When to Move Up in Stakes

By Ashley Adams

One of the concerns that I frequently hear, especially among small stakes poker players, is when and how to move up to a bigger game. How do you know if you are ready to move up to a bigger poker game or not? The simply answer is to move up when your bankroll is big enough, and move down when your bankroll is too small. But there are more things to consider besides just the size of your bankroll.

Are You Winning?

There’s really only one way to know. You must keep track, down to the dollar (pound, euro, yen, peso, or yuan will do too), of how much you win and how much you lose in each poker session. If you’re playing online then be sure to use poker tracking software – because statistics will not only let you know where your strengths and weakness are in your game, they will assist in your decision of what games to play and when to move up to the next level. By reviewing your playing history you’ll be able to see how you are doing per hour and per big blind or buy-in size.

Win Rates and Return-on-Investment

In cash games your win rate is generally the number of big bets per hour for limit poker and big blinds per 100 hands for no-limit hold’em. Let’s suppose you’ve played 20,000 hands of $25NL ($0.10 / $0.25 blinds) and have made a profit of $2,000. Your win rate would be 6.66 bb/100 – that’s $1.66 per 100 hands ($0.25 * 6.66). Your hourly rate would depend on how many hands you play per hour – playing 500 hands per hour or more across multiple tables is not uncommon for online poker players.

If you’re a tournament or SNG player then you should look at your return-on-investment (ROI). ROI refers to the net profit you’ve earned playing poker. Divide any profit by the gross amount you’ve invested and multiplied by the number of games you’ve played. A ROI of 0% would indicate that you’re breaking even. Let’s suppose you’ve played a 1,000 of your favourite $10 SNG’s, spending $10,000 in the process. Over this period of games you’ve made a profit of $1,500, meaning your ROI would be 15%.

Hopefully you’re win rate or ROI is positive because if you’re not beating your current game then, most of the time, it’s a mistake to move up. There are many benchmarks, formulas, statistics, and graphs available to judge yourself and other players – but it’s better to concentrate on finding the games that maximize your dollars per hour played and grow your bankroll that way.

You should be beating the lower stakes games first. There’s one exception to this that I’d make. Lower stakes poker games can be more heavily raked than the higher stakes games. This is a function of how the rake is calculated. When this is the case, it may make sense to move out of the lowest, and thereby most heavily raked game, as soon as possible, even if you’re not beating it, – just to avoid getting crushed by the rake.

Sample Size

If you just had a winning session of $180 in 4 hours of $50NL, that doesn’t mean that you are beating the game. If you just finished a session of 300 hands of $200NL and doubled your buy-in of $200, that doesn’t make you a winning poker player. Similarly, if you just won a bunch of $20 tournaments in a row, it doesn’t matter. You might have just gotten lucky in each example. Generally speaking, to be really sure that you’re beating the game you’re playing in you need a much larger sample size – 10,000-30,000 hands is considered enough play to gauge how you are really doing in cash games – and 1,000 games for tournament players is a decent sample size.

Your Playing Style

Some poker players are nits or rocks. They win small amounts by risking very little. They have little variance since they play a solid game and take very, very few chances. Other players are plungers. They take huge gambles – even with only very slightly the best of it. If you have a high variance style of poker – say you’re a maniac, then you’d want to start with more. The former players will need less of a bankroll to move up than the latter players because they will show much less variance at the higher level – and will therefore have a much lower risk of running through their bankroll if they run bad for a while.

Bankroll Management

How much money do you have to play poker with? To decide whether you can sustain the variance of a bigger game you need to know what your poker bankroll is and how easily can you replace your playing bankroll? For some, getting $1,000 to play is simple. They have that in stray bills lying around their house – even with no official bankroll. For others, putting together even $50 is difficult. Knowing whether or not you can move up depends on your understanding how easy or difficult it will be to reassemble your playing bankroll if you lose it all at a higher stake. If it is easily gained, then you may play higher than if it is very tough to accumulate.

