There's nothing like a poker cash game. Seeing bricks of cash stacked up on the table, tens of thousands of dollars changing hands after every pot, cash games are the true poker experience. This is because, with cash games, poker players sat around the table bet with real money, not demonetized tokens.
But how exactly do you get started with playing cash games, and what's the best poker cash game strategy?
Poker Cash Game Explained
A poker cash game is a Texas Hold'Em poker game where the chips have an exact monetary value. Cash games contrast to tournaments where the chips do not have a monetary value and cannot be exchanged for real money.
Players can come and go freely when playing cash games. There is no set limit for the amount of time you must play. However, it's common courtesy to stay at least an orbit if you've won a big pot and to announce to the table that you will soon be leaving. Again, this is different from a tournament where you're locked in until you either win or bust.
However, there are rules regarding the removal of chips. You are not allowed to take a portion of your chips off the table, this is called 'going south' and is not only prohibited in the majority of card rooms but it is also poor etiquette as you are removing the chance for players to win their money back. Similarly, if you want to leave the table and return, you must return with the same number of chips you left the table with.
In terms of how the games play, the betting rounds are the same as tournament poker where there is preflop, flop, turn, and river betting with preflop action starting to the left of the big blind and postflop action starting to the left of the button. The only difference is that tournaments commonly have antes whereas most cash games do not have antes, they only have blinds.
Understanding the Cash Game Rake
Another big difference between cash games and tournaments is that in cash games the pots are raked. Meaning, a portion of each cash game pot is taken by the casino or the poker site for hosting the game. Therefore, that the winning player doesn't get 100% of the pot.
In tournaments, the rake is taken as part of the tournament buy-in and the pots are unaffected, meaning that the winning player will get 100% of the pot. This makes a big difference as some hands will not be profitable to play depending on whether or not there is a rake.
This means that when you are building your preflop ranges, you should research the rake structure in the game you'll be playing and see how it will affect things. The bottom 10% or so of hands will change from being played to being folded if the rake is particularly high like it is at micro-stakes online or low stakes live.
If you're playing online or live in a place with multiple casinos that offer cash games it is worth shopping around to see where the rake is the lowest. As rake is just money going out of your pocket and into the casino's, finding a game where the rake is lower can significantly increase your win rate.
Cash Games vs. Tournaments
When considering your strategy between cash games and tournaments there are a few things you need to consider. We've covered one already which is the rake, the amount that is taken from the pot should impact the number of hands you play preflop - a general rule of thumb is the lower the rake the more hands you can play.
Another difference between cash games and tournaments is that sometimes, in tournaments, it's not prudent to take a 51% edge in a hand if it's for your tournament life. The reasoning being that if you have a significant edge you'll be able to accumulate chips in a safer way which doesn't risk your elimination from the tournament.
On the other hand in cash games, there is no punishment for going broke beyond losing your money as you're able to buy back in and continue playing as if nothing happened. This means that in cash games you should be going for every single edge you can find, regardless of how small it is, as it will be making you money in the long run.
One of the benefits of cash games over tournaments is that there are no restrictions on the amount of time you must play. This means that if you very quickly make a large amount of money you can leave and bank that profit whereas in a tournament you are forced to continue playing until either you win the whole thing or you're eliminated.
It allows you to maximize the amount of time that you play your A-game and therefore maximize your profits because as soon as you feel the quality of your game slipping you can quit the game and come back when you're feeling more focused.
Poker Cash Game Stakes
There are four different stake levels in poker which cover a range of game types. The different levels will play differently based on the players you commonly find in them.
Micro-stakes poker is usually found online or in-home games and caps out at 25NL (/25c blinds). These games are filled with recreational players and bad regulars. The number of competent players in these games is few to none with even the best players at each level having major leaks in their game.
These stakes are considered the easiest to beat and are the best place to start if you're just learning poker or if you've yet to master the fundamentals. However, the rake is also the highest around at these stakes so shopping around for the best site could be very important for your win rate. The best regs could expect to hit a 7-10bb/100 win rate at these stakes.
