Live cash game poker is a totally different beast compared to playing online. Between the slower pace, the addition to physical tells, and the size of the games, live poker really is unique.
As someone who has been playing poker for almost 20 years, including over a million hands online, I wanted to share some of the truths about live poker. Push play, or continue reading…
While I could list hundreds of nuanced aspects of live cash games, these are the key six that every player should be aware of. Let’s get started.
Live Poker Is Super Slow
Compared to online, live poker is incredibly slow. While playing online you can expect to play between 60-75 hands/hour (depending on whether you play 6max or full ring), and that’s per table. Meaning if you multi-table, it’s not surprising to play hundreds of hands per hour.
And if you play a fast-fold variant, you are typically playing 200-250 hands/hour, per table.
Live cash game poker tables typically see 20-30 hands/hour. And of course, there are no multi-tabling options available.
Dealing With Boring Cash Games
Given the lack of volume, online players especially may find live cash games to be quite boring. And boredom for poker players tends to translate into costly mistakes.
The biggest hint I can give to players in boring cash games is to spend the extra “free time” paying a lot of attention to your opponents. Really pay attention to things like:
- How many hands per orbit are they playing?
- Are they c-betting flops often?
- Do they seem to approach heads up vs multi-way pots differently?
Doing this keeps your brain sharp and helps you build up your profile on each player quicker.
The alternative is simply playing more hands preflop to try and quell the boredom, but I would refer you to the next truth…
Play Tighter In Live Cash Games
Seriously, 95% of players would fare better if they would simply play fewer hands preflop.
I know, nobody drives to the card room to fold a lot – but being too loose preflop is the perfect recipe for being down half a buy-in at the end of a session and not really knowing where the heck your money went.
Think about it this way. If you were playing an 8-9 handed game online, your VPIP might be around 17%. Multiply that by the number of hands you see per hour in a live game, and that equals playing 3-5 hands/hour.
And that’s without discussing the stack depths, which can be quite shallow in live games. And without discussing how loose other players are, which can be insane.
So you aren’t necessarily “running super card dead” because you haven’t had a playable hand in 30 minutes. You may very well be playing correctly.
Which Hands Should You Play?
In live cash games, play the strongest of hands from early position and be very dynamic from middle and late position. There are some tables where you can be correctly loose from MP and LP, but many where even large raises will get multiple callers.
If you’re looking for the best preflop poker ranges, I would highly suggest downloading The GTO Poker Ranges App. All of the open-raising ranges are free, including GTO and exploitative ones, and the entire range set is quite affordable.
But as a basic starting point, use the Full Ring > Exploitative ranges and ignore the yellow ranges if you are newer to poker. The basic red ranges are safe and designed to keep you protected and value-focused. After all, if your opponents are playing too loose, why do you need to bother throwing K7s and 64s into the mix too?
A few basic ranges to memorize:
- From UTG, open-raise with 77+/ATs+/KJs+/QJs/AKo
- Against most players, just 3-bet with QQ+/AK
- Against most players, keep 4-bets to KK+
While these ranges are incredibly face-up and way too tight, especially by online standards, they take advantage of the average opponent in a normal $1/$2 live cash game.
If you want to see how things pan out for me playing much wider ranges than this, be sure to check out my entire $1/$2 poker VLOG series.
Want even more information and discussion of preflop ranges? Check out this podcast episode from Red Chip Poker named The Live Preflop Toolbox from season 5.
Which Hands Should You Fold Instead?
As a default, most players could fold at least half of the hands they currently play preflop.
This means stopping open-raising every suited connector and every pocket pair from all positions. This means stop calling every raise with every suited gapper and AXs hand.
Instead, play tighter until you can clearly articulate why you are playing a particular hand. And FWIW, that articulation should factor in things like stack depth, how many players you expect to continue after you, how the alternative option would likely pan out, where your edges will come from in this hand, a basic plan on typical flops, etc.
Essentially, use my preflop checklist and thank me later!
Live Poker Rake Is Horrible
While rake is the cost of doing business, it’s not great in most live poker rooms. Rake has certainly increased since I started playing (where most rooms were capped at $4 and every room didn’t have a promotion drop), and I’ve played in rooms with rake as high as $6+$2 – ouch!
What Is 5+1 Rake?
When you see live rake expressed as something like $5+$1, it simply means there is a promotion drop as well as the normal rake.
So a $5+$1 rake means the normal rake is capped at $5 and there is a $1 promotion drop too.
Typically the promotion drop is taken once the pot reaches $10.
The “normal rake” is typically 10% with $1 taken for every $10 in the pot until the cap is hit. So if the pot is $34 and you bet $20 and your opponent folds, and the rake is $5+$1, the room would take $3 for the normal rake (since your $20 bet should not get factored into the pot size) and $1 for the promotion drop. That means you get $30 pushed to you – before tipping of course!
