This article explores the inner workings of poker cash game strategy. It’s designed for players of all levels, yet progressively advances with each section.
We’ll start with a basic overview of cash game poker strategy, then dive deeper into the subtle nuances of cash games.
Feel free to skip around the article to the section that’s most useful for your skill level. Additionally, please read my definitive guides on Texas Hold’em Strategy and Poker Tournament Strategy.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to fast track your success, improve at hand reading, and outplay the competition consider joining our Membership Program.
1. What Are Cash Games
2. Measuring Success in Cash Games
4. Rake in Cash Games
5. Beginner Poker Cash Game Strategy
6. Intermediate Poker Cash Game Strategy
7. Advanced Poker Cash Game Strategy
8. Expert Poker Cash Game Strategy
Cash games (also referred to as ring games or live action games) are poker games played with real chips whose value are literally worth what the chips represent. For example, one $5 chip is literally worth $5 USD, because a player can cash it out, at any time, in exchange for real money. Cash games are unique because—unlike tournaments—there is no end time, meaning players are free to come and go as they please.
Before we discuss the strategy in cash games, it’s important to define what success means. Success in cash games is measured in what’s called a win rate. Your win rate is the difference in skill between you and your opponents, minus the rake. Win rates can be negative if your opponents are better than you or the rake is too high (this most commonly happens in private home games where the usurious rake renders the game unbeatable).
Win rates online are measured in big blinds per 100 hands whereas win rates live are measured in big blinds per hour.
Here’s a simple example. John is a regular at the $5/$10 No Limit Hold’em cash game at the Bellagio. Because he keeps good records (something we strongly recommend all players do—you can use the app, ‘Poker Income’ or ‘RunGood’ to easily track your records), John knows that he has won $2,000 in the last month/50 hours of play—including tips and rake.
To calculate his hourly rate is simple: $2,000/50 = $40 per hour. (Therefore his bb/hour is 4).
To measure his win rate (in big blinds per 100 hands or BB/100), we first have to know how many hands he plays per hour on average. While the true number of hands dealt may vary slightly from casino-to-casino (depending on the speed of the game and number of players seated at the table), I’ve calculated that on average John can expect to play 27 hands per hour:
John has therefore played 50 x 27 = 1,350 hands.
John has won $2,000/10 or 200 big blinds.
John’s win rate is 200/(1,350/100) or roughly 15bb/100.
John should be proud; that’s an incredible win rate: although statistically insignificant, since 1,350 hands is not a large enough sample size. (For more on how to calculate win rates and variance, in both tournaments and cash games, see my definitive guide to bankroll management).
The truth is that 90% of poker players will have a negative-win-rate; therefore, any positive-win-rate should be considered an accomplishment. Assuming that you have a positive-win-rate, you can begin to compare your win rate against other players with positive-win-rates.
Breaking down the 10% category of positive-win-rate players even further, we can calculate various levels of win rates for live poker. Keep in mind that these are just estimations and possible win rates, and that games vary incredibly from casino-to-casino and player-to-player.
Online win rates will be reduced dramatically. Anything above break-even online is considered
great, whereas typical win rates at mid stakes games are 2bb/100 (or 0.5bb/hour), a testament to how competitive the games have become.
For live poker, I’m basing my estimations on some diligent records I kept over the years playing live poker in Macau and talking to other winning players, clients and readers whose games I respect. In my own experience, I regularly won 15BB/hour in Macau for the several years at stakes as high as $10,000/$20,000 HKD, No Limit Hold’em (roughly $1,250/$2500 USD)
– Amateur: Losing win rate.
– Good Player: Anything above breaking even, or > 1BB/hour
– Very Good: > 3BB/hour
– Great /Pro: > 5BB/ hour
– Excellent: > 10BB/hour*
– World Class: > 15BB/hour
*If you are regularly winning at 10BB/hour, I would advise moving up to the next limit to test out the competition and sharpen your skills.
To get a statistically significant sample size, you must play thousands of hands to determine that your win rate is not the result of luck or variance, rather a true skill advantage.
