Welcome to the grind: How to make a successful switch from tournaments to cash games

Jamie Sykes was a successful tournament player before switching to cash to save his poker career. If you’re looking to make money from the game, it might be time for you to do the same

The eight-year-long journey that has led to the point of writing this article on the stoop of an old Victorian terrace somewhere in north London somehow manages to feel both excruciatingly long, riddled with heartache and turmoil, and like one of those glorious dreams. You know the ones, where the details are shrouded in some kind of haze, but where you wake up with an overwhelming feeling that something wonderful has happened.

That frankly insane deviation from my plan of becoming a forensic scientist was a result of something that is the catalyst in most good stories – love. I fell in love with a game that challenged me and offered me the things I desired from the world. It offered me the freedom to spend my time travelling, reading, partying and at no point did I have to answer to anybody.

A love rekindled

So, before this opportunity had a chance to disappear, I dived head first into a wild romance with poker tournaments. And like many of history’s greatest romances before me, it was nothing but exhilarating for a long time. Needless to say, travelling around the country soon became travelling around Europe, and then of course Las Vegas. Before I knew it I was so heavily embroiled in these mad-capped adventures I couldn’t see that, despite describing myself as a ‘professional poker player’, I wasn’t that at all.

I was merely a man who played poker most days. There was nothing professional about it. And as my volume became lower and lower, and my results got worse and worse, it became evident that I was falling out of love with tournaments just as quickly as I had stumbled in.

However, I knew I still loved the game of poker itself, and so I decided to try to give it everything I had left in a last ditch attempt to rekindle that love. I did that by switching over to cash games.

Moving to cash games was something I had contemplated for a few years. Even at the height of my online MTT volume I was still finding time to play live cash, but I never gave it my full attention. And although my overall happiness was the main factor in making the decision,  I suspected that it would also be the most profitable option in the long run.

Here are a few reasons why I left it all behind for a new challenge:

  1. I predicted that my hourly rate would be much higher than it was in tournaments. This is because a losing player in a cash game loses a lot more in terms of equity than they would in a tournament, which in turn increases your expectation.

  2. I was finding that I was getting tired halfway through sessions and slipping into my B and even C games on a regular basis. Playing cash games affords me the luxury of stopping if I start to feel myself tilt. And they also let me take regular breaks, which helps me handle the emotional swings of being a poker player.

  3. The financial swings are much smaller. It is a widely discussed topic that the variance in MTTs is mind-blowing. I never really understood that until I felt the full brunt of its wrath. I started at the lower stakes when I first moved to online cash games, in order to get to grips with my new profession. (Cash games are almost an entirely different game to tournaments.) This  resulted in very small daily swings, which converted into relatively miniscule monthly swings. And that wasn’t just down to the stakes, the variance tends to be a lot lower in cash games in general. It makes sense if you think about it, because you can always reload or top-up and generally people stick around to give you more chances to get your money back. In a tournament, once you’re out, mathematical favourite or not, you’re out – no second chance, do not pass go, do not collect £200.

  4. I will become a better, more competent, more well-rounded poker player who is able to navigate most situations comfortably. This is because cash games tend to be tougher and the idea behind beating them is based around which play is best in a vacuum. In order to make profit from this type of game, you have to dissect the technical side of poker and really understand the theory behind the game. This is something that is often overlooked and is actually very important if you want to make a success in an ever-changing, increasingly tough ecosystem. However, once you have, the rest is plain sailing. If you ever venture back into tournaments it will seem like somebody is playing a very elaborate practical joke on you, and situations where you struggled before will feel so organic, especially those previously tricky ‘deep-stacked’ spots. If my situation sounds a bit like your situation, it might be time to make the transition too. Here’s a short list of the most important areas you need to consider when moving between these two very different beasts.

Playing deep-stacked

By far the biggest and most important adjustment is learning how to play with deep stacks. In tournaments you come across many situations where, because of how shallow you were before the flop, and the fact that there are often antes resulting in a shallow pot vs stack ratio, it is common to find yourself having to ‘go with’ a hand like an open-ended straight draw or top pair. There is simply so much in the pot that doing anything else can often be a huge mistake – because of the price from the pot you are getting and how little you have left behind.