Comparing Online & Live Poker Rake
It’s sort of apples to oranges to compare online and live poker rake, but I think it’s helpful for wrapping your head around things.
If you compare the rake of common online rooms from this PrimeDope page, you see most online rooms take closer to 5% rake instead of the live 10% rake. However, the caps can be comparable, especially if you look at GGPoker.
Playing $1/$2 on GGPoker has a cap of $6 (at the time of writing this) and playing $2/$5 has a cap of $8 – which is higher than many live rooms!
Now again, it’s a bit apples to oranges since online and live poker have very different expense costs (building + dealer expenses are different than server costs), but it’s helpful to see the comparison before you pass on live poker altogether since the rake is so awful.
Rake Structures To Avoid (If You Can)
There are some live rake structures you should avoid if possible. The two big things I advise are:
Avoid games that “drop with no flop”.
Most live games will not take a rake on pots that do not see a flop. So if you 3-bet preflop and everyone folds, there is no rake taken out of your pot.
However, some rooms (especially in California), will take an immediate rake, whether or not a flop is seen.
Skip these games if possible.
Avoid uncapped rake games at all costs.
Some games, usually private ones, will not have a cap on their rake. So they will take whatever their rake % is out of every pot, with zero caps on how much gets taken.
To put this into context, say you are playing $2/$5 and win a $2,000 pot.
- With a 10% rake and $5 cap, the house would take $5 from that pot and you get $1,995 pushed to you. Nice!
- However, if the rake is 10% uncapped, the house would take $200 and you would only get $1,800 pushed to you. Not so nice.
It’s more common to see uncapped, or even super high caps, in private and destination games. Poker cruises are notorious for this sort of thing fwiw, so pay attention to the rake structure before sitting down.
Live Cash Games Are Still Beatable
Even with everything we’ve already discussed, the winrate potential is still there (if nothing else, because your opponents didn’t drive all the way to the card room to fold fold fold).
While debatable and lots of different factors are at play, it’s commonly thought that around $20/hr is possible at $1/$2 live in the long run.
This likely is not enough to justify quitting your day job, but certainly nice to have a profitable hobby.
What Are Good Live Poker Winrates?
Good winrates are dependent on a variety of factors, such as rake and the density of strong vs. fishy players in your game.
However, the typical bb/hour caps tend to look like this:
These of course would be after hundreds and hundreds of hours of play. So you won’t need to look hard to see someone bragging about winning $60/hour playing $1/$2, but with a little digging you find out that’s over like 3 sessions.
Keep in mind that winning anything is solid. The average poker player is losing at the end of the day, so even breaking even puts you in the top 50% of players.
You don’t need to crush the highest winrate, nor hourly, to justify playing poker instead of another hobby that will literally never give you a chance at earning money (*cough* golf *cough*)
Poker Tells In Live Games
Tells certainly exist in live poker, and this can make live way more interesting than online when you can watch a player at every moment in a hand.
However, it’s not uncommon to find players who base their entire approach on “reading people” and really have zero strategic foundation.
In fact, it’s very typical to find players who will use “reading people” as a justification for NOT learning any poker math or building a legit strategy.
Don’t be this person.
First, you have to remember that people do random things for random reasons. It can be very tough to nail down a specific tell profile on a player, especially if you don’t play with them regularly.
So instead, think of tells as an additional layer of information. Tells can be an indicator of variables (like range or frequency) within the overall problem you’re solving.
Players can look uncomfortable for any number of reasons, they can shake simply because it’s cold in the room (and seriously, it’s super cold in 99% of live rooms, so bring a sweater!), and basing your entire strategy on tells is…ill-advised at best.
Live Poker Money Swings Can Get Huge
One of the biggest differences between online and live poker is the smallest available game.
Online you can typically play for pennies, and find a 1cent/2cent game or a 5cent/10cent game where your maximum loss is way under $100.
In live, the smallest game you tend to see is $1/$2. Which means you can easily swing hundreds of dollars over the course of a single session.
Heck, even I’ve had single sessions where I drop over $1,000 playing $1/$2.
This means you really need good bankroll management to play live games, even if you only play recreationally. If you’re looking for my BRM strategy, watch this video:
The Final Truth About Live Cash Games
Wrapping everything up, yes, live cash games are still alive and healthy. Sure, there are a lot of negative factors from the rake, to having to drive there, to having to smell the person next to you…but there are some serious positive factors too.
The high winrate potential, the solid hourly potential, the extra information gathered through tells, and the fact that the player pool is typically quite weak when compared to the same stakes online.
Just be sure to focus on your preflop hand selection, add in some extra discipline with ranges and bankroll management, and overall – have fun!
And if you’re quite new to live play, be sure to check out this entire guide from RCP about playing poker in a casino.