I have been spending a lot more time playing cash games for the last several weeks. The high level of variance in tournaments can be very frustrating so its a nice confidence booster to return to cash games. I mainly play lower limit NLHE, $.5/$1 or $1/$2 blind levels.
Winning play in cash games is dramatically different from winning play for tournaments because of the increasing blinds in tournaments. You must play much more loose aggressive in tournaments and you need to take risks that I would rarely take in cash game play. Because of the large differences, I thought I would prepare a Top 10 list of lessons that I have learned playing cash games to contrast my early Top 10 list for tournaments.
First let me preface this Top 10 with a few key facts. Because I like to play 4 tables at a time, I mainly play full ring games (9-10 players). So my play is Tight aggressive. I play short-handed tables much more loose aggressive -- almost like tournament play. However, it is difficult to play more than a couple of tables in short-handed play so I rarely play it. This analysis applies only to full ring games.
Second, as I said I play multiple tables so I am not able to analyze players to any depth at the table. I can tell after a few rounds who are the good players and who are the weak players, but I do not get much deeper than that. For the most part, I am waiting for good hands to make my return and minimizing losses in between. If you were playing only one table at a time, some of these would not apply because you would be able to play your opponent -- e.g., knowing he will check fold on fourth street if someone calls his unpaired continuation bet on the flop (a frequent tournament play).
Lastly, I am actually going to start with the most important first (vs the reverse order in my last Top 10) because the first two lay the groundwork for all the other later rules.
1. Your Hourly Return Comes from your Big Hands - Unlike in tournament play and short-handed play, blind stealing, bluffing and restealing with air, will only get you in trouble in low limit full ring games. Your money will be made when you get large hidden hands, such as trips, str8s, full boats and sometimes two pair. I will often sit for an hour or two with the same stack or slightly less before I get my first trips. Then I will double up with that trips hand when my opponent overplays an overpair. Trap with these big hands, let your opponent bet the flop, then raise on either fourth or the river to maximize the pot. This is your nirvana hand don't be afraid to get your chips in. Occasionally, you will lose a huge hand when you run into a bigger monster but "thems the breaks" -- most of the time your opponent will be overplaying TPTK, an overpair or two pair. Make them pay!
2. Minimize your Leakage Between Big Hands - This rule is really 1(a). Since all your money is made on number 1, you need to make sure you do not lose a lot of money on marginal hands while you are waiting for your monsters. That means when you get TPTK you want to try to keep the pot small. You should lead out or check raise with it, but if you meet heavy resistance you need to fold it down. Unless you know your opponent is a donkey, you have probably run into two pair or better and you are very likely to lose a lot of chips. While TPTK seems like a strong hand, it really is fairly marginal hand in full ring games. Most good players play by rules number 1 and 2, so they likely have a hand much better than TPTK when they are raising. This also goes for other similar hands, be cautious when you don't have monsters. There is no harm in folding a good, but not great hand, now to maximize your gains long-term. This was the toughest rule for me to master but mastering it has increased my returns dramatically.
3. Don't OVERPLAY Large Pocket Pairs - This is a subset of rule #2 and is the biggest mistake made by less skilled and new players. This leak is also the biggest income source for good players to exploit. Here is an example, you raise 3x or 4x the bb preflop with AA and get two callers. The flop comes 784 rainbow, what do you have. You have one pair! Yes you should lead out with a half pot to full pot bet depending upon your style. Now one player calls and the other folds. Where are you -- you should be very very worried. Unless you know your opponent is a calling station/donkey, then you are likely in big trouble. The likely hands you are facing include, 77, 88, 44, 56, 78s -- all of which are very bad. Now a Q comes on fourth street what do you do -- I would bet a third to half the pot and fold to any raise. Most players will raise their monsters on fourth street so this is a good spot for you to fold. As such, the raise is a clear indication that your are beat. If you are up against a great player capable of making this raise with air -- well then kudos to him and move on. There is no reason to waste a lot of chips to see that your opponent actually had a monster -- all the signs are there. Move on and minimize your leakage until you hit your monster. Don't be the guy that pays me off on my monsters!!