For more information about variance in cash game poker check out this video:
Playing in games with a lower rake is one way you can immediately improve your win rate in cash games. Casinos such as the Commerce in Los Angeles and the Bellagio, Aria or Wynn in Las Vegas offer safe, secure cash games with competitive rake. (They even give players rakeback in the form of food comps).
Online poker usually has the lowest rake, but since the level of competition is higher, it usually means that your overall win rate is still lower online than it is live. Most people will profit more in live poker games because the influx of recreational players makes the game much softer.
The goal of cash games is for you to leave with more money than you sat down with.
While most players focus all of their energy on outplaying their opponents, there are, in fact, other ways in which this goal can be achieved:
– You can quit while you are ahead.
– You can choose to play in games with inferior competition, thereby increasing the likelihood that you will profit.
– You can choose to play only when you are feeling your absolute best.
– You can choose to risk an amount of money that you can afford to lose, thereby increasing the likelihood that you will play the game properly and not be mentally affected by the amount of money in the game.
Of course playing profitable poker is imperative to your success because the above won’t apply unless you are capable of outplaying the competition.
The simplest way to outplay your competition is to play stronger hands than them. That starts with your first two cards.
If you want a simple tactic that you can use, it’s to play the correct opening hands, starting with the top 10%. While the hands you play should theoretically vary by position, if you committed to only playing the following hands you would be much more likely to show a profit:
Pocket Pairs: 99 or better
Suited Hands: KQs, AQs, AKs
Offsuit Hands: AQ, AK
For more information on which hands to play preflop, I highly recommend you download my Preflop Hand Range Charts. Not only are they free, but they are color coded by position and extremely easy to use. You can even keep them handy while at the poker table so you never make another preflop mistake.
Also, you’ll get ‘The Quick Start Guide to Preflop Play,’ a 10 page PDF that tells you how to make the necessary adjustments based on your opponents, your unique game, and player psychology.
In the rest of this article, we will explore ways in which you can improve your win rate in cash games to beat your opponents.
As mentioned above, having a better understanding of preflop play is crucial to your success at the poker table.
If you haven’t already, please download ‘The Quick Start Guide to Preflop Play.’ Make sure you are familiar with the content in the guide and the preflop charts before moving on to this section.
In the intermediate section, we’ll discuss common situations you may face at the poker table, and the variables you should consider when making decisions.
Rather than wasting energy teaching you how to play specific hands (and have you aim to memorize every permutation), I focus my teaching on concepts. That means helping you have a deeper grasp of the game of poker so that you have the tools to make the best decision every time.
I call this approach Conceptual Based Learning (CBL).
Using the CBL approach, we’ll take a look at the various categories of situations you may find yourself in and explore how to approach each situation.
When to Trap, Slow Play, or Flat Call:
Trapping is an important concept in poker, so it’s imperative to know when to do it.
Trapping or slow playing occurs when players allow their opponents to remain in the pot to win more money from them at a later time. This is most commonly achieved by merely flat calling a bet, or checking if you are first to act.
In short, you’re inducing your opponents to bluff or giving them a free chance to remain in the pot in hopes that they make a second-best hand, and lose more money at a later time.
1. When you have a strong hand that’s extremely unlikely to be beaten.
Ex: You are holding KK on a K72 rainbow board and are facing a bet.
2. When it’s likely your opponent is bluffing.
Ex: Your opponent is a loose maniac who loves to bluff but folds at the first sign of aggression. On a board of T973, merely flat calling with 99 would be a good option, since your opponent will very likely continue betting on almost any river, but probably fold if you raise.
3. #ProTip 1: When your hand range is comprised mostly of weak hands, and you want to balance it by incorporating strong hands into your check-calling range.
Ex: You defend in the big blind with 87s, and the flop comes 872; you check-call a bet. The turn comes a King and you check again. Now your opponent bets the full pot.
This is a situation where your range will be comprised mostly of bluff catcher type hands (8x, 7x, small pairs, and ace high).
Because your hand range is often vulnerable in this situation, it’s prudent to flat call with a strong hand like 87s to incorporate stronger hands into your range, thereby making yourself more difficult to play against.
