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Why Cash Games are the Bread and Butter of Poker

September 12th, 2015 by LD1977
Even when you're just starting out, cash games are the "bread and butter" of poker.

Even when you’re just starting out, cash games are the “bread and butter” of poker.

If you want to be certain of earning money in the long term while playing poker online, cash games are where it’s at because of:

Low variance due to larger hand samples and less “flipping”

One of the significant differences between online cash games and various tournament types is that a cash player achieves large hand samples fairly easily, which makes him more resilient to influence of variance (= actual results converge towards reality more quickly).

In tournaments you will bust out early or mid tournament much more often than going deep or reaching a final table, so average number of hands played per tournament is actually fairly low.

Combined with the fact that tournaments inevitably (via increasing blinds/antes) go into a “stack off” stage, when luck (primarily losing “flips”) goes bad, even a winning tournament player can easily go a very long time without success.

Naturally it will all be forgotten when he finally hits his big score, although, not everyone likes to wait for months (years?) for something that is far from guaranteed to ever happen.

Meanwhile, in cash games, a player that is (even slightly) superior to the field can grind out a steady and low risk profit without much trouble. Unlike a multi-table tournament (MTT) player, he will try to get his “big score” gradually by progressing through levels until he maximizes his income. Obviously this is not nearly as glorious as winning a big MTT, but slow and steady never busts his bankroll.

The whole philosophy is that a cash player counts on repeatedly applying small edges on a very large number of hands.

This comes from superior understanding of hand ranges and poker math, not “soul reading”, telepathy, “gut feeling” and such concepts that amateur players love to mention in their poker stories (it seems some TV poker commentators also love these instead of focusing on the real stuff).

Ease of winning at lowest levels of play (= bankroll growth)

Depending on the site, lowest level of NL Hold’em being on offer is 2NL, 4NL or 5NL. Full ring runs on bigger sites while 6max normally runs on every established site.

These days many sites offer Zoom, Rush, Snap (I will use Zoom for the whole subtype) type of poker, where every time you fold you get moved to a new table, which is great for volume and allows for some really fun exploitative strategies.

Regardless of the actual size of big blind, the lowest level is usually populated with beginners mixed in with semi-experienced players unable to defeat it. Winners usually move up simply because their bankroll management dictates it, money is better on the next level and almost everybody wants to see how high they can go.

Virtually all players are horribly unbalanced and easily exploitable so defeating them is not a problem (more on this in later blog posts). High volume combined with a certain skill edge equals easy bankroll growth.

 Ease and comfort in achieving volume

Big advantage of cash games is that every hand is separate from the others so in case of any real life emergency it is easy to stop playing (ideally after we finish the circle for which we paid the big blind).

Playing six 10-minute sessions is exactly the same as playing for one hour straight as far as volume goes and every player can pick his own ideal way of achieving a volume goal.

In a big MTT, the real money is made only after hours of playing (deep in the tournament/final table), so having to stop playing for any reason when deep means both a huge waste of time and a huge loss of win rate (ouch!). Same goes for sit-and-go (SnG) tournaments, but those are much smaller/shorter and getting to the money is easier, so such losses are not as terrible.

Playing 4 tables of Zoom cash games (which is fairly easy to accomplish with some experience and practice) means you can play between 750 and 1200 hands per hour depending on:

  • Experience (= speed of decision making)
  • Composition of playing ranges (tighter ranges = more hands per hour)
  • General post flop strategy (how deep towards showdown we go with an average hand)

If we lowball it, a casual Zoom player can easily play 750 hands * 2 hours * 30 days = 45000 hands every month, which will allow him to earn a small but steady side income (which consists of direct table earnings and rake back, bonuses, promotions cleared).

Average regular player can play 1000 * 6 * 30 = 180000 hands for a bit more serious income (including higher win rate and much better bonuses).

To achieve this number of hands per hour you can also play regular tables. It is normally accepted that 4-5 regular tables equal 1 Zoom table.

Those tables give a slightly softer field at the expense of more complicated logistics:

  • you need to change tables when they break up or get bad
  • connectivity problems hit very painfully (timing out on 16 tables sucks much more than on 4 tables)
  • it is much harder to read a HUD on smaller tiled tables, which can be countered with a use of 2 or 3 monitors (more expense, more real life space needed)

Best education due to deepest necessary baseline technical proficiency

This seems counter-intuitive to be mentioned as a positive, but the whole “low variance” thing means that winnings come from real knowledge advantage.

