People play poker for money. It's more than a way of keeping score. It's the thing that gives the game meaning. Trouble is, we build up a tolerance to money. Around the kitchen table of our youth, we could lose 65¢ in a poker game and feel like the world had come to an end. Now we can endure swings of hundreds of dollars or more without flinching. We’ve become more comfortable, over time, with playing for higher stakes.
There’s a problem with this, of course: If we become too comfortable with the stakes we’re playing at, we stop caring. What's the difference how much we drop in a game if the stakes are so low as to be insignificant? And if there’s no monetary incentive to play well, well, we probably won’t. The trick, then, is finding the right money level for your game and your comfort. In some circles (primarily my own), this is called the gulp limit, the amount of money you can put into a poker game before you go gulp. Generally speaking, you want to be playing right about at your gulp limit. You want the money to matter enough to focus your attention, but not so much that you end up playing scared.
Say you've been kicking it in $2-$3 blind no-limit Texas hold’em games and you’ve become comfortable. Or no, not comfortable … complacent. You’re beating the game, but you’re not trying very hard or winning very much. So you decide to play higher. You find a $5-$10 blind game and decide to take a shot. Since you don't play this game regularly, it does not escape your attention that a single hand at this level can hit harder than an entire session at $2-$3. You tell yourself not to be scared. Maybe even you aren't scared. But you're a little uncomfortable. Admit it, you are.
No problem, you tell yourself: Just screw down your starting requirements, pay attention, play quality cards, concentrate, and you'll do just fine.
Early in the session, this hand comes up:
You're in late position with A-Q. It's folded around to you, and you have a real hand in good position, so you go ahead and raise. The button and the small blind fold. That’s fine – you wouldn't mind stealing the blinds here. It would do wonders for your comfort. Alas, the big blind calls. She eyes you curiously as she does so. Does she recognize you as a newbie? Does she know that you're outside your comfort zone? Maybe. Maybe not. She does know this for sure: You're not a regular, because she's a regular, and she's never seen you before.
Moreover, she has a plan for the hand. She’s going to check-call any flop, then check-raise any turn. This she can do because she’s comfortable at this limit, and if the gambit doesn't work, the money won’t matter that much. So she runs her program, and unless you've flopped a monster, her plan puts you in a bad place. If you fold now, you look weak, passive, exploitable. If you raise back, or even call, you're committing a lot more money than you're used to committing on any single bet. So you throw your hand away. Better that than your money, right?
Just to cheese you off (for this is part of her plan) your opponent shows you the rags with which she bluffed you out. Now you feel hot, embarrassed, ridiculous ... in a word, uncomfortable. Where does your session go from here? If you’re not careful, straight down the chute. It can even happen if you get good cards.
For instance, the next hand you pick up is A-K suited. You’re still in good position, it’s folded around to you and you know you should raise, but you can’t quite pull the trigger. Back there in the $2-$3 game, this would be no problem, but up here in the rarefied air, but you're afraid to raise, afraid to leave yourself open to the same sort of attack you just endured. So you flat call, hoping to flop big and become the trapper instead of the trappee. Your nemesis, now in the small blind, completes the blind and takes the flop. Let’s say it comes T-x-x, and she bets out. The big blind folds and you have a quandary on your hands. Does she have a ten? She easily could, given that you didn't raise her off a moderate holding pre-flop. But you've got overcards, so you call. And call again on the turn. By the time the river comes down, you're looking at a ragged board with no ace and no king, and your best hope of winning the hand is if your opponent is on a stone cold bluff. She checks, inducing you to bet, which you do because you're damned if you're gonna show fear again. She calls, delighted to take her top pair, good kicker against anything you have. She wins, you lose. That's not bad luck. That's bad play. That's letting your own discomfort dictate your choices. Next thing you know, you're picking up your chips (those few you still have) and heading back down to the smaller game, there to recoup both your losses and your dignity.
So what's the solution? Never move up? Stay at your same gulp limit forever? Well, that’s a path, but it’s not one of growth, and it’s not one most of us would choose. So plan to advance, but make your plan a thoughtful one by doing these three things:
1. Study the game. Before you plunge big money into a big bet game, take some time to watch, really watch, the action at the table. Familiarize yourself with the players and their tactics. I'm not talking about a few hands, either; I'm talking hours of watching instead of playing, so that when it's your turn to take a seat in the game, you don't feel like a total fish out of water (or even just a total fish).
2. Refine your knowledge. Go back to your poker texts and read up on higher level play. They do play differently up there, and the moves you use at lower stakes don’t work in the stratosphere. Up there, it's more about playing the players than the cards. You know this, of course, but until you’re ready to embrace the distinction and internalize it in your play, you're not ready to move up.
3. Fortify your bankroll. Make sure you have enough money that you don't have to play scared. You absolutely will not succeed above your gulp limit if it yet strikes you as such, because playing with scared money will skew your decisions every time. So pad your war chest before you move up. Come well armed or don't come at all.
It's worth working on your game and your mindset to the point where you can move up. Both the riches and the richness of poker await you there. And if you're nervous, just remember: Once you learn to swim, it doesn't matter how deep the water gets.