4. #ProTip 2: When your equity is either way ahead or way behind.
Ex: You have KK on an A82 board. If you are ahead of your opponent’s hand range (because he is bluffing with something like T9s, or value betting worse with JJ), then almost no card can help him.
If he is ahead (with something like AQ), then you have very few outs that can help you improve (in this case only the two remaining kings).
Way ahead/way behind situations are great occasions to flat-call, because raising doesn’t accomplish anything: worse hands will fold, and only better hands will call.
Another way to look at it is that calling is the ‘least bad’ option.
When to Protect, Fast Play, or Raise
To protect your hand means to take an aggressive line, such as betting or raising, to win the pot right away or charge your opponent to draw.
For more information on when to slow play in no limit hold’em, check out this video.
1. When you put your opponent on a draw.
Ex: You have AJ on a J846 board with 2 clubs. Raising to protect your hand against your opponent’s wider range makes sense because she is likely to have a lot of outs against you.
2. When you are committed to the pot by calling.
Ex: In the situation above, let’s imagine that the pot is $100, your opponent bets $50 and you have $150 remaining.
Calling the $50 will commit you to the pot on almost any river, so shoving all in serves two purposes: a) it commits you to the pot thereby preventing you from being outplayed on the river and b) you can charge your opponent to draw to a worse hand or force her to call off her stack when she’s behind because of her pot odds.
3. When you want to be deceptive.
Ex: You check-raise after defending an UTG open from the big blind with 88 on an 842 rainbow board. Most of your range will be weak here, so your observant opponent will likely not give you credit for a monster (because most of the time you would merely call with top pair type hands, so raising seems very fishy).
This play can confuse your opponent and ‘level’ her into thinking you are weak when you are actually strong. A word of caution to the wise: make sure you select the correct opponent to execute this type of play; otherwise, it may backfire, and you’ll scare her out of the pot.
What about Game Theory?
I discuss game theory more in the ‘Game Theory Poker Strategy’ blog, but, for now, here are the most useful times to implement game theory and balance, as a strategy into your poker game:
1. When you have no information about your opponent.
Ex: You just sat down in a game and found yourself facing a large bet in a difficult situation. Resorting to a solid, foundational approach is best here. Once you know the tendencies of your opponent, you can adjust your game and aim to exploit him.
2. When you often play with the same players.
Ex: You are in your regular $2/$5 NL game at your local casino and have played with villain every day for the past six months. You anticipate playing against him for many months to come. In a situation like this, making villain aware that your hand range is balanced and you are capable of having certain hands in certain situations is a worthwhile pursuit.
This is called ‘meta game,’ and I explore this psychology more in my ‘Poker Psychology’ blog post.
3. When you’re playing against an excellent opponent or someone better than you.
Ex: A superstar just sat down to your left and he 3-bets you preflop. Instead of aiming to exploit his 3-betting range, assume that it’s balanced. The best way to adjust to this is by adopting a game theory approach and constructing a balanced 4 betting range (something like AA/KK/AK and a few bluffs with blockers, A4ss and A3ss will do just fine).
If you really want to get fancy, you can only bluff with red cards on weekdays and black cards on weekends. Adopting this randomized approach will ensure that even the best player in the world won’t be able to figure out and exploit your balanced strategy.
To get more acquainted with cash game poker strategy, let’s talk about what your overall game plan should be.
You’re probably aware that your goal when making decisions in poker is to always look for the most profitable play.
What if you could have a system that would help you make decisions in every hand you played vs. any type of opponent? And what if those systems were easy to foolproof and follow, so that you’ll be focused on the right moves when it comes time to make that big decision? I have developed a Four-Step Process for making decisions which I outline in more detail in some of my premier training courses; for now, here’s a simple introduction to remember this process and how to implement it into your cash game decisions.
Factor: Put your opponents on a hand range.
This is by far the most important step, and your ability to do this accurately, essentially determines how good of a strategic poker mind you have. Factoring can also be referred to as hand reading. The best tip I have for hand reading is using what I call a Hand Range Funnel.
I’ve developed the concept of a hand range funnel, because funnels represent the way hand ranges change throughout each street or betting round.
