How Much of a Bankroll Should You Have to Play Poker?
This article is part of my series 'Poker Culture, Strategy & Commentary'.
There are two main concerns when it comes to bankroll management in poker. For one, math dictates that there is usually a small percentage chance that a player who has an edge in the game can still go broke. Even with a decent sized bankroll there is usually some small risk. Secondly, when a poker player starts to lose a significant amount, their play tends to be affected by it, and they can easily lose their edge. In other words, going broke and playing bad are the common pitfalls of playing poker with an inadequate bankroll. Let's take a look at how to avoid them.
Risk of ruin is the gambling math term typically used to describe the risk of going broke. If a poker player has a good edge and adequate bankroll the risk of ruin is a very small percentage, maybe 1 out of 100 or less. According to two of the world's foremost poker author's, Sklansky and Malmuth (co-authors of one of the most famous poker books ever written, Texas Holdem For Advanced Players), in a limit poker game, a player who wins roughly one big bet per hour in a poker game will need around 300 big bets in their bankroll to keep their risk or ruin in the infinitesimal ranges. With only 250 big bets, their risk of ruin might creep up to 5%, with 200 big bets, maybe 10%, etc...
So, a highly skilled poker player in a very easy game should be able to avoid completely losing everything as long as they have 300 big bets or more in their bankroll, and they could probably get by with a fair bit less that 300 bets, at least 99% of the time. But the winning poker player who earns less than one big bet per hour will need more than a 300 big bet bankroll, because their edge is smaller in the game. All in all, if you can beat a game, then it becomes safe to say that you will never go broke if you have a bankroll of 500 big bets, even if your edge is quite tiny. It may take you a very, very long time to actually earn any real money and grow that bankroll (earning is a slightly different issue), but you will at least stay in the game.
The Tilt Factor
Just staying in the game is many poker player's fundamental concern. If they are ever faced with an even remote threat of losing their bankroll in the long run, it can set into motion a chain of emotional events that leads to bad play in the present moment. When you are feeling low, when you are feeling stressed out, it becomes hard to play good poker. Whatever edge a player may usually have can quickly evaporate, and become replaced by stone-cold tilt. A player on tilt can't win, and therefore they certainly can't protect a bankroll. This is what World Series Of Poker Champion Bobby Baldwin had in mind when in his biography he recommend never risking more than 5% of one's bankroll any given day, a rule that works quite well for no-limit poker players.
By creating what gamblers call a stop loss limit, and quitting for the day after you have lost maybe 2-5% of your bankroll, you can save yourself the anguish of ever losing devastating amounts in a short period of time. The game will always be there and it's important to take a walk once in a while and rest up before the next game. When you return to the cardroom another day, you'll have a renewed zest for playing well, you'll be 100% sharp again, and you'll have a good table image. All this adds up to you regaining the edge that you may have lost during you bad session. Also, it makes sure that in the long run you keep playing winning poker and always end up ahead of the game.