Deciding how many big blinds you should buy into a cash game with can be a bit tricky. I have played every stack size imaginable for over 10 years and can help you make an informed decision.

How much should you buy into a poker game with? When deciding what amount to buy into a poker game there are several factors to consider:

  1. Are you more skilled than your opponents? If so, choose a bigger buy-in.
  2. How big is your bankroll? If you have limited resources, choose a smaller buy-in.
  3. Do you enjoy pre-flop or post-flop action more? If you love pre-flop buy-in for the minimum. If you love post-flop maneuverability go with the maximum.
  4. Are you mostly a tournament or cash game player? MTT players are usually better at shorter stacked play.
  5. Do you have a lot of time to dedicate to learning? If you have unlimited time to improve, play a deeper stack size.

Now that you know some of the factors to consider, let’s cover each factor in detail. Then, I will give you an easy quiz to help clarify how much you should buy-in for next time you sit down in a cash game.

1. Evaluate Your Current Level of Skill

As stack size grows, it generally takes more skill to win. That’s because there are more moving parts to worry about. For example, a short stack will mostly be 3-bet shoving pre-flop and not have to navigate complicated 3-bet pots post-flop.

Therefore, in choosing a buy-in size you should honestly evaluate how good you are before making a decision on how much to bring onto the table.

I Believe in Incremental Learning

In my opinion, forcing a new player to try and learn to play a 100 big blind stack right off the bat is like trying to teach a little league baseball player how to hit by putting him up against a major league pitcher.

Why is poker learning treated any differently than learning any other game or sport? I think that poker beginners should start out playing the least complicated form of poker first and then gradually learn the nuances of deeper stacked play as they go.

To help you balance the learning process and give you the best chance to win as you learn, playing the right stack size is key. If you are already beating 50NL or higher for a decent win-rate, you are probably ready to play an 80 big blind or higher stack.

However, if you are struggling at the micros and have trouble beating 2NL or 5NL you will likely see more long-term by learning the basics first and playing a small stack.

2. The Impact of Bankroll on Buy-In Size

How much disposable income you have toward learning the game is an important factor in choosing a buy-in level. If you can withstand large swings and have the ability to reload or don’t mind moving down, then you should lean toward a larger buy-in size.

On the other hand, if you have limited resources for your highest stake and want to decrease your chance of having to move down and rebuild, then err on the side of a smaller stack.

If you happen to be rebuilding a bankroll currently, perhaps because you recently got back into playing after a layoff, you might consider playing a short stack. Playing a smaller stake can lower your bankroll requirements so you can play a higher stake with a smaller bankroll. This will increase your hourly rate and speed up the building process.

3. What Is Your Personality Like?

Everyone has a different personality. Some meander their way through life and have an easy-going philosophy when it comes to everything they do. These types of players have more patience and are good candidates for a more methodical deeper stacked strategy.

On the other end of the spectrum, you might be a hell-raiser who lives life in the fast lane. You can never get too much action and loves getting out there and taking risks. Action-junkies are often much better suited to playing a smaller stack, where they can splash around their chips more often and see lots of exciting all-in situations.

I think this is why many players simply can’t win at poker. They feel like they are forced into a particular style of play because that is what they were told to do on some forum or in some book. You have to walk your own path, experiment and find the buy-in size that fits your personality the best.

4. Are You a Tournament Player or a Cash Game Specialist?

Your perspective on the game of poker can vary wildly based on what format you played while first learning the game. If you learned playing tournaments, then you probably know a lot about ICM. You are comfortable moving a lot of chips around pre-flop and have learned to accept the variance of pre-flop all-ins.

However, if you cut your teeth in poker by playing 100 big blind stacks in cash games, you probably have a much different idea of what poker looks like. You are probably more akin to a chess player, making subtle and effective strategic decisions against opponents to exploit every small weakness they have.

Here are the factors to consider in choosing your buy-in size:

  1. If you are mostly a tournament player, think about the stack size you are most comfortable playing during an MTT event. That is probably your best cash game buy-in size.
  2. If you are a cash game specialist, honestly assess where your strengths lie. If you excel as your stack crosses 150, 200, or 250 big blinds then go with the highest buy-in possible. However, if you have struggled to win for years and dread playing bigger stacks, try something different and learn 30-40 big blind play for a while.

5. Buy-In Level Should Be Proportionate with Commitment Level

How much time you have to study poker should be definitely figured into the calculus when deciding how much to buy-in for at the poker table.

