Poker is a wagering game and you can't wager without money. Only a fool plays with money they cannot afford to lose - everybody else needs a bankroll for their dedicated poker money. You can't win if you go broke! But just how much should you spend on poker?
Poker Bankroll Management Basics
A poker bankroll is the money you set aside to play poker. Your poker budget should be kept separate from your "life roll" - that is, your money for everything else.
Bankroll management is the art of maintaining a poker bankroll and is probably the most underrated skill in poker. Even if poker is just a hobby for you, you should still try to practice sound bankroll management.
If you don't have a big enough bankroll for a certain game, you should not play in it. You either need to :
- drop down to a stake where your bankroll is big enough, or
- increase your bankroll using money that you can afford to lose.
And that last point is vitally important...
Never, ever use money for poker that you need for something else or otherwise cannot afford to lose.
Poker is a game of skill over the long-run, there's no doubt about that. But because of the random element, everyone experiences a high degree of variance over the short run. Sometimes the cards go your way, and sometimes the poker gods are against you.
If you make +EV plays you will profit over the long-term, but you may experience long stretches in the short-term where you just cannot win to save your life. Even absolute crushers can experience a downswing where they lose ten or more buy-ins for the stake they are playing.
You need to be able to weather these inevitable downswings, and this is where your bankroll comes in.
The bankroll you need depends on three main factors:
- the stakes you play at - the higher the stake, the bigger the bankroll needed
- the variance of the games you play - the more variance, the bigger the bankroll needed
- your skill level - just because you can afford to play a certain stake doesn't mean you should!
These principles apply for both live and online poker bankrolls - but if you play live you need to remember you will have extra expenses, such as food, accommodation and transport.
As a general rule of thumb, you should have at least 30 buy-ins for any cash stake you play at. A buy-in is the maximum amount you can buy-in for - usually 100bb. So 2NL has big blinds of $0.02 and a buy-in of $2. So you would need a $60 bankroll to play 2NL.
If you are an incredible player you can get away with less; if you are not so great you will probably need more. The higher your win-rate, the less variance you will experience, and the lower your minimum poker buy-ins required to be safe.
With tournaments, the variance is even more of an issue than in cash games. This is mainly because you will get involved in more all-in situations. MTTs are worse for variance than single-table sit-and-go. Turbos and hyper-turbos have more variance than regular speed tourneys, and these swings happen faster.
You will need a bigger bankroll to deal with the increased variance. Around 50-100 buy-ins are recommended for tournaments. For example, if you play $1 sit-and-go, you'd need a bankroll of $50-$100.
There is an exception to strict bankroll management. If you feel you are ready to play a higher stake then it's okay to move up and take a shot before you have actually grinded your way up to the minimum buy-ins for that stake.
Set aside a few buy-ins for the higher stake and go and play. You might run good and win enough to give you a big enough bankroll to move up permanently.
Or you might get your ass handed to you, in which case you move back down as soon as you have lost those shot-taking buy-ins. If you don't move back down, you aren't shot-taking, you are playing outside your bankroll.
If you are not a winning player then your bankroll will eventually run out. You don't really have a poker bankroll - you have a poker budget.
This is nothing to be ashamed of - most hobbies cost money, after all.
Poker is tough and the vast majority of poker players are not winners over the long-term once rake is taken into account. Online poker rake is usually lower than live poker rake, but the games are tougher - and either way, rake is the reason most players can't turn a profit.
But just because you aren't yet a winner doesn't mean you should not be disciplined! You need to set yourself a clear budget for poker. Decide how much you want to spend on poker each month and stick to it.
You can have a hybrid system too. For example, you deposit a bankroll of 20 buy-ins and top it up at the start of each month only if you need to.
Whatever you do, don't ever use money for poker that you cannot afford to lose.
Managing your Poker Winnings
If you are a winning player - or you have a winning month or a big score - you have a few options when it comes to what to do with the extra cash.
The most obvious choice is to leave the money in your bankroll to build it up so that you can move up stakes quicker.
If you aren't interested in that, then it makes sense to withdraw some of your profit each month. Withdrawing all of it probably isn't a great idea, because if you have a bad month next month you will need to top-up your bankroll again so that you have the minimum number of buy-ins.
Notice we say "each month" because really you don't want to be randomly withdrawing from your bankroll when you feel like it. Allow yourself a limited number of withdrawals per year - for example, once a month.