Hand ranges mimic funnels because they can never get wider, they can either get narrower or stay the same size.
Since a hand range represents all the hands your opponent can have at any given time, the only theoretical way your opponents hand range could stay the same is if they take the same action with 100% of their hands.
Here’s a common example of when that may apply:
In a $2/$5 NL cash game, you (Hero) raise preflop on the button to $15. The Big Blind (Villain) calls.
Flop: Ad Ac 2s. The Big Blind (BB/Villain) checks. In this situation, the villain’s hand range will stay the same based on the assumption that the BB checks the flop 100% of the time in this specific situation.
You can start to see the importance of correctly ‘factoring.’ If you assume the BB checks 100% of the time, when in reality villain only checks 50% of the time, your hand range funnel will be distorted with incorrect holdings.
That means you’ll be making in-game decisions based on wrong information, leading to a wrong conclusion.
I explain how to factor correctly in my premier training programs as well as in my pro and elite membership programs.
In the mean time using a hand range funnel will dramatically improve your game. And now you can get your hands on the system I use to hand read, including a 10 page PDF and a 30-minute in-depth strategy video by clicking here. I’ve made it available to you free.
I used to sell this content, but I’m giving it away for free because I believe that once you see the value of my free stuff, you’ll be eager to try my paid content.
In short, I highly recommend that everyone checks it out. I know your time is valuable, so I wouldn’t pitch it to you unless I truly believed it was worth your time; rest assured, your email will not be shared or sold.
To get access simply enter your name and email below and I’ll shoot it right over.
Organize: Categorize your opponents’ range into two categories: hands you beat and hands you don’t.
This will make the rest of the process much easier, since you’ll be able to compare villain’s strong holdings to his weak ones.
From there you can make the best decision on how to proceed.
Understand: Calculate your pot odds and convert them to a percentage. Figure out your break-even (BE) point.
Don’t let the math in poker be daunting or hold you back from what you’re capable of achieving.
Calculating pot odds and figuring out your BE point is easy.
Let’s start with Pot Odds.
Assume the pot is $100 and your opponent bets $50. You’re first trying to figure out what your pot odds are and second aiming to figure out what equity you need to justify calling (you find this by converting your pot odds to a percentage).
The formula to calculate pot odds is as follows:
Pot Odds = (Pot + Bet)/Bet
Pot Odds = ($100 + $50)/$50
Pot Odds = 3:1
To figure out what equity you need to justify calling you simply convert the fraction to a percent. This represents your BE point. You find this by taking the numerator and dividing it by the sum of the numerator + denominator.
Equity = 1/(1+3)
You know from basic math that this represents 25%. In other words, you need 25% equity to break even on your call.
To make figuring out your pot odds even easier, commit to having these common situations memorized. Think of them like your poker multiplication tables:
Pot Odds Chart:
5:1 = 16%
4:1 = 20%
3:1 = 25%
2:1 = 33%
3:2 = 40%
1:1 = 50%
0.5:1 = 67%
Another trick for measuring your equity in a hand is to multiply your outs by four on the flop and by two on the turn. While this isn’t always 100% accurate, it’s a close approximation and can serve as a useful tool when you space out or have brain fog.
Ex: You are all-in on the flop and hold AA on a T83 board against your opponent’s TT.
To calculate your equity, simply multiply your outs by 4.
Since you can win with any Ace, you have a mere two outs.
Your estimated equity is therefore 2 x 4 = 8%.
(Your actual equity is 8.7%).
Using the same example let’s say the board is now T833.
To calculate your equity on the turn, simply multiply your two outs by 2.
Your estimated equity is 2×2 = 4%.
(Your actual equity is 4.6%).
Once you have your information understood it’s time to move on to the final step, rationalize.
Rationalize: Put the information together to make the best decision.
Sometimes you will be faced with two options that are both profitable. You may show a profit by calling or folding, but it’s important in poker to determine which option yields the highest return.
In the rationalize step you’ll take a look at your pot odds and BE point and determine if you are getting the right price to call the wager.
