February 01, 2011

Playing Where the Money Is

"I rob banks because that's where the money is."

—Attributed to famed bank robber Willie Sutton

An anonymous commenter from my post about a recent poker trip to Kansas City inquired:

Curious as to why you do not play 2/5 [NLHE]? Seem to have the experience and game to win at this level.

I do, in fact, play 2/5 NLHE and 1/2 and 2/5 PLO from time to time, though in the past three years I have only played PLO in Vegas (1/2 at Aria and Venetian, and 2/5 at Aria). In Iowa, I used to regularly play 2/5 NLHE at the Meadows, the Horseshoe in Council Bluffs, and Riverside near Iowa City. In Vegas, I have played 2/5 NLHE mostly at Bellagio and Venetian, with a couple of sessions at Wynn. Frankly, back when 2/5 NLHE was the smallest game spread by Bellagio, that room was consistently my most profitable place to play in Vegas (though I hated the crowded room layout and snooty management).

However, I have definitely played a lot less 2/5 NLHE over the past year and a half. There are a number of reasons:
  • Bankroll: There have been a number of home projects, vacations, etc. that I have paid for by dipping into my poker funds (and yes, I have kept a dedicated poker bankroll for several years now). So, with a smaller bankroll, 1/2 NLHE is a better fit, since $1,000 is four or five buy-ins at most games, while it would be two buy-ins at most 2/5 games.
  • Variance: Closely related to bankroll, the swings at 2/5 NLHE are proportionally bigger. The Iowa 2/5 games can play loose and wild at times, with several regulars at each poker room willing to gamble with marginal hands and draws for big stacks. About a year and a half ago, I was regularly playing 2/5 at all of the Iowa rooms, and went on a serious cold streak, losing numerous huge pots and buy-ins when I was run down by a series of suckouts, bad beats, and coolers, including a streak of six consecutive sessions where I flopped the nut straight, got it all in on the flop against two pair, and got run over by a boat. Seeing my then $12K roll cut in more than half in two months made me a little gun shy for a time.
  • Mental game:  2/5 NLHE plays at a higher level—or at least on a different level—than 1/2 NLHE. My playing time has been cut the past two years from two or three times a week to roughly once a week. It's simply tough to keep my game sharp enough to play 2/5 at a strong level without playing more often, which is compounded by the fact that 2/5 games aren't always running in Iowa rooms. 1/2 games, by contrast, play at a generally basic level, and I can jump into most 1/2 games and knock the rust off in short order.
The biggest reason why I play 1/2 as my standard game, however, is the most basic—1/2 NLHE is consistently a profitable game for me regardless of where I play. In the past month or so, I've played seven sessions, with six of those profitable, including five sessions with a profit over two buy-ins, and two sessions with a profit over three buy-ins. Now, I'm clearly enjoying a little positive variance recently, but multiple buy-in profits are fairly common at the 1/2 level. There are several reasons why:
  • Novices: For most players, 1/2 NLHE is the entry level no-limit game. It's easy to spot the newbies, and easier to take advantage of their particular weaknesses.
  • Bad players: Calling stations, bad bluffers, loose-passive players, scaredy cat nits, you name the leak, there's a player with it at most 1/2 tables. What's even better is that the lower stakes and buy-ins at 1/2 keep these folks coming back for more losses, without any real improvement in their games.
  • Gamblers: When folks who are at the casino to gamble decide to give poker a whirl, they often will treat poker like any pit game, and throw away buy-in after bad bluff after loose call. Often, they augment the gambling rush with a liquor buzz. These folks view the game as pure entertainment, and don't think twice about feeding the game as part of the fun. If you have ever sat in a late night 1/2 game at the Venetian when the drunk trust fund babies come down after enjoying bottle service at Tao nightclub, you'll know exactly what I mean.* Cha-ching!
Of course, the downside to playing mostly 1/2 NLHE is that there is a ceiling to the profit potential. Pots are generally smaller and there is less money in play. I play for fun and "fun money", so the stakes and the profits don't mean as much to me as to serious players who are playing as a primary or supplemental source of income. For those more serious players, 1/2 games are simply too small to provide steady income at a reasonable level of profitability. Frankly, the Poker Grump is the only poker player I know who is able to generate consistent profits primarily from 1/2 games sufficient for supporting a comfortable lifestyle (of course, he isn't exactly living a "balla" life).