A big advantage of cash games is that every hand is separate from the others.

A big advantage of cash games is that every hand is separate from the others.

The fact that in a cash game, players will play with an effective stack anywhere from 10bb (often when a recreational player does not reload but plays with his miniscule stack) to 200+bb (when 2+ players doubled up on someone) means experienced players have “seen it all” and know what to do in more varied situations.

Tournament forms of poker have their own specific knowledge requirements (push,fold,call ranges, ICM considerations) but these are fairly easy to pick up to a competent level because math is simpler when stacks are shallow, there is really not that much space for creativity with a 5-10 bb stack.

This allows for easier expansion into other formats. Many known MTT professionals are actually successful cash game players who expanded into MTTs as a side income. They use cash games to make a living and ride out the MTT variance (which is the largest problem in MTTs).

For a different take on things you can check out what Justin Buchanan thinks here:

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5 Responses to “Why Cash Games are the Bread and Butter of Poker”

  1. gago980 Says:

    I play mainly Tournament games. Only once I played cash games (zoom) and I did not cope well. Perhaps this is an opportunity to learn more about cash games.

  2. Lheticus Says:

    Excellent article. Personally, I liken winning in poker through cash games vs. tournaments as two people going to the same destination, one going through a long flat desert and the other going through a rainforest. Both paths are dangerous for different reasons, and the desert (cash games) is long, straight, and boring, but reliable where the rainforest (tournaments) is exciting and adventurous but is much more difficult to find one’s way through. I myself go through the rainforest and extoll the virtues of that path, but I do not begrudge those who choose the desert road–it’s only not my thing.

    I agree completely with what you said as well–you can win at cash games with a sufficient understanding of the odds without playing anything but your cards. That makes it boring to me, but it also makes it reliable to others. However, there IS one thing that gave me pause, the part about effective stacks. I’ve been led to believe that the conventional wisdom for cash games is to always buy in the maximum, 100bb and even to top up if you start getting too far below that. How often do winning players actually play 10bb in ring games, do you think?

    For those that don’t know, I’m the Justin he mentions at the end of the article–thank you kindly for that linkage, sir.

  3. rifflemao Says:

    After a week of grinding MTTs nightly, and watching account balances decline, this is exactly what I needed to read. Think I’ll try grinding cash M-F, and play some Bovada Super Stack tourneys on Sundays. Great blog.

  4. LD1977 Says:

    Hi guys, thank for the comments.
    – gago980, I hope you can get some new insights from my blog, feel free to ask questions if something is unclear or not covered. I do have a plan for future articles which should cover all important stuff.
    – Zoom is much better for me due to logistics of multitabling big number of regular tables, but expected winrate per hand is somewhat smaller because people are tighter in general and there are less fish in the pool. However the volume and comfort of playing makes up for it.
    – Justin, for some reason you hugely underestimate skill level of winning cash game players. Cash games are much more interesting than you seem to think because of deeper stack depths and more varied gameplay. You actually need to adjust nonstop because 100bb strategy doesn’t work vs a 40bb player who is sitting on the table (opening ranges, bet sizing post flop, stack off ranges all need to be changed), then next hand (!) when you are 200bb deep vs a decent player things change again etc. Effective stacks vary a lot, there are many types of players that need to be defeated etc. Understanding just odds is definitely not enough to do much.
    – rifflemao – It is normal, MTTs have huge variance and dry stretches can last a long time. On the other hand, you can bink several even if you are bad and then you get to explain everyone how good you are… for a while 😛

  5. HappyGilmore Says:

    I can honestly say that I completely agree with this article. I have always been a predominately MTT payer. About a year ago I started to play more cash games for the simple reason that it was an easy way for me to earn points in a monthly rake race for a forum I was on. It didn’t take long for me to realize that as far as the amount of money I was making per hour playing was way more at the cash tables. As a result I started to play more and more cash games.
    I still prefer the structure of MTT’s but I make sure that I incorporate a lot more cash games every week. The downswings seem to be far less dramatic at the cash tables..

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