I’ve been playing poker for a long time, and even though everyone wants the rake lowered (to zero if possible), in all that time I’ve never once heard live poker players say the rake needs to be lowered at the $2/$4 limit tables because the game’s unbeatable. It’s just taken for granted that the game is unbeatable (or can only beaten for minimum wage), and most pros just stay out of these games, unless they are in dire circumstances.
Unlike online, live poker players don’t complain that the rake in the lowest stakes games eats up all the fish and doesn’t let them develop as players. And nobody complains that new players don’t get enough play because the rake is too high.
There are a couple of reasons people play in unbeatable games, and why these games should remain unbeatable, and why it’s good for the poker ecology and professional players.
A matter of means
Unlike professional players, or serious-minded poker players, by and large, recreational players don’t maintain a poker bankroll. They show up with a whatever disposable income they have on hand, which is usually a few hundred dollars, and they play the corresponding stakes.
If a player shows up with $500 they play $1/$2 No Limit Holdem, since they can reload if they need to. Some might play $2/$5, and hope they don’t go broke in 15 minutes, but typically they’ll start in a $1/$2 game, and will move up to $2/$5 if they win – more on this a bit later.
No one is playing for the long run
Most recreational players don’t factor in the rake, or the game’s long-term beatability.
And realistically, why should they?
Even the most active of these players will play less than 50 sessions of live poker in a year, and most will play less than 10 sessions in a year, or about 1,000 hands or so. These people aren’t playing poker to beat the rake, and they’re not playing poker to be a long-term +EV player; they’re simply hoping to be on the good side of variance.
If they see someone sitting on a stack of $1,500 in a $1/$2 no limit game with a $300 max buy-in they basically see that result as possible every time they sit down and play.
It’s not uncommon for a player in a weekend $2/$4 limit game to have a mountain of chips, with the overflow neatly stacked in four or five racks. It doesn’t register that if they were to play this game every day for a year they’d be deep in the red. Recreational players focus on what’s possible session to session, not what their long-term results will be.
This is why $2/$4 games are typically loose with a lot of chips landing in the pot. Yes, the house cleans up in rake, but because of the volatility, the players (who will likely all be losers in the long-run) can have a big session, and in reality, lose very little money to the rake since the money changes hands so quickly.
The rake has little effect on players who play once a month and have an EV of -10BB/hour. They don’t play enough hands for it to decimate them, and when you get a table full of these people together one or two of them are going to clean up in a four hour session.
Think of it this way, if a player’s lifespan is 200 hands in a game with a 10% rake, they’re going to lose less money to the rake than a player with a lifespan of 1,000 hands in a game with 5% rake.
How this benefits professional players
The key to understanding the importance of this dynamic is to focus on one thing: Money flows upwards in poker.
There are two ways this happens:
- Players spend time honing their skills and building up their bankroll; or
- Players go on a heater and want to up their bets while they’re running hot.
The latter is exactly what the players at the higher stakes game want to see, the former not so much.
The number of recreational players who come in off the street and can sit down in mid-stakes games is small, and the number of people who start their poker careers in a high-stakes game is even smaller. So it’s the players moving up in stakes who are the lifeblood of each of these individual poker ecosystems. And the players moving up from the low stakes are the most important, as they not only feed the pros and semi-pros in the low-mid stakes, but they keep these games from turning into nit-fests.
In effect, stake-jumpers from the lowest stakes games are a big reason why slightly higher stakes can be profitable.
The pros can then feast on these stake-jumpers when they take their winnings and sit in higher stakes games that are beatable. And because they’re so bad, the players in the low-mid stakes can run above expectation and think they’re ready to move up in stakes too. In practice, the people moving up from the lowest stakes games insure that there will be another group of stake-jumpers, so their presence is felt two or three stakes above what they typically play.
On the flipside, if low stakes games were beatable, these players would be picked off in the $1/$2 NLHE and $2/$4 limit games by opportunistic players content to grind out $12/hour. There would be a choke point that turns off the spigot of money that flows upward, and there would be fewer bad players taking shots at beatable stakes like $10/$20 limit games, turning these games into grind fests, where the bad players are few and far between.
Without bad players on heaters moving up, the only way people who would jump up in stakes are the ones who built up their bankroll and are ready to take on the next stakes.
Pros should be happy that the lowest stakes tables are basically unbeatable and therefore volatile with higher standard deviations. Most players will lose, but the few that are winning might press their luck and go sit in a higher stakes game. Even if they don’t, the winning session almost insures they’ll be back to the card room relatively soon, and either play higher on their return session or lose their money to someone who will.