4. Push the River with Monsters - I used to try to figure out the exact amount that my opponent might call on the river when I knew I had the best hand. Often I would be betting a third of the pot or sometimes even less, but after watching a couple of other really good players I realized that pushing was the much better play. They were getting paid off much more often than I would expect, but then it hit me -- pushing makes perfect sense. By pushing the river, several things are happening. To most thoughtful players, a push looks weak -- and a river push often looks like an attempt to steal a big pot. So you may get calls from thoughtful players. If you are up against a poor player, you may get a call just because the donkey wants to be the sherriff, or he wants to call to see your hand, or he just has no idea what you have, or he can't lay down his AA. All are good reasons to push and hope for a huge payoff. Yes you risk a fold and the loss of maybe a third of the pot, if your opponent would have called that amount -- however the upside returns are so great that it is well worth the risk in my mind. You will be surprised how often your river push is called when you have that monster hand.
5. Toss Marginal Hands from Early Position - In a tournament, I might raise with AJ from early position, although most of the time I will fold. However in a ring game, I fold AJ, AT, KQ and similar hands 100% of the time from the first three positions at a full table. Again focus on the prize -- winning with big hidden hands. These hands will rarely yield big hidden hands -- very occasionally you will catch a str8 with them but not very often. Usually you will win a small hand with them -- you raise and get one caller, the flop comes with an A -- you bet and your opponent folds yielding a small pot. However, when you lose with these pigs it is usually a bigger loss and really quite aggravating. AQ or AK may call behind you then when you hit the A you are going to get raised on the flop or fourth street and then what? How far are you going to go with this potential loser --- tough decisions that I would just as soon avoid. Minimize your leakage with marginal hands!
6. Blind Stealing is not a Source of Profit in Full Ring Games - Yes you will win occasionally and I do raise from the cutoff of button when folded to me -- and yes I will do that with any two cards. However, I will fold immediately to a reraise and I am far less likely to raise that players blind again next time. The tiny amount that you can win stealing blinds in these games is not really worth the risk. If you tend to call reraises to see a flop, then do not get in the habit of raising blinds. This is just not necessary in full ring games -- wait for your big hands. One caveat here -- in short-handed ring games, blind stealing is very important because the blinds come around so often -- so please remember that I am referring to full ring games only.
7. Play AK more Cautiously than in Tournaments - We all know by now that AK is a hand that does much better when it can see all 5 cards. As such, many tournament player (myself included) will push all in with AK at critical times during tournaments. However, AK is a much better tournament hand than a ring game hand. You definitely do not want to push all in preflop with AK and you do not want to call all in preflop with AK. I often will simply call a raise with AK, however sometimes I will reraise if a couple players are in the pot to try to take it down right there. However, I play very cautiously after I am called with AK. Remember that you are likely to only have one pair or less when the flop comes and you have a caller that could have a monster. This is not to say don't bet. You absolutely should bet out your TPTK if you hit it -- just be prepared to lay it down if you run into stiff resistance.
8. Keep Rolling When Rolling - For some reason when you are rolling on a table, it seems that many of the players think you are bluffing more often. I tend to get more calls with my big hands than I do before I have built up a pile of chips. I don't exactly understand the psychology and I am a small sample, but it seems to work. It also probably means you have found a good table with weak players, so don't get up until you actually have to. While some players like to cash out when they double and go back into a new table with a lower amount of chips, I think this is a weak move. If you are still following all of the first 7 rules, there is no reason you should be worried about giving back all your profits. Now if you are the type of player that plays looser when you have a big stack, then by all means cashout before giving it back. But if you can keep your head, you have found a good table and don't give up that edge just to prevent leakage. Use your brain to reduce leakage!
9. Leave a Table if Uncomfortable - There are a lot of reasons you might be uncomfortable at a table; too much raising and reraising, can't get a read on players, abrasive chat, etc. Whatever the reason, don't play at a table where you are uncomfortable. That uncomfort could lead to leakages in your game. It could put you on tilt or it could just lead to looser play. There are too many tables in cyberspace to remain at a table that is not doing it for you. I will often sit at four tables and switch out one or two within the first 1/2 as I guage the action and interaction at the tables.
10. Play within your Bankroll - While I have thrown this one in at the end, that is only because it is the most important assumed rule for all of poker. I really should not have to list this one but it can really be critical in NL ring games. As I said earlier, there will be times when you get all your chips in with a monster and run into a bigger monster. NL is just a high stakes game -- as a result do not have a significant portion of your chips on the table at any one time. My general rule is I like to have no more than 1% to 2% of my bankroll on the 4 tables I am playing. There are many bankroll management books and articles, but make sure you are not risking an unreasonable amount of your bankroll in any one session so you can live to play another day.
Good luck at the tables.