Low-stakes cash games are the narrowest of the bunch, comprising of just NL50 and NL100 (and in some people's eyes NL200). These are the lowest-stakes games you'll find in a casino. The difference in player skill will drastically change whether you're playing online or in the casino. As these are the lowest stakes you'll find in the casino, you'll find that the worst players will play them - meaning they are the equivalent of the lowest micro-stakes games in terms of difficulty.
However, online these stakes are a lot harder to beat. There is an increase in competent regulars at NL50 and NL100. While these players aren't perfect and will still make some mistakes, they often aren't making as many fundamental errors as the micro-stakes regulars and you will still find a decent amount of recreational players. Your win rate will depend on whether you're playing live or online but a good level to aim for online would be 5-6bb/100.
With mid-stakes poker cash games, we start to play for some serious money with tables in this category ranging from NL200 to NL600. As the amount of money that can be won increases, the quality of the players battling for it increases. If you play these games online you will find a lot of players who play professionally and make very few mistakes. It is very hard to win in these games so achieving a 5bb+/100 win rate would be exceptional.
Live games tend to be a lot easier than the equivalent online stake level, but even in mid-stakes live games, you'll find there are going to be some very good players in the player pool.
High-stakes cash games are generally considered to be any game that's 1000NL or higher. These games contain the best players in the world, people who devote their whole lives to learning the game and trying to get better.
Only the top 0.01% of players will play regularly at these stakes and achieving any win rate is a great accomplishment. Unless you have deep pockets, to begin with, it will take a lot of hard work and a lot of grinding to make it to these stakes, but if you can make it the rewards are extremely great.
Finding a Profitable Cash Game Online
The most important thing you should be looking for when trying to find a profitable cash game is the number of recreational players at the table. If the table is made up entirely of regular players, there probably isn't a lot of money to be made. However, if the table is full of recreational players, you're very likely to make money when you sit down.
The type of recreational players can also be important. A table full of splashy, loose players is going to be a lot more profitable than a table full of nits. While money can be made at both tables, it will be made more quickly when people are playing too loose rather than too tight.
If you're at the casino and picking a table, you'll probably want to pick one of the louder tables where people look like they're having the most fun - often the volume of a player is proportional to the number of hands they play. Not only will these tables be more likely to have the kind of players we want to play against, but they're also a lot more fun to be at!
If you're playing online it's important to make frequent notes and color code players so you can identify as soon as you're seated how many recreational players and how many regulars there are. If you're sat at a table with five other regulars there's nothing wrong with changing tables until you find one that has more recreational players. For some people table selecting like this can be the difference between them being a winning or a losing player.
Be Familiar with Cash Game Players
Being able to identify the types of players that you're playing poker against and adjusting your strategy accordingly will have a significant impact on your win rate. Exploiting your opponent's weaknesses is what often separates the average reg and the crushing reg so pay attention to these types of players at the table and think how you can use their style against them.
These players play a lot of hands pre-flop and they play them aggressively across multiple streets. It's a very hard style to play well as it's easy to be overly aggressive. You'll find a lot of people who play this way are recreational players but there are a few regular players who can master this style of play.
This is the profile of your average regular. They're selective over the hands they'll play preflop but once they're in a hand they'll play it aggressively. If a player is playing this strategy well there's not a lot you can exploit, you'll have to watch their game carefully for specific mistakes they may be making.
Your average recreational player will be playing a loose-passive style. They want to be in there playing a lot of hands but haven't grasped the concept of aggression so they'll be doing a lot of limping and calling but not much betting and raising. These players often want to see a river and don't like to fold.
When a tight player goes too far, they become a nit. A nit is someone who is unreasonably tight preflop, usually playing only the top 10% of hands from most positions. Some nits can be aggressive when they do play (easier to do when your range is so strong) but there are some nits who play passively so it's important to pay attention to what kind of nit you have at your table.
