As an experienced poker player I have had the privilege to play poker on almost every stage and been fortunate enough to find moderate success along the way. During my endeavors, I’ve been surprised to see that the way the game is played changes at different stakes, even as we are playing the same exact game. Let’s look at just a few of these differences.
LEVELS OF POKER THINKING
Let’s make the assumption for the purposes of this article that, for the most part, players of higher thinking and deeper thought will be your higher stakes players and the players that use less thought and who have lower thinking levels will be your low stakes player. Thinking that you have more skill and a deeper level of thinking will push you to play at a higher buy in level, and this deeper thinking will have created a bankroll to put you in the higher stake games. So to establish where ones poker mind is at, let’s break it down 0-5.
Level 0: I know nothing.
Level 1: What do I have?
Level 2: What does my opponent have?
Level 3: What does my opponent think I have?
Level 4: What does my opponent think that I think they have?
Level 5: What does my opponent think that I think they think I have?
At lower stakes I’ve found fields filled with 0-2 and the odd 3 that is realizing the value of grinding low stakes to build a bankroll. However, for the most part, if your opponent doesn’t see or recognize the move that you are trying to make, then that move is ultimately worthless. For the higher stakes the life blood of the game is the influx of 2-3 level players trying to cut their teeth at a higher level while the level 4-5 thinkers are just thinly pecking away at each other. This influx of weaker talent is what keeps the games strong at the high stakes.
This area of the game is very important as well and needs to be paid great attention. It is safe to say that over a massive sample size of hands dealt everyone will be dealt the same hands, so creating as much value for the hands that you win, while giving up the minimum when forced to fold or show down second best, is essential. At low stakes, players tend to bet their hands with little thought when they have the goods and check when they don’t have it.
The biggest mistake I see in the low stakes games are pre-flop raising leaks that generally result in a ballooned pot. For example, blinds are 400/800 100 ante and our low stakes hero has AK and opens pot to $2800 and gets 1 caller. Now the pot has grown to $7800. The flop comes out very dry for AK, say 2h 4d 8c, and hero decides to continuation bet to $4150 and villain check-raises. You are forced to give up the hand, costing your stack $6950. The higher stakes player is opening this pot to $1800 instead of 2800. When he gets the called the pot is $5400 instead of $7800 and his continuation bet only costs $2950. When he is forced to fold to a check raise it is only costing his stack $4750. That’s a difference of $2250 between the two players holding the exact same hand just better played by the high stake player.
3, 4 and 5-BETTING
A 1-bet is the big blind and a 2-bet is the action of an original raiser. This allows the stage to be set for a 3 bet (re-raise). When everyone folds to the original raiser and they 4 bet (re-re-raise) they are putting the pressure on the 3-bettor who tanks for a while (pauses to think, referred to as “going in to the tank”) and they 5-bet shove (re-re-re-raise). 4 and 5-betting is almost non-existent at lower stakes yet is an often used tool at the higher level. To a low stakes player observing this type of action, he would probably think the players were donks upon showdown, but trust me these 4 and 5-bets are very well thought-out and calculated. I’ve often said if you don’t have it in you to 4 and 5-bet with air (weak), you should probably just be a spectator.
In many cases post-flop play is almost non-existent at the lower stakes as players at the low stakes usually need to hit flops in order to proceed to 4th or 5th street. In contrast, higher stakes players are trying to outplay each other on all streets. They put their opponent on a range of hands pre-flop and work to narrow that range as the hand moves on based on board texture, betting patterns and player tendencies. I can’t ever recall seeing a player at low stakes call me on 4th street with complete air with the intention of making a pot sized river bluff. And if you do get to the river at low stakes, trust me that thin value bet from your opponent is not a bluff but in high stakes it perhaps could be.
It’s all about what you do with the cards once you get them. Your goal is extracting max value and minimizing damage. Playing mistake-free poker and creating situations for your opponent to make mistakes is the key. I believe the biggest difference between the low/high stakes is the amount of mistakes made throughout the course of a tourney. The lower the buy in, the less risks you will have to take trying to get chips as they will be handed to you over the course of the game. You should be the one playing the solid poker at these stakes. At high stakes you will need to look harder for mistakes.