'Although poker is not an easy game to fully master, beating the low stakes poker games from 2nl up to 25nl is not hard at all.'
Now, the above statement is by no means meant to be disparaging to those micro stakes no limit players who are struggling to make a profit in online poker. It is actually supposed to be an encouragement to read this lengthy poker strategy guide instead.
Because playing winning poker is all about making fewer mistakes than your opponents and because the majority of players at the low limits make an awful lot of mistakes, you don't have to be a very talented player to beat the micro stakes consistently. All it takes is some knowledge of the basic poker strategy fundamentals and a recipe that makes the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. A lot of the poker strategy fundamentals have been explained in other articles on First Time Poker Player, which will be linked to throughout this article, and this micro stakes poker strategy guide is meant to be that recipe for beating the low limit poker games.
If you are unfamiliar with the basic poker strategy fundamentals and the basics of proper starting hand selection, betting and folding, then I would like to recommend you to read the poker strategy guides on First Time Poker Player listed below. Otherwise, by all means feel free to skip them. I know it is a lot of reading, but I wouldn't recommend them if I didn't honestly think they could be very helpful in grasping this guide and eventually could lead to some serious micro stakes ownage (although I understand I'm slightly biased here :-)).
The poker strategy guides above provide you with the knowledge needed to understand why a certain play would be better or worse than another. This should help you to not only make fewer mistakes yourself, but also to recognise mistakes of other micro stakes players at the table. And it's these mistakes of your opponents to which you have to adapt your poker strategy in order to beat the low stakes games.
The majority of your opponents at the micro stakes have a pretty poor understanding of the basic poker strategy fundamentals. They don't pay attention to their and your position; most low stakes poker players are way too passive and love to slow play; they often don't read the board very well and they don't pay attention to pot odds. And if these players try to pay attention to anything of the above, then there's a great chance they're doing it wrong.
As a consequence many of your opponents at the micro stakes:
are too loose:
they limp/call with easily dominated hands in early position; they call raises and reraises with hands that are too weak; they call too much with their draws and low stakes poker players tend to overvalue
top pairs with a weak kicker any pair.
don't get enough value for their strong hands:
they don't have a betting plan during the hand and by being too passive and slow playing too much with their strong hands you can often get away very cheap where you could have actually been stacked.
give great (implied) odds:
you can see cheap flops (in position) with drawing hands like suited connectors, because your opponents raise too little and too small; you can often draw very cheap post-flop and when you hit your draw, you will often get paid more than enough to justify your call on an earlier street.
don't pay attention to what you are doing...
...when they are not in a hand with you: they don't notice the mistakes of others and therefore your 'table-image' is not something you will have to worry about and adjust your play for. And if they do happen to notice some mistakes in your play, then they probably don't know how to exploit that and punish you for it anyway.
they don't bluff very often at all when they are facing a bet. Therefore a raise often means what it looks like: a strong hand. However, this does not necessarily mean that micro stakes players don't bluff much at all. There are also plenty who like to bluff in the worst possible spots when they are given the chance to do so (for example when you 'show weakness' yourself by checking to them).
often have a very unpredictable range of hands:
there is no logic in the hands they play from whichever position nor with what hands they continue after the flop. Note that having an unpredictable range of hands does not mean that your opponents at the micro stakes are therefore unpredictable themselves. When they start raising then it is still very likely that you are up against a strong holding. Whether that is a slow played set or a flopped bottom pair rivering trips does not matter!
Of course, this list of characteristics of the majority of the micro stakes players is quite a generalisation. You will encounter players who are very (too) tight, but play their good hands aggressively. You will also encounter players who actually know what they are doing and have a nice win rate, but don't feel the need to move up. The point is though, that you will encounter many more bad players than good ones, and the list above should immediately give you an idea of how to win enough from those bad players (which, by the way, also includes the too tight/aggressive ones) that you don't have to worry about the other micro stakes players.
Now you know how a lot of the bad low stakes players play poker we can take a look at how to take advantage of their mistakes. Because micro stakes players play too many hands and often call too much with them it should not come as a surprise that a successful micro stakes strategy can completely revolve around the following two key aspects:
Although this is really what beating the micro stakes is all about, I suspect that the above two lines did not cause you to have that 'aha moment' we're after yet. Therefore we will take a closer look at the following aspects and tactics:
Proper starting hand selection is a crucial aspect of the micro stakes poker strategy mentioned above, especially when you still need to improve your post flop play. You can create a big edge on your opponents and avoid a lot of marginal situations just by playing tight. Certainly with all the loose opponents at the micro stakes it isn't difficult to consistently see the flop with better hands and create situations in which you are generally way ahead of the range of hands of your opponents. This highly reduces the risk of you making a costly mistake. If you are unsure about what starting hands to play in which positions and/or situations and you haven't read the starting hands guide yet (especially the parts about factors to consider for proper starting hand selection and groups of playable Texas hold´em starting hands), then I really recommend you to do so.