So, while 2/5 NLHE is unquestionably more intellectually challenging, when it comes to consistently combining fun and profit, 1/2 NLHE is the nuts.

"Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I'd be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that's all.

Go where the money is ... and go there often."

—Willie Sutton, Where the Money Was: The Memoirs of a Bank Robber (Viking Press 1976)

(Image source)

* Of course, a similar "drunkathon" phenomenon can be observed at many Vegas casinos. In addition to the Venetian, my personal favorite late night fishing holes include Bally's, Planet Hollywood, and TI. Other folks I know swear by the MGM poker room for drunkfest poker, though I have never run particularly well at that room. Frankly, though, if a casino serves alcohol at the poker table, you will likely find a steady stream of heavily lubricated, heavily bankrolled gamblers feeding the action in the 1/2 NLHE games. This phenomenon is notably less common at the higher stakes games.


  1. Grange95,
    Have you noticed a difference in profitabilty from casino to casino for the same game? For example, the players in the $1/$3 Wynn game tend to be a notch better than the $1/$2 players at Bally's. (at least from my experience) You seem to suggest this is the case from your list at the end.

    I've actually found those games containing "better players" (on a relative basis) are more profitable for me. I think the reason is I can better predict what action my opponent will take; allowing me to bluff and thin value bet more frequently while subjecting me to less variance when they are willing to fold. Do you have any thoughts? Your experience has been different? Drunken players seem to the main driver of your profits?

    I agree with you on all counts regarding $2/$5. My biggest reason is that it's not readily spread in the casinos that are closest to me.

    Thanks for sharing!

    One of my friends is a professional player. He had some interesting thoughts regarding the higher limit games being spread in a room. I'd be happy to share them if you're interested.


  2. @ WynnGolfHat: A lot of good points. Sort of in reverse order ...

    I've definitely noticed some correlation between the higher limit games offered in a room and the effect on play at the lowest limits. If you or your friend want to email me rather than post in the comments, feel free to contact me at: crAAKKer[at]gmail.com

    As for the type of player at various games/rooms, I agree that one has to play differently (far differently in some cases) based on the opponent. I've run well at places like Wynn or Bellagio where opponents are competent but predictable, using more bluffs. At Bally's or another room with mostly drunk or novice players, I bluff much less and value bet more, because those types of players will pay off big with marginal hands. I like both styles of play, and make money either way. It just seems much easier to play for stacks with an edge against the Bally's crowd.

    As for Wynn's 1/3, it's actually one of my favorite games. It plays like a baby 2/5 game, with better players than most 1/2 games. It also has a high proportion of European players, so there is usually good action. I've generally run pretty well at Wynn, but play there less often due to friends preferring the Venetian, fewer games running, being a little out of the way, etc.

    I think I will put together a post about where I like to play in Vegas, and why. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Grange95,
    I was worried that my last comment was too long and didn't want to ramble on. I'll post my friend's comments here as others may be interested too.

    I specifically asked my professional friend, "How can you play $5/$10 and up? Your marginal edge has to be next to nothing as players are generally of such high quality?" (I'm assuming. I've never played $5/$10 but have played plenty of $2/$5 & $1/$2)
    He answered, "You're right. Playing $5/$10 against the same guys every day is like banging your head against the wall. You're just trading money back and forth. However if a Wealthy Fish sits down with $20k to lose, you definitely want to be in that game. It still sucks because you will be fighting the other sharks for your piece of the pie AND you have to hope the Fish doesn't get lucky."
    He went on, "As a professional player, you should be willing to play any game they spread. You then need to select the highest limit where you can make the most money or have the biggest edge"

    I thought his comments were rather refreshing. I don't think many pros think this way. (maybe they do) These high limit players can bang heads with each other and leave the low hanging fruit for me.
    Importantly, I also like the relaxed feel of most low limit games.

    Keep the great posts coming. I enjoy reading your blog!