It takes a lot of consistent study to master all of the intricacies of deep-stacked play. There are so many potential post-flop lines and adjustments that must be made that it really requires a daily commitment to studying in order to stay current with a rapidly evolving game.

If you don’t have much time to put into learning and self-review, then you are really shooting yourself in the foot if you try to compete with full-time poker professionals who have limitless time to outwork you.

Short or Mid-Stacking Still Takes Skill, Just a Different Type of Skill

That’s not to say that a short or mid-stack strategy doesn’t take work. It’s just a different type of work in that a lot of the tactical considerations are more straightforward and based on actionable math.

For example, the +EV 4-bet re-shoving range versus a 15% 3-bet is pretty firmly set in stone. It’s not like the math will evolve. the only thing you have to worry about is your opponents readjusting.

Make Your Chosen Buy-in Commensurate with How Much You Can Study

If you have the time and energy and want to maximize your win-rate, you are probably better off building up to where you can play deep-stacked. A wild guess is that a 6bb/100 40 big blind winner could probably be an 8bb/100 100 big blind winner if he had the time to invest to get there.

Personally, I have a day job and family and little time to invest in poker study. If I spent all my “poker time” studying to become a 100bb player, I’d have no time to play. Therefore, I have always been a CAP stack 30-40 big blind player and have accepted the limitations.

Buy-in Assessment Quiz

Here is a short 8 question quiz to help you clarify and decide on an appropriate stack size for buying in:

  1. Have you won money in poker over the last 6 months? If the answer is yes, give yourself 2 points. If no (there nothing wrong with that), take 0 points. If you broke even take 1 point.
  2. What is the highest cash game stake you can beat? Only take points for one stake. If you can beat 2NL give yourself 1 total point, 5NL= 1.5 points, 10NL= 2 points, 25NL= 2.5 points, 50NL =3 points, 100NL or higher= 4 points. If you haven’t beat any stake, take 0 points. Note: By “beat” I mean over a significant sample size of 50k hands or better.
  3. Are you normally the top two players at the table, the worst two, or somewhere in the middle in the games you usually play?
  4. If best give yourself 3 points, in the middle= 2 points, worst= 0 points. To help you decide, if you don’t have an immediate plan to exploit 3-4 players on a table, you are not one of the top two.
  5. Do you have a lot of disposable income to learn and play poker? If you have greater than 50 buy-ins for your highest stake or can easily reload when busto, take 2 points. If you have 30-49 buyins or don’t mind moving down during a swing, take 1 point. If you are under 50 buy-ins and have no backup, take 0 points.
  6. What personality type are you? If you are an easy-going laid back person give yourself 4 points. If you are a high strung action junkie give yourself 0 points. If you are somewhere in the middle take 2 points.
  7. When you play tournaments, what pace do you prefer? If you like slow tournaments take 4 points, normal tournaments 3 points, turbos 1 point, hyper turbos 0 points.
  8. How much time to dedicate to poker? For every half hour that you can dedicate to daily study, give yourself 1 point. If you can’t dedicate at least 3.5 hours a study a week, take 0 points.

Now add up your total points to find the stack size you probably should be playing while you learn.

  • 0-12 Points – Buy-in for 30 or 40 big blinds
  • 12-14 Points – Buy-in for 50-60 big blinds
  • 14-16 Points – Buy-in for 70-80 big blinds
  • 16+ Points – Buy-in for the maximum allowed

You’ll notice there is some overlap between the levels. This comes down to personal preference. For example, you have 12 points but can’t stand the thought of less than 50 big blinds. In that case, you should buy in for 50-60bbs.

Why Strategy Changes for Each Buy-In Level

Let’s take a look at why the strategies will vary based on each starting stack size. The main driving factor for your basic strategy will be in your commitment level on the flop.

Evaluating Commit Based on Stack Size: SPR Considerations

Stack-to-pot ratios, or SPR, basically refers to the profitability of stacking off on the flop with various holdings versus particular players. It is expressed as a number usually ranging between 1 and 20. You divide the current pot size by the effective stack to get your SPR. The lower the SPR, the more marginally you can stack off on the flop.

In general there are three main “levels” to SPR:

  1. 1-5 SPR – With a low SPR, you are almost always happy to get the money in with any 8 out draw, top pair hand, or better.
  2. 6-9 SPR – With a medium SPR, you usually need to be beating top pair to profitably stack off. This includes having an overpair or better.
  3. 10+ SPR – A greater than 10 SPR usually means you need a really strong hand to stack off, think two-pair, trips, or better. This is the pot control range of SPR when you have top pair and even overpairs.