Spotting a Beginner
The players who are only just learning the game are a gold mine when you find them at the table, if someone barely knows the rules but is putting hundreds of dollars on the line you can bet that it will find a way out of their stack and into yours.
You can often identify a beginner as soon as they sit down. They won't be comfortable handling their chips and won't be able to keep up with the action - constantly being reminded by the dealer that it's their turn to act or their turn to put in the blinds. They also won't know how to look at their cards properly and generally look awkward when making an action, it takes time to get comfortable playing live poker.
However, it's also important to look at exactly how they're playing and what hands they showdown. It could be that they're primarily an online player and aren't used to the mechanics of live poker, so even if you have a read from their actions that they're a recreational player you should confirm it with more information before you act on it.
Basic Poker Cash Game Strategy
If you're new to cash games and unsure exactly how to play, we've lined up some basic and advanced poker strategies you can use that should see you do well in most micro-stakes online/low stakes live games.
Be a TAG Player Upon Joining
When you first sit down at a table, you'll want to try and gather as much information on your players as possible before you start trying to exploit them. That's why when you arrive at a table it's best to play a tight-aggressive style, it gives you time to assess your opponents and gives you the advantage of having a strong hand when you do enter a pot.
Pay attention to the showdowns of your opponents as seeing the kinds of hands they're playing will make it a lot easier to categorize them. Once you have your opponents pegged as a specific category of player, you can start adjusting your game to exploit them.
Big Pocket Pairs and High-Value Hands Plays
When you get the top 10/15% hands such as AA/KK/AK/AQ, you'll want to play them aggressively to try and build the size of the pot. When we have the best hand we want to make the pot as large as possible. Preflop we'll do this by raising preflop if we're first to act, or if someone has already raised we'll want to put in a decent-sized 3bet - something between 3-5x the amount the first player raised.
Postflop we'll also want to be aggressive as long as the board isn't too scary. We'll want to be c-betting on most boards to get all the money in by the river. Take advantage of your big hands and don't waste them by always slowplaying.
In-Position and Out-of-Position Strategy
Poker is much easier to play when you're in position. Being able to act last and seeing what your opponents do before you makes it a lot easier to make the correct decision when it's your turn. Therefore we should want to try and play in position as often as we can.
This means playing a lot of hands-on the button by either raising or 3betting, and it also means we don't want to be calling too often from the blinds - particularly the small blind. Even though we're getting a discount the positional disadvantage is often too much to overcome for the weakest hands in our range.
Steal the Blinds
The blinds are the reason anyone plays a hand other than aces in poker. They force action by making you put money in without looking at your cards and to make up for that, we need to try and steal the blinds by raising preflop.
How often we can try and steal the blinds will depend on our position. A good rule to remember is 'the fewer people left to act behind us, the more we can try and steal the blinds'.
This means we're going to be tight from early position, only trying to steal the blinds around 15% of the time as we have the whole table left to act behind us. However, on the button, there are only the two blinds left to act so we can try and steal the blinds around 50% of the time.
Play with Bluff Range on The River
It's important that you have a bluffing range in every spot that you bet. If we never bluffed our opponents would never be incentivized to bluff catch and would only call when they're almost certain to have the best hand.
We bluff in order to get calls from our value hands, so if there's a spot we're betting for value we should be bluffing at least some of the time - this includes the river. A lot of recreational players don't like to bet the river as that's when the pots are at their largest but if you want to be a good player you can't let the monetary amount affect your decision-making.
Pull Off An Occasional Slow Play
If we played each hand the same way every time, we'd soon become a very easy player to read. By sometimes taking our strong hands that we'd usually play aggressively and playing them passively, we can confuse our opponents and force them into making mistakes against us.
Slow playing can also be very effective against over-aggressive players. By letting them do all the betting, we get value from all their bluffs - something we're a lot less likely to get if we play our hand aggressively - as well as their value hands.
