current stakes.
It is this approach I'm going to suggest for any readers that are struggling to become good winners at the 2nl and 5nl level. The combination of a tight, low variance style with some simple rules should allow you to start winning very quickly. In my opinion 2nl and 5nl play almost exactly the same but there is a jump to 10nl and 25nl which does require some skills to maintain the same 5bb/100+ win rate.

How can we become winners at small stakes poker?

I've helped a few players struggling at 10nl or 25nl, and when I ask how well they can crush 2nl and 5nl they tell me they haven't even played any kind of sample size at those stakes which makes me think that they don't really know where they stand, and are likely trying to work on too many things in their game at one time. This leads to frustration and sub optimal play and often ends with poor results.

For those of you, who like me, accept that they aren't massively talented, biting off more than you can chew and trying to run before you can walk will almost certainly lead to gaps in your knowledge which will hinder your progress with the more advanced concepts.

One of the main issues which I struggled with when I first moved to cash games and started to build up some kind of skill base was a lack of understanding where the profit comes from exactly, and more precisely, the difference between lots of value and thin value. It is these thin value spots which cause improving players to make huge mistakes, as if your read is spot on you can make a small profit, but if you're wrong you may lose a lot.

For example, a 6/4 nit opens UTG 9 handed and you have KK. 3 betting and stacking off without having any idea if this guy will stack off QQ+, AK puts you in a sitution where you're at best  a 57% favourite; however, if he only stacks off KK+ then you have little more than 22% equity, which is a complete disaster, this is also the most likely scenario. Many players in these games will not even stack off KK pre flop as they assume you will only get in KK+.
 It is these thin value spots which cause improving players to make huge mistakes, as if your read is spot on you can make a small profit, but if you're wrong you may lose a lot.
I also had  problems in many spots where I was thinking I can't fold here because it will turn me into a losing player if I'm getting pushed out of too many pots, I had absolutely no understanding of how likely a player was to be bluffing, or how important the spot really was. 

So if we can Poker Quiz learn to stay out of trouble and understand that you can play in an exploitative manner at these stakes because people aren't going to do an effective job at exploiting you, then it becomes easy to see with your own eyes how the vast majority of profit will come from heavy value betting, not from calling or making thin bluffs. I want you to see how you can make excellent win rates by basically just taking money from the fish, and being careful against the other regs.

Once this process is complete, then you can move on to adding other things to your game such as improving your redline game. It is true that you will often have more opportunities to learn if you play higher stakes but that isn't the same as saying you can't learn a lot at 5nl.

Playing 5nl FR Zoom will expose you to every player type you can think of, and you can build your bankroll quickly while you learn, rather than rakeback grinding 25nl feeling that you aren't getting anywhere fast.

Ensuring profitable small stakes poker hand selection

I'm not going to argue that teaching somebody poker in a "paint by numbers" fashion is ideal. But as I mentioned above, we can't all learn at the same speed, and this is what worked for me, averaging 6bb/100 over  a few million hands.

Lets look at preflop first. After playing the same 13/10 style with good results I added more hands to all positions for about 2 millions hands and found that for EP and MP everything I added was losing me money, which make me think that hardly anybody looser that I play against is checking their database to see what's working and what isn't. Playing too many hands that aren't profitable for you will help to kill your winrate.

Seats 1-3

AQo+, 77+

If you're playing SC's from EP and aren't a decent winner I would hazard a guess that they are losing you money. Don't worry about showing other players that you can hit low connected flop because they almost certainly aren't paying attention. KQs and AJs were both losing for me over more than 2 million hands.

Seat 4

AJ+, 22+, ATs , KQ, T9s+
, + any suited broadway

Seat 5

AT+, 22+, A9s, KQ, 98s+, + any suited broadway

The weakest suited broadways such as QTs are very marginal from these seats; keep an eye on your results once you have a good sample. Some of you will no doubt be surprised to see the smaller suited aces missing here. I tried them over 2 million hands and couldn't make money with them earlier than the cut off. I'll go into more detail about why I think that was in part two.