Some important take home messages regarding starting hand selection at the micro stakes:
So, with a tight starting hand selection you can manoeuvre yourself in situations where you know you have a great edge on the range of hands of your opponents. Step two in your poker strategy should be to get as much value in these situations as possible and for that, you have to value bet. You are value betting when you think that you are ahead of the range of hands of your opponent. As long as that is the case then you are value betting, even if your opponent happens to have a hand that beats yours. You should especially be looking to value bet in situations where you expect to be way ahead of your opponent's range of hands. If you think you might be ahead, but only slightly so, then you don't have to value bet thin. Just check and see what happens.
By the way, you can also value bet pre-flop. Every time you raise or reraise your opponents with a great starting hand, then you are essentially value betting.
Remember that the majority of your opponents at the micro stakes are too loose. They'll call too much and too often, so don't be afraid to value bet three streets after the flop with a hand like TPTK. As long as you start slowing/shutting down when you actually get raised, then you'll get a tremendous amount of value from some of the most bizarre holdings. Also, make sure you always buy-in for at least 100 big blinds and re-load when you fall below that to be able to take full advantage of your good hands.
Because you'll often get called when betting for value, there's very little need for slow playing at the micro stakes. Often slow playing a strong hand will only result in missing out on a lot of value from draws or strong second best hands which became worthless when scary cards (or scare cards so you will) hit the board. Therefore you should not slow play a big hand when:
Example 2 from the previous section about value betting would be illustrative for both these conditions.
This doesn't mean that slow playing should not be part of your micro stakes poker strategy at all, however. Sometimes you flop a hand that is just so big that it will be the nuts on the river regardless of the cards that come and your opponent is unlikely to have hit anything at all. In such a situation slow playing could let your opponent 'catch up' to a second best hand with which he (or she) will donate some money, or it can induce a bluff from your opponent. This is also a reason to be more inclined to slow play versus very aggressive opponents who like to bluff you off of your QQ or KK on an A-high flop, when in fact you're calling with top set and a big smile on your face instead.
Don't think that, when you flop a monster like in the example above, slowplaying will be too suspicious, because you would have made a continuation bet otherwise (in other words: that you need to 'balance your play' so that you're not only slow playing monsters and c-betting all other non-monster hands). Most of your opponents at the micro stakes just don't pay attention to your playing style enough for that to be an issue.
Contrary to slow playing, folding is an essential part of a successful micro stakes poker strategy (or of any poker strategy for that matter). You can only avoid marginal and unprofitable situations by folding enough. We have already seen this when discussing starting hand selection and post flop it's essentially the same.
A lot of players at the micro stakes don't play back at you and don't bluff when they raise you, they simply have it. Do you have 77 on a 6-high flop and your c-bet/value bet gets check-raised? Just fold. There's just too little value in continuing with the hand unless you know you're up against a total clown. The same goes for top pairs with a medium kicker, top pair on a paired board etc.. Those are all marginal situations at best when you have to start making decisions for a big part of your stack. Sure, you'll sometimes be folding the best hand, and this weak approach is probably not the optimal strategy. But it'll save you money more often than not, and the real profit should come from the hands where you know you have a big advantage anyway.
If you have already read some other poker strategy guides or tips for beating the micro stakes, then you have undoubtedly read that you should not bluff at the lower limits at all. But not bluffing at all at low stakes = not good. In fact, you should be bluffing at the micro stakes all the time. However, before you start shoving those chips in the pot with all your no-pairs and missed draws, it might be advisable to first keep on reading.
Firstly, continuation betting sensibly is an important part of playing winning poker, also at the micro stakes. And since c-betting with your missed hands to take advantage of your initiative will often enough be a bluff, you should be bluffing a lot. Continuation betting sensibly does not mean that you should be firing away on the flop by default when you were the pre-flop raiser, however. You have to look at the board, the number of opponents you're up against and the playing style of your opponent. Be less inclined to c-bet when you completely missed against more than 2 opponents, very loose opponents or on very wet boards (9hJcTh, for example) which have very likely hit your opponent's range. Also, when your c-bet gets called, just shut down. Don't keep on firing in the hopes of getting a fold, that's just a waste of chips. Very rarely you could try a second barrel when an ace or king hits on the turn, but your default play should be to shut down.
Secondly, there will be plenty occasions at the micro stakes where you can semi-bluff with draws, especially on the flop where you have the most equity to win the hand. It is important to realise that most draws, even big combo draws, lose a lot of their value when the turn card is a blank (does not complete the draw). Therefore it is advisable to try to see the river as cheap as possible once the turn did not help your hand, either by check/calling a reasonable bet or by checking behind.
Thirdly, there will be a lot of situations where you are up against an obviously weak hand, but you are unlikely to win when going to showdown. Then a little 'stab at the pot' might be effective.