Calculations vary for determining what bankroll you need for different levels and while that’s not the focus of this lesson it’s worth going over some numbers yet again. So here’s some bankroll management advice:

  • For no-limit and pot-limit games a bankroll of 20-40 the maximum buy-in is recommended. So in a $25NL game, which would have blinds of $0.10/$0.25, the maximum buy-in would be $25. Therefore you should be aiming for a bankroll of $500 – $1,000 for these games.
  • For limit hold’em I’d recommend a bankroll of 300 to 400 big bets – therefore a $1/$2 limit game would require a bankroll in the region of $600 – $800.
  • For tournament players the standard bankroll requirements for large multi-table tournaments is generally around 100 buy-ins. Serious players should double this to 200 buy-ins or more.

The ability to replace a bankroll increases as you play higher. You must be much more conservative in your estimates of what you need as you move up. Similarly, the idea is to have enough money to protect yourself from losing all of it at a few awful sessions.

Psychology and Comfort Levels

Psychologically a poker player is ready to move up when they feel comfortable to do so. When a player feels uncomfortable, they often play weak poker.

It doesn’t matter whether or not you have enough money, theoretically, in your bankroll to play at a higher stakes if you, psychologically, don’t feel comfortable playing at that level. There are millionaires, even billionaires, who just don’t feel comfortable gambling higher than $3/6 limit or $1/2 no limit. Sure, they could afford stakes higher – much higher in fact. But for whatever reason, they just don’t like to gamble with that much money.

If you don’t feel comfortable making a bet because the stakes are too big for your brain, then it’s unlikely you can play that high – period!  However there are always exceptions to every rule, and if you are a tight, timid, winning player, then consider forcing yourself to move up. You can always move back down if you are not successful at the new limit, or if you’re psychologically uncomfortable.

Testing the Waters

There’s a major exception to all of these rules and bankroll requirements. You can test the waters in a higher stake game any time you want. You don’t need a pre-determined amount of money; you don’t even have to be a winning poker player in your current game. You can just buy-in for whatever the minimum is, see how you do, and then move back whenever you want to.

There’s much to recommend taking brief stabs like this at bigger games. First of all, it may help you overcome the psychological difficulty of moving to a larger game in the future, when your bankroll and win rate justify it for the long term. It may even help you in your current game, if you tend to be too tight and worry about the money too much. Playing bigger, even briefly, may be like warming up in the on deck circle with a leaded bat. Your swings seem easier when you pick up the regular bat.

Of course there are some disadvantages as well. If you’re playing poker way over your head, without a large bankroll, you may well be playing at a large disadvantage – either tightening up or just gambling because the stakes are too big for you. Similarly, you may cut your session unreasonable short if you start out with some bad luck in the bigger game.


Ultimately, you can move up when you are financially, psychologically, and skilfully able to do so. All of the above information is meant as a guide but not a cookbook for how to do that.

Know your success rate at each limit and for each type of game. The more a player analyzes and find leaks in one’s game, the faster a player can move up to the next limit. This is crucial in helping you to establish what kind of bankroll you might need. But do not necessarily change your game. It could be just the gremlins of fluctuation.

Keep statistics of your poker sessions, and you’ll then have a better idea of what size bankroll you’ll need in order to continue playing the games you already play, and whether you can afford to move up to bigger limits, and bigger buy-ins. Keeping a record of your play will allow you to make faster and better decisions and thus help advance your poker bankroll.

The fastest way to move up is to study a little, play a lot of poker, study a little, and play even more. What could be more fun than playing poker? At each level make sure to check your win rate or ROI – and if necessary, don’t be too proud to move down in limits. This game takes even the best of poker players for big swings. Therefore, a big reserve is good for your psyche whether losing or winning.

By Ashley Adams

Ashley Adams lives in Boston, Massachusetts and has been playing poker for decades. He is the author of two poker books and his specialty is 7-card stud and no-limit hold'em.