Against looser players, you can err toward the higher SPRs for stacking off whereas against really tight players, you need to fudge the numbers down. Top pair might be a slam dunk all-in against a maniac with an 8 SPR or lower but against a low VPIP rock you would need a 2 or lower.

The entire point of bringing this up is that it is easier to create low SPR situations when you are buying in with a smaller stack. Here are a few SPRs based on effective stack size after a standard 2.5bb raise and call, with a pot of 6 big blinds:

  • 100bb – 16.3 SPR
  • 80bb – 12.9 SPR
  • 60bb -9.6 SPR
  • 30bb – 4.6 SPR

So, now you can see how stack size effects the skill needed for post-flop. There is a lot more nuance and knowledge required to navigate higher SPR situations due to the intracacies of post-flop play.

Even so, you don’t get a free pass on learning things when playing a shorter stack. You still need a solid mathematical understanding of pre-flop shove-call dynamics when playing a short stack.

When to Leave Tables?

You may be wondering about what to do when your stack size grows when playing a short or medium stack. My advice is to simply leave a table once your stack size gets 20 big blinds above your buy-in level.

The entire reason you are buying in less than full is to play a certain strategy. Why stay on a table once you are in uncomfortable territory? That just plays into your opponents hands. Make them play on your terms.

Buy-In Level and SPR Adjustments in Live Cash Games

Minimum buy-in levels will vary wildly from casino-to-casino. Even so, I still recommend using this buy in strategy if you are a live player.

The only change I would make is to not immediately leave a table if you win a big pot or double up early on in your session. You will get a lot of hate from everyone if you do that. Instead, just play tight for at least 30 minutes more and then discretely get up and leave. Go take a short break and then get back on the waitlist.

Also, keep in mind that the games are usually much looser in casinos then they are in online games. Therefore, I would fudge up both my buy-in requirements as well as my stack off ranges in regards to SPR. Just add 10 big blinds to my recommended buy-in levels and you will be fine.

So, if you would normally buy in for 50 big blinds online, just sit down with 60 big blinds in a live game. Also, if you would normally stack off with top pair at 5 big blinds in an online game, you can usually do so in a vacuum at around 7 or 8 big blinds live.

Be sure to use common sense when making these adjustments.

Final Thoughts

I am hoping this article has shed some light on how much you should buy in for at the poker table. One thing I would like to add is to keep an open mind and don’t pay attention to the static you may hear on some poker forums, articles, or books you might read.

There has been a lot of animus directed toward players that buy-in for anything less than the maximum. This is usually due to their hatred for short stackers and their indoctrination for what is the “correct” way to play during their learning process.

The truth is, every single poker player should learn to play every stack size level if they want to be a complete player, even if you never play that way.

If you simply look at your buy-in as a tool to maximize your earnings and poker education then it only becomes logical to consider all options.

By the way, I teach people to play short to mid range stacks on my website. If you want more information, check out my home page. You can even get a free basic strategy by signing up for my newsletter.

Related Questions

How much money do you need to play poker at a casino? The amount you need to take to a casino will vary based on your buy-in level and any stop-losses you have set for yourself. I recommend starting with 3 to 4 buy-ins and going from there.

When should I leave a poker table? The main factor that determines when you should leave a poker table should be the profitability of remaining. If at any time you feel like you cannot win at a poker table, you should leave immediately.

What is a good bankroll management plan for cash game poker? The typical wisdom regarding sound bankroll management is to have at least 30 buy-ins before you move up to a new stake. This number can be adjusted downwards if you only play recreationally and can replenish your bankroll easily. Conversely, if you play poker as a serious amateur or professional, you will want a much bigger bankroll. 10-20 buy-ins would be standard for a recreational player while 50 buy-ins would be the minimum acceptable level for a pro.

Jim James

Jim James is well-known as the world’s leading expert on playing short or mid-stacked poker. He has over 15 years of experience playing poker professionally, has written extensively on the topic, and is the author of the best-selling poker strategy book Automatic Poker.

Using a no-nonsense mathematical and logical approach to beating the games, he has won 7 figures at the poker tables. His innovative simple poker charts make the game easier for everyone willing to learn. Today, he helps other players demystify what it takes to win money in No-Limit Hold’em and has helped countless people become winning poker players through his Online Poker Academy.