How Big a Bankroll Do You Need to Play Online Poker?

A man plays poker on his computer connected to an internet gaming site. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER.

Doyle Brunson once said that he’d be happy to risk nearly all his money on a single bet, as long as he had the advantage. That makes sense for an old-school rounder like Brunson – he was literally risking his life just to sit down at those back-room tables and play poker.

Things are a little different online, though. You need a different approach when it comes to managing your bankroll, one that will carry you through the natural ups and downs and let you develop your game along the way. That doesn’t necessarily mean being ultra-conservative.

If you want to make serious money at poker, you’ll have to play serious stakes eventually. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about business. We’ll show you the right way in our latest look at all things poker.

Buying In

First, we need to remember that poker is a game of luck as well as skill. Even if you’re a seasoned pro, there will be times when the cards just aren’t falling your way. That’s why it’s important not to put your entire bankroll at risk on just one hand of cards, or even one session.

As a very general rule, you should have at least 20 buy-ins in your account before you sit down at a No-Limit Hold’em cash game; for example, if you want to play $1/$2 NLHE and buy-in for 100 big blinds, that’s a $200 buy-in, so you should have $4,000 in your account.

For tournaments, the general rule is to have 100 buy-ins in your account before signing up. Want to play in that big $215 Sunday tournament? Make sure you have at least $21,500 in your bankroll. As you win more money, you can raise the stakes; as you lose money, don’t let your ego get in the way – drop down in stakes before you drain your account.

Risky Business

These bankroll guidelines are just that: guidelines, not rules. They can and should be adjusted to fit your specific needs. For example, if you’re brand new at poker, you should always play at the lowest stakes possible until you learn the game and develop an edge over your opponents. Why pay more for your education than you need to?

You should also take your own risk tolerance into account. If playing at high stakes makes you nervous and prevents you from running the kind of big bluffs you need to make, you need to drop down. For that matter, if your nerves cloud your judgment in any way at the tables, you need to drop down. No matter what guidelines we give you, never risk so much of your bankroll that the game isn’t fun anymore.

Smoothing Out The Variance

With that in mind, let me preach to you the benefits of using a lower-risk strategy in general. There are two things every poker player should strive for: bigger returns, and lower variance. A lower-risk strategy that emphasizes smaller buy-ins for cash games (70BB max) and folding more often in marginal spots might limit your returns somewhat, but if you do it right, limiting your variance will make it worth pursuing.

Even better, when you adopt a lower-risk strategy, you don’t need as many buy-ins in your bankroll before you sit at the table. This will allow you to move up the stakes more aggressively. And best of all, these strategies are simpler to learn and execute than higher-risk strategies that try to squeeze every last bit of expected value from marginal spots. Use these strategies wisely, and your bankroll will grow as optimally as possible. Use them foolishly at your peril.