You might have noticed that most of the bluffs are not 'big and ballsy bluffs'. Those are really unnecessary at the micro stakes and will probably get called too often to be really profitable.
There are plenty of occasions where bluffing at the micro stakes is okay. You can take advantage of your initiative when c-betting a missed hand, you can semi-bluff and have your draw as a back-up for when you do get called, or you can take small stabs at the pot when it is very likely your opponent is weak and willing to give up anyway. Don't ever try to take away bigger pots by bluffing your opponent off of a real hand. This is what is pointless and unprofitable at the micro stakes. Sure, sometimes it'll work when you are dealing with a weak/tight opponent, but more often than not you'll get called and have to smack yourself against the head again for doing such a stupid thing.
Hopefully all of the above will already help you to beat the micro stakes cash games. However, playing winning poker consistently for a lot of players will not only be about knowing what decisions are best in certain situations, but also about having the discipline and self control to actually make those decisions and about not putting too much of their bankroll on the line for a single decision. We're talking about controlling tilt and bankroll management here.
Tilt, in poker, has the unpleasant side effect that it can make an otherwise nice win rate completely evaporate. And if you're not careful, it can even do the same with your whole bankroll. Especially at the micro stakes the unexpected hand ranges and 'unorthodox' plays of your opponents can make for some unpleasant surprises, which can be the last straw after some coolers to make you go on monkey tilt. And for many poker players this could very well be the most difficult aspect in poker to deal with. Of coarse I could now preach that you simply should not tilt, ever, but that isn't going to work. Therefore we'll take a look at some general tips, which may or may not help if you have tilt issues:
Proper bankroll management should prevent you from losing your entire bankroll when results don't match up to how well you are playing due to variance. Bankroll management is therefore a very important aspect of any long term poker strategy. A couple of coolers followed by some bad beats can easily set you back a couple of buy-ins. Therefore, in no limit hold'em, you should have at least 20 buy-ins before you start playing at a certain level and you should especially move down in time when things aren't going so well (when you have around 14 buy-ins left). Also take a look at the article specifically about bankroll management for more detailed information about bankroll management and a helpful nano and micro stakes bankroll management scheme.
Tracking software like Holdem Manager (HEM) will be very important, mainly for tracking your own play and improving your own game. Such software will be quite an investment for a nano or micro stakes player, but you can take a 15 day free trial period.
At the micro stakes you don't really need to track your opponents and make all your decisions at the table based on their calling and raising statistics in order to be a winner. It is important however, that you know your own statistics to be able to assess correctly whether you are playing too loose or too tight and what might be some other leaks to plug. Also playing back and reviewing hands that gave you trouble (or better: posting them on poker forums) will tremendously help you to improve your game.
If you decide to get Holdem Manager for free by playing and accumulating player points at a certain poker room (see the site of HEM for info on that), make sure you don't spoil your chances of getting rakeback at a poker room you might want to continue playing at for a long time!
An alternative for Holdem Manager would be PokerTracker3 (PT3).
If you don't know what rake is or don't know what the impact of not having a rakeback deal at the micro stakes is when you could have when playing at a certain online poker room, then you can find more information by following the links.
In short: the rake you pay at an online poker room can add up to about 25-30 big blinds per 100 hands (bb/100), which is about twice that of a healthy win rate. If you would break even without rakeback at, for example, Full Tilt Poker, then with a 27% rakeback deal you would all of a sudden have a reasonable win rate. Not all poker rooms offer rakeback though, but that does not mean that you should not play at such a room. PokerStars for example does not offer rakeback. However, they take a lower amount of rake from the pot in the first place and that, in combination with their rewards program, makes PokerStars still cheaper to play at for 2nl, 5nl and 10nl players than Full Tilt Poker. (In other words: go play at PokerStars or make sure you get rakeback at mostly any other room).
Beating the micro stakes, or preferably beating the majority of the micro stakes players, will be a matter of following a somewhat weak/tight poker strategy which revolves around getting great value from your biggest hands and slowing down in or even avoiding marginal situations. Such a micro stakes strategy leaves little room for slow playing and fancy plays. A tight starting hand selection, value betting and respecting raises are the key aspects, where your starting hand selection can become wider as you develop your post flop play. Bluffing also plays a role significant enough that the advice to not bluff at all would be misplaced. It has to be done well thought out, however, and will be mainly backed up by your momentum from an earlier street, a draw or the read that your opponent is ready to muck his hand at the slightest reach for chips (or the bet button for that matter) and should never have the intention to let your opponent fold a substantial hand.
If you are able to apply all the above consistently by preventing tilt from having a great negative influence on your game then you will eventually beat the micro stakes. If you keep improving your game with the help of tracking software and by reading a lot, if you protect your bankroll wisely and make sure you're paying as little rake as possible at your poker room of choice, then you might even be crushing the lower stakes before you know it.
Oh, and don't forget to let me know how it is at the nosebleed stakes
if when you happen to eventually get to play there.