This goes out of the window in cash games where it is common to have as much as ten times the pot still in your stack. This really changes things. Why? If there is significantly less money in the pot in comparison to your stack, you need to be ahead a much higher percentage of the time in order to make money from the hand. Also, when you are so deep, your opponents’ ranges change drastically – usually towards the tighter side. This is because there is less impetus on just winning the pot there and then due to there being less money in the middle in relation to everybody’s stacks.

In deep-stacked poker, position becomes a lot more relevant, and constantly playing pots out of position to anybody half-decent is going to be very detrimental to your win rate. What ends up happening is that you become tighter in the earlier positions and looser on the button and in the cutoff, in order to remain in position as much as possible. And that concept brings me very conveniently to
my next point…

Solid fundamentals preflop

All I mean by solid fundamentals preflop is the idea that the earlier you are on the table, the tighter the range you should be opening. This is because there are more combinations of good hands behind you with each seat. So for example Q♣-T would be a fist-pump, moon-walk open in the cutoff, but a fold in the first three or even four spots on a full-ring table because of how many people still have to act. The more people there are, the more likely your hand is dominated. You have to remember that the deeper you are, the worse the reverse implied odds for any given hand are, so it makes it very important that the earlier position, the tighter you play.

People tend to play too many hands in general and get to postflop with far too wide a range of hands, so the way you combat that is just to really tighten up your ranges and remain aggressive when you do decide to play a hand. If you are playing solid ranges when you are out of position you will make better hands and have better equity more often. You will find yourself dominating your opponent’s range rather than being dominated yourself and this converts into that all-important profit.

Another thing to remember when you are getting to grips with deep-stacked preflop poker is that you can’t get your stack in as much as you do in tournaments. In a tournament, because of how shallow you tend to be and how much dead money there is in the pot, getting hands like pocket Jacks in preflop is usually the right play. If you start trying to get Jacks in preflop for anything near 100BBs in a cash game without very specific reads, then you are almost always going to be making a huge mistake. Because you are now just calling three-bets with hands like A-K and pocket Jacks, you have to be aware that people now know that you are not  four-betting wide for value because of how tight you are willing to get your chips in preflop, resulting in you having a polarised range. Now all this means is when you  do four-bet you are selling the story of A-A to Q-Q and occasionally A-K, or a complete airball, nothing in between. So be careful how often you four-bet, especially in live cash where stacks are usually a lot deeper so you get even less credit for a real hand. Often a better way to defend against three-bets is to just open a tighter range and be willing to see a flop with a lot of it.

Solid fundamentals postflop

The main difference between cash games and tournaments is that in the latter blinds are constantly going up – and you’re generally playing with new players all the time, making every situation unique. Because of this, contemplating hands in a vacuum is only relevant up to a point. Often, if you have a troublesome spot, it is one that you have never come across before and almost definitely won’t again. Cash games on the other hand are much more consistent because the blinds always stay the same and everybody is sat much deeper, so most situations are replicated time and time again. This allows you to prepare for them in advance.

You do that by imagining a vacuum in which if you performed the same action a million times, let’s say, it would have a similar outcome each time. Obviously your opponents in cash games are human beings and are still liable to make emotional decisions which stray from the norm. But, because the conditions are always the same, situations are replicated far more often. This gives you the luxury of having studied these spots to such an extent that you are very comfortable with them.

Theorising poker situations in a vacuum is simply about trying to work out the most profitable play in the long run. If a situation comes up a million times, what would make the most money?

Get into the mindset that it is all about the long run

Another big between cash games and tournaments – that often hinders or even completely restricts some very talented cash game players from making it – is actually nothing to do with poker itself. Tournament poker can be very alluring because of how much money you can win in such a small amount of time. Just look at the WSOP Main Event for example. Somewhere around six thousand people show up every year just chasing that dream of one huge score and having their name plastered across the headlines.

That is something that is never going to happen as a cash game player. You do get something else in exchange for all of that missing glitz and glamour though: consistency. As I stated earlier, variance is significantly lower in cash games and if you are working hard to beat your regular games and picking those games carefully enough then it is actually quite hard to lose. Yes it is a grind, and yes you will never be recognised at a bar or be asked to have a picture taken with you, but who cares?

Being a pro poker player (or a profitable recreational player) is entirely about making the most money in the best way possible, and this is how you can accomplish that.


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