Cut Off

A9o+, 22+,Axs, 54s+, 75s+, K9s, Q9s + any two broadway

This should be about 25% average once  you start flexing your opening range  based on players left to act behind you.


Any Ax, 22+, Any two broadway, 54s+, 64s+, 98o+, K9o, Q9o, J9o

This is what I used against unknown players, it's tight at about 36% but can keep you out of trouble with trash hands when you have no reads.

Once you have stats on the blinds, it's up to you to start flexing your range based on how you predict they will react to your steal. I have on my HUD the stat for BB fold to BTN Steal, and have seen calculated that if both these numbers for both players add up to more than 145 ten you have a profitable open with any two cards, obviously ignoring any in game dynamics.
In case of both players being 3 bet happy or maybe rasing tons of flops, I recomend tightening up to something like the cut off range above.
However, with Zoom rather than reg tables you can get away with murder with BTN steals without any major adjustments from most players as they're happy to just move onto the next hand in general.

In case of both players being 3 bet happy or maybe rasing tons of flops, I recomend tightening up to something like the cut off range above.

Small Blind

This is the same Poker Quiz situation as the BTN, just look at who you are playing against. If BB is unknown then somewhere between CO and BTN is fine. If the BB fold to SB steal stat is over 70% then you can open any two cards  and give up on most flops when you don't hit if his fold to c bet is low.

Remember, when players are defending very tightly their range is full of pocket pairs Ax Kx Qx which means you won't get as many flop folds as you might expect. Just be happy to know that your steal was profitable in itself, no need to start geting into multi street bluffs at this stage.

The Ground Rules for Small Stakes Poker

Now we know what cards  to play we can start putting together a basic strategy. Here are some of the ideas I came up with.
  • Don't put 3 streets of money in with only 1 pair in a single raised pot
  • Don't fire c-bets at players folding less than 40% of flops when you don't have at least a pair, unless fold to turn c-bet is unusually high.
  • Never stack off anything other than KK+ pre flop for 100bb
  • Never call non pocket pairs out of position when facing a 3 bet for standard sizings
  • Fold everything but sets and decent draws when facing a raise on the flop in single raised pots
  • No 4 bet bluffing unless villain is 3 betting around 10% from his position AND you are in late position yourself
  • Definitely no 5 bet bluffing at this stage!
  • Only bluff raise flops HU where you have many turn cards which improve your equity or give you close to the nuts, as well as having a good sample size on villain where he has shown he can fold.
  • If a non crazy villain raises the turn and you have only one pair then fold. Time and time again poor discipline with this concept has cost me many stacks.
  • River raises are almost always the nuts. Nut flush on a paired board might be a close decision, but the majority of the time you will see a full house or better.
This is just a small taster of how I approached my build up from the basics, some of you will think this is a little weak tight, and it's definitely not optimal but it will keep you away from donating your win rate in spots where you feel you might be good a fair bit.

In reality you can still crush up to 5NL with this approach, and even break even at 25NL. My first 250K hands were around 7bb/100 playing like this, and I'm not really doing a whole lot more these days. Last year I had a 400K hand sample pushing 9bb/100, and my "redline game" is still extremely basic. 

I hope those of you who are feeling frustrated with trying to become winning players can get something from this approach. Full ring NL is not boring as many will tell you,  though it does play a lot simpler, and this can only be a good thing when you are still trying to master the more fundamental aspects of the game. 

Keep it simple, learn to be disciplined and remember Dan Harrington's often used quote: "Big hand big pot, small hand small pot".  Don't be the guy always claiming he has a "pot odds" to make a call, donking off 40bb on the river when you're almost certainly never good.
Big hand big pot, small hand small pot. Dan Harington

Still to come

In part two I will look at some hand examples in detail, and discuss how to analyse with Holdem Manager 2 focusing on what stats are most important and my HUD set up.


Mark Patrickson

Mark Patrickson is a professional cash game player grinding stakes up to 100nl 6 Max NL Hold'em13 years experience of poker, across MTT SnG and cash, FL PL NL.Currently living in South East Asia and trying to make it back to mid-stakes befo ... Read More


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