If you play big tournaments though, there is a chance you can bink a massive score. That might be the time to reconsider your roll. If you play $1 tournaments with a $100 roll and you somehow win $5,000 then what are your plans?
Do you want to move up stakes - and are you ready? If not, do you need to keep it as poker money - or would it be better use it as a windfall to treat yourself?
Making a Living from Poker
If you want to make a living entirely from poker, then you need to be even more disciplined. You need to work out your monthly "nut" - that is, all your living costs. Your win-rate needs to be enough at the stakes you play to generate at least that amount, on average, each month.
You'll also need to have six months expenses set aside on top of your bankroll. Poker players' earnings are not consistent and you should not be dipping into your bankroll to cover living expenses after a bad month at the tables.
Your bankroll should be much bigger than the average non-professional - perhaps 100 buy-ins rather than 30. If you want to play for living, you cannot risk going broke because if you go broke you can't work. The professional's tools of the trade is their bankroll.
Ways to Maximize Your Poker Money
So you've got a poker bankroll - what now? How do you make sure it lasts? Let's have a look at some tips for maximizing your poker money.
Always Play within your Bankroll
Proper poker bankroll management isn't exciting but it's the difference between being a degenerate gambler and a serious poker player.
Of course, if you just want to gamble, that's cool too. No judgment here! But if you want to be serious about poker, you need to let your bankroll dictate what games you play.
Money is the tool of the poker player and so your bankroll is your tool box. Take care of it. Decide on your bankroll, and stick to it. And most importantly of all: never, ever play poker with money that you cannot afford to lose.
Understand, Recognize and Control Tilt
Emotional control is a massive part of being successful at poker. Tilt is basically any time you are not playing your A-game because of your mental state. There are many kinds of tilt, including entitlement tilt, bad beat tilt, card-dead tilt, mistake tilt, revenge tilt, desperation tilt.
Poker is a game of making good decisions, and so if you are not thinking straight you will not make good decisions. Unfortunately, poker is also one of the most frustrating, rage-inducing games ever designed!
Tilt affects every poker player. But some players have taught themselves to recognize tilt and control it before it causes their bankroll serious damage - and some have not. All it takes to undo years of careful bankroll building is one tilt-induced session of chasing losses at higher stakes. Don't let that happen to you.
Jared Tendler's book The Mental Game of Poker is a good starting point in your journey to understand, recognize and control tilt.
Have a Stop-Loss System
Poker is such a great game partly because of the short-term random element. It means even the world's best player cannot expect to win every single hand or even every single session. You have to embrace the fact you will lose sometimes.
When you get stuck (i.e. you're losing), it can be very easy to convince yourself to keep playing to chase your losses. The thing is, sometimes it's just not your day and you will end up losing even more.
You lose a few pots, you begin to tilt, you make poor decisions, you lose more pots, you tilt more - and before you know it you're shoving 72o out of pure frustration.
Poker is a game where it's so much easier to lose money than it is to win it. Consider setting yourself a daily stop-loss limit. It could be one buy-in, it could be five - or even more. But what's important is that you set it before you start playing and you stick to it. You lose that amount, you quit for the day right away.
Some players also use a stop-win system. They'll quit once they've won a certain predetermined amount - say two buy-ins. Generally speaking it doesn't make sense to quit when you are playing well, but if you suffer from winner's tilt (where you start playing badly because you've got a big stack) then this can really help your win-rate.
Table and Game Select
Poker is hard enough as it is, so why make things harder on yourself by playing tough games on tough tables?
The vast majority of your profit will come from capitalizing on fishy recreational players' silly mistakes - not battling against regulars. Your edge will always be so much smaller against regs than fish, and that means more variance. And variance means bankroll swings.
As Matt Damon says in the classic poker film Rounders: "If you can't spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker."
Don't be the sucker. Table and game select so that you always have an edge.
Constantly Work on Your Game
As we mentioned earlier, the better you are at poker the less variance you will experience. The less variance you experience, the longer your bankroll will last.
Playing will help to improve your skill - but you can only get so far if you don't also put in study time away from the tables. Make sure you understand the game's core concepts and take the time to review your hand histories to make sure you are implementing what you have learned.
If you invest the time and money in improving your game, you will get it back on the tables tenfold.
How much should you spend on poker? Never more than you can afford to lose. Poker is only gambling if you want it to be. If you have a solid strategy, good emotional control, and practice proper bankroll management then you can achieve great things. Treat your poker money like the tool it is and look after it!
This article was published on March 29, 2021, and last updated on June 30, 2022.