Tips for Poker Cash Games
We've covered a good amount of tips for cash game strategy, so let's talk about how we should approach the game off the table.
Set a Profit Limit
While people may be familiar with tilting when losing, there is another form of this called "winner's tilt". This refers to the overconfidence some people get when they're winning which leads them to feel invincible. These people will start to play far too many hands thinking that they're "on a roll" and they're "running so hot they can't lose" and end up losing back all the money they've won.
If this happens to you then it's best if you set a profit limit, where you quit after making a certain amount of money. It may limit the amount you can win, but better to book a small win than to lose it all back in search of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Be Familiar with Counting Outs
Knowing how many outs a particular draw has and then being able to translate that into a percentage or a fraction is essential to being a good player. If you don't know how likely you are to hit your draw, you have no way of knowing whether the price you're being played makes it worth it to call or not.
If you're unable to make these calculations in your head, you're just gambling on whether or not you'll hit your draw. Spend a couple of hours away from the tables and get this math down pat before you play again.
Avoid Becoming Predictable
A lot of players fall into the trap of playing a specific way or betting a specific amount with their good hands and with their bluffs. This will become incredibly easy to read over time to any observant player, so you must mix up your play.
This means sometimes slowplaying a strong hand rather than playing it aggressively, as well as bluffing for a small sizing that you would usually save for a thin value bet. By having strong hands and bluffs in every spot you become a tough opponent to play against.
Cash Game Strategy: FAQ
We've collected and answered the most common questions about cash game poker and strategy.
How are cash games different from tournament games?
Cash games are different from tournaments as the chips are worth a real cash value whereas this is not the case in tournaments. Also, in cash games, you are free to come and go as you please but when you play a tournament you're locked in until the end.
What is a cash game rake?
The 'rake' in cash games is an amount of money taken from each pot that goes to the casino or the poker site as payment for hosting the game. This is usually a flat percentage of the pot capped at a certain number (5% capped at $6 for example).
Do professional poker players join cash games?
Yes, some professional players will play cash games, there are some professional players that exclusively play cash games. However, they are more likely to be found at higher stakes - you won't find many professionals playing 1c/2c!
Are there private online poker cash games?
Private cash games are a feature of several poker sites. You can be invited to one if you know a person who runs one or you can create your own and invite your friends to them. Each site has different rules on the stake limit and the number of players that can join so it's worth researching before picking a site.
Are cash games better than tournaments?
No format of poker is objectively better than another, it all depends on what you prefer playing. A lot of people like cash games for their freedom (being able to come and go as you please) and the fact that you can rebuy as many times as you like.
Can you profit from playing micro stake cash games?
If you're a winning player then you can profit from micro-stakes cash games. Some of the players who can crush the games can win at rates up to 10bb/100 - even after the rake is taken into account. At 25NL this works out to $2.50 every 100 hands!
Why are limpers a source of profit?
Limpers are often a source of profit due to the fact they've limped. When a player limps they're likely a recreational player who doesn't have a strong hand. This means we can profit by raising preflop and cbetting the flop. Due to the fact they often have a weak hand, they will fold the majority of the time, allowing us to win the pot.
Why are players losing at a poker cash game?
Players lose at cash games as they don't have a solid understanding of the fundamentals of poker, which leads to them making a lot of mistakes that are punished by better players. They're often playing incorrect preflop ranges and then not playing aggressive enough postflop.
How long should you keep playing a poker cash game?
You should keep playing in a cash game as long as you feel you are making good decisions. As soon as you feel yourself slipping mentally - whether you're not thinking things through as thoroughly or even just getting tired, you should stop playing and come back another time.
Should you re-buy after losing your initial buy-in?
If you feel like you have an edge over the table, haven't been emotionally influenced by losing your initial buy-in, and are able to afford it within your bankroll, then you should re-buy. If just one of these things doesn't apply then you should not buy back into the game.
After reading this article you should have the building blocks for a winning poker cash game strategy to take into your next home game!