When you join a cash poker game, one of the first considerations you must make is how much money to invest. Most poker tournaments provide you with a choice of options, including a minimum and maximum buy-in, however certain games are “uncapped,” meaning there is no maximum buy-in.
Let’s start by defining what are buy-ins: no-limit or pot-limit structures, which are commonly referred to as “large bet” games. In fixed-limit games, the size of your stack has a significantly smaller impact on your strategy.
Instead of discussing exact monetary amounts, let’s simplify the decision to buy in “large” vs “little.” In uncapped games, “large” means having more chips in play than the majority of the other players. “Small” will refer to an amount that is less than what the majority of other players have in front of them. Alternatively, consider “little” (or “short”) as 50 or fewer large blinds, and “big” (or “deep”) as 100 or more large blinds.
Should you buy big or small based on those definitions? It all depends as it does with everything in poker.
Factor #1: Keep your bankroll in mind
It all depends on your financial situation. You should never risk a single dollar that you cannot afford to lose. You should also only risk a small portion of your total cash. Respected authority varies on the exact percentage, but it is believed to be safe to state that no one would recommend putting more than 10% of your bankroll on the table at any time.
Factor #2: The amount of time you have to play
Another consideration is the amount of time you have to play. Assume you’ll only be playing for an hour or less before heading out. Then you’re probably planning a “hit and run” strategy, in which you want to double up with one large hand and then flee. A short stack is better with this tactic. A high stack, on the other hand, is better suited to benefitting from a series of little pots or patiently waiting for one of those rare opportunities to put all of your money into a really large pot when you are going to win it.
Factor #3: Your skill level in comparison to your rivals
When money and time aren’t constraints, the most crucial aspect to consider is your competence in comparison to the other participants. Especially in games like Texas Holdem the more skill advantage you have, the more you can use a deep stack. If you’re at a table with sharks, on the other hand, it’s generally best to buy in short if you’re going to play at all.
This is why: When you have more chips in play, making decisions becomes more challenging. Let’s say you’ve flopped a set (good!), but the board is filled with straights and flushes (bad!). Your opponent has now bet enough that you will have to call with all of your remaining chips. If you only have $10 left, the decision is trivially straightforward; if you only have $100 remaining, the decision is far more difficult.
If you’re on average better than your opponents at making large-money judgments, you’ll be able to make a lot more money playing a big stack than a little one in poker tournaments. If your opponents have the advantage in those difficult decisions, however, a deep stack will simply result in you losing more money per hour than if you played short.
With a low buy-in, the majority of your decisions will be made preflop and on the flop. Later in the hand, you will have few or no bet-sizing decisions because either all of your chips will be in, or the amount of money you have left relative to the size of the pot will minimize your options to all-in or fold. Obviously, these are easier decisions than when you have a large stack and a wide range of bet-sizing alternatives.
One last option worth considering is a hybrid strategy in which you start with the smallest buy-in to test the waters while keeping the option of increasing your buy-in later. Determine whether this table is fishy or sharky, if it is tight or loose, if it is profitable or if it is likely to lose your cash. If things appear to be going well, add as much as you can to take full advantage of the scenario. Otherwise, try another table, game, or casino, or simply wait till another day.