A look at cash-game poker economics

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Recently, a player asked why I play \$2-\$5 no-limit hold’em and not \$5-\$10. Your choice of limits should be based on bankroll and ability to stay in the game when cards aren’t coming your way. Winning requires staying power and the ability to overcome periods when you’re running badly.
Let’s examine the difference between \$2-5 and \$5-10 from an economic standpoint. The differences are profound on profitable poker play, which allows you to play longer sessions.

These examples are based on nine-player tables. Every orbit requires you to pay the big blind and small blind. In a \$2-\$5 game the orbit costs \$7. In most cardrooms, dealers deal for 30 minutes before they’re replaced. The average dealer will deal 15 hands per down. For purposes of this example, we’ll use 15 hands per down as our root number.

In a 30-minute down with 15 hands being dealt, you’ll be required to post what works out to be \$11.62 in blinds.

Assuming you’ll play for 90 minutes, you’ll see 45 hands, paying about \$34.86 in blinds. The cost per hand is easy to figure: \$34.86 divided by 45 hands is about 77 cents per hand. Your average cost is about 38 cents per minute to play.

An average pot in a \$2-\$5 game with three players seeing the river is between \$39-\$47 on average. Winning one average pot per hour will negate the blind costs. If you’re able to steal one set of blinds per hour with positional bets (raises) you increase your profit margin by about 60 percent or roughly \$21 over the 90-minute period. This is a great risk-reward ratio when compared to profit margins.
When you have the luxury of knowing a few well-placed bets will ensure an average cost of \$14 for every 90 minutes (\$34.86 minus \$21), there’s never a point when the patient player needs to gamble or push a hand to overcome blind costs.

Most players think little of blind costs when selecting a game. Over the long run for players who want to earn a living or simply want to play recreationally, making a profit is largely related to cost factors. The \$2-\$5 game allows every player the effective risk-reward cash-based ratio that other no-limit dollar amount games do not.

Let’s examine the cost factors for \$5-\$10 NLHE using the same numbers: Blinds will cost \$74.70 over 90 minutes. You pay \$1.66 to see each hand, or 83 cents per minute. Fewer players on average see flops and generally speaking three players to the river only occurs about once in every seven hands. Thus smaller pots on average (the average pot ranges from \$48-\$67) make the risk-reward ratio more difficult to overcome in the long run.

Now factor the game itself. Higher-limit games have a better quality player than lower-limit games. Better players and higher costs will destroy even the most skilled player and their bankroll.

To ensure a proper rate of return for investment, always factor limit costs and time played vs. simply higher limits.

— Antonio Pinzari is the former host of Poker Wars and has been playing poker professionally since the ’70s.