When to Risk It, and When to Dial Back

Poker players during a poker tournament. Mychele Daniau / AFP

Poker is a game of risk and reward. If you want to do well at this game, you need to assess both sides of this equation: What are your chances of winning in any given spot, and how much money is on the line?

Knowing these two things allows you to make smart choices when you’re at the poker table, and the more you outsmart your opponents, the more success you’ll have – provided you’re also good at executing your poker strategy without making too many mistakes. 
 
There’s more to winning poker than just that. You can’t focus on one single hand, or even one session; the game of poker lasts forever, and the decisions you make now will impact your future results. To help you achieve full poker greatness, let’s take a look at the larger picture, and see when it’s better to play a riskier or safer style than the solvers would recommend. 
 

Money Talks 

Even more than strategy itself, the most important consideration in poker is your bankroll. How much money do you have to play with? If you have a lot, you can afford to splash those chips around and put the pressure on your opponents. If your bankroll isn’t quite so flush, it makes sense to play a tighter strategy, one that has you fold more often in marginal spots. 
 
It also matters greatly where that money is coming from. Are you a professional poker player with no other revenue streams? That’s a tough position to be in. You’re almost certainly better off playing a less risky style, and your bankroll management has to be impeccable; a run of bad cards at stakes you can’t afford could drain your business capital and leave you like Matt Damon in Rounders, driving a delivery truck to make ends meet. 
 
On the other hand, if you have a decent day job and poker is your side hustle, you don’t really need to worry about bankroll management at all. In the wise words of Abe Limon, you have cashflow. You can use your discretionary income to fund your poker adventures, replenishing your bankroll when you find yourself in a downswing. This gives you the power to “take shots” and play at higher limits without worrying about your next meal. 
 

No Risk It, No Biscuit 

Generally speaking, you should also be willing to put more money on the line when the games are better. If you normally play at, say, $1/$2 stakes, but there’s a juicy $2/$5 game happening at one of the other tables, by all means, get into that game if you can afford it. Opportunity is knocking. 
 
This logic works in the other direction. If you’re a $2/$5 player and you find yourself at a table full of rocks, don’t let your ego get in the way when there’s a loose $1/$2 game available. Sure, it isn’t quite as thrilling when the stakes are lower, but your hourly rate will be higher at the smaller game, and you’ll have more fun playing, too. 
 
Of course, the more poker variants you can play besides Texas Hold’em, the greater choice you’ll have of tables to play at. A $10/$20 Limit Stud game where everyone fits the “Old Man Coffee” stereotype can be better for your bottom line than a $10/$20 No-Limit Hold’em game, and with a lot less risk attached – if you know the game well enough. So keep learning, keep fighting the good fight, and may the rectangles be with you.