You’ll then count the combos of each hand your opponent can have to determine if you’re getting the right price to justify calling.
You’ll then review the information and replay the hand in your head to determine if you have any other options that will yield a higher profit.
For example, while calling may be profitable you may determine that raising is even more profitable, assuming that your opponent is very likely to fold when facing a raise.
Let’s take a look at a quick example of how this process works.
In a $2/$5 No Limit Cash Game, Villain raises preflop to $15 from first position (UTG). We (Hero) defend in the big blind with 8s7s.
The flop comes: 8c 4c 2s.
We check-call a bet of $25.
The turn comes a 2d. We check-call a bet of $75.
The river comes a Jd. We check, John bets $150 and we are debating what to do.
Factor: Put him on a hand range. While this will vary dramatically from opponent-to-opponent, let’s assume his range is as follows:
AcKc, AcQc, AcJc, AcTc, KcQc, 88, 99, TT, JJ, QQ, KK, AA, A5s, A3s.
Organize: Divide the hands into two categories:
Hands You Beat: AcKc, AcQc, AcTc, KcQc, QcJc, JcTc, A5s, A3s
Hands You Don’t: 88, 99, TT, JJ, QQ, KK, AA, AcJc
Understand: Calculate Your Pot Odds.
The pot is $235 + $150 = $385.
Your pot odds are $385/$150 = 2.5:1.
Since you have your equities memorized from the pot odds chart, you know that 2.5:1 is right in the middle of 3:1 (25%) and 2:1 (33%).
Therefore, without having a calculator, you can easily guestimate with a high degree of certainty that the equity you need to call—the break-even point—is in the middle of these two numbers, which is 29% (the real number is 28.6, which is close enough).
Remember, this isn’t a math test; it’s a practical hand of poker. A few percentage points never killed anyone.
Rationalize: Now you simply need to figure out if your 87s is going to win the pot 29% of the time.
To do that you’ll have to count the combos of each category of hand.
(If you are reviewing this hand after the session, you can simply enter the numbers into a poker equity calculator).
You can see that your 87s has roughly 10% chance of winning. Since 10% is less than 29%, you should fold.
Congrats, you’ve just completed the Four Step Process of making decisions at the poker table. Commit to practicing this process several times following each session and watch as your game dramatically improves.
For more information on how to factor—correctly put your opponents on a range—check out my premier training programs.
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you download my Free Hand Range System, which includes a 10 page PDF, a 30 minute in-depth training video, and a blank hand range funnel which you can use to practice following your next session. It’s truly some of my best content, and I think you’re going to benefit immensely from it. Simply enter your info below, and I’ll shoot it over to you.
So you’re comfortable with preflop play, the idea of a hand range, have experimented with hand range funnels and are ready for that next step.
The Four Step Process is just the tip of the iceberg.
In the expert section you’re going to learn:
– How to balance your range effectively so you keep your opponents guessing and they never know what you have.
– How to have the perfect balance between when to use game theory (and have a balanced range) vs. when to exploit your opponents and go for max value.
– My exact process for not just making a profitable decision, but the best one.
Hint: In the example above, what if we turn our 87s hand into a bluff, and shove the river, representing a full house to get our opponent off a flush?
While I’d love to share everything with you, this is part of my paid content. We do give away 98% of our content for free here at Conscious Poker, but we have to keep some things close to the vest, because, frankly, I’m still using this strategy to beat the biggest games in the world.
That information still holds a lot of real-world value to me. I hope you can appreciate this, as you wouldn’t want to learn poker strategy from a coach, but rather someone who is still living it and competing at the highest levels.
If you truly feel you’re ready for that next step, here are some good options for you, depending on your specific situation.
1. VIP: You run a successful business, or you’re an established pro looking for that next level in your game, or you have the bankroll but no time…
Check out my Coaching Page and see if we’re a fit. I’m confident I can help.
2. Become a Member: If you are looking for something more convenient, check out our Membership Program. You can still get all the benefits of having me coach you for a fraction of the price; moreover, you’ll plug into a like-minded group of aspiring players just like yourself, who are taking that next step on their poker journey.
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Thanks for your attention.
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