Low Low Low Limit Holdem
Back in the day
When Low Limit Holdem Strategy and Tactics was created in late 2000 we were talking about live games at about the $3-$6 limit. Even today, $3-$6 is THE low limit game either online or live. In this case by "THE low limit game" we mean the game most likely to be ideal for the strategy we talk about on this site (that would be a loose passive or aggressive table).
At a live game there are some reasons this happens. First the amount of money seems "right" --most adults with jobs can play $3-$6 holdem without breaking their bank, yet the amount of money in play is significant and exciting to them. A big pot can be over $100 and sometimes at a wild table can even approach $200--that's real money that you can do something with. Second, the typical buy in for a live game is a single rack of whatever size chip the game uses. At a $3-$6 game that would be rack (1 rack = 100 chips) of $1 chips which means you've bought into the game for $100. At a $3-$6 game if the betting is capped (a bet and 3 raises typically) each round that amounts to $12 + $12 + $24 + $24 or $72, so on a single round where you have extreme action you can be risking over 70% of your entire buy in. So with that short buy in and the effect of the rake there is a constant urging for action. Sit there and wait for big hands and you can see your stack dwindle $7 for every orbit if you fold the blinds (including a $3 a round table drop you must personally pay for). Combine this with the fact that most people travel to a poker room to play poker and you can start to understand why there are tables where almost everyone calls to see the flop almost every time.
Enter online poker
Unlike a live game, you can sit down with whatever amount of money you want at an online game (subject to the game minimum which is usually 5 or 10 times the small bet). At America's Cardroom, for example, the automatically suggested buy-in at a $3-$6 game is $300 (which is much more reasonable than $100). Also unlike live games, which are limited on the number and type of games they can spread, all limits of games can be played online and that includes free games (play money games) and games at the micro limits as low as 1cent/2cent holdem! Online you can play in a game you probably wouldn't bother to drive to your friend's house to play!
Many players who recently started playing limit Texas holdem are playing in these micro limit games; perhaps you fit into this category as well. Certainly the risk to your money is lower at these games, after all you've got a very safe 200 big bets in your bankroll at a 1cent/2cent game with only four dollars! Are micro limit games beatable? Yes they are beatable. Are they easy? Not necessarily... At a typical table you'll get a mix of recreational players who just like participating in the game of Texas holdem as well as a couple of maniacs who have turned their last twenty dollars into a monster bankroll at a 25 cent table. In with those folks is, perhaps, you... a person interested in getting a feel for playing the game without a lot of risk, who want to play tight or who maybe wants to test out the strategy we talk about here.
The challenge at the micro limits (and to be clear we're talking about limits up to $0.50/$1) is that most often the amount of money involved is not enough to make the players really care about the money in play--either as a source of excitement or a source of fear. This is true to an even greater extent at the play money tables. When the money is unimportant to the players the play becomes more unpredictable, which actually makes the game more difficult. Why? Because you gain worse information when players don't have a significant monetary stake in winning or losing. This is actually similar to a "test" put on TV recently with a sports announcer telling Phil Hellmuth (a great player even if you think he goes overboard as a person) a list of true and false statements to test his ability to detect the lies. Of course he did horribly because the sports announcer had no stake in whether the statements were true or false. There was no reaction to read because the announcer didn't care one way or the other about the statements he was reading.
Micro limit games: To play or not to play
Absolutely the low low low limit games have their place and we're not saying you shouldn't play in them. In fact, the following folks definitely should play at a micro limit table:
Those who are entirely new to Texas holdem -- these are definitely preferable to play money games for gaining experience.
Those who are on a very tight budget -- we recommend buying in to a table for 50 times the big bet, so at a $3-$6 table that would be $300. If that amount of money is too great a strain on your finances then you need to move down. $200 at a $2-$4 table, $100 at a $1-$2, $50 at $0.50/$1 and so on. If you cannot make yourself a budget of $100 or more, then you should play at one of the micro limit tables. Be sure, however, that you are playing for enough money that you care whether you win or lose each hand.
Those who are playing recreationally -- we've also made this point before that it's not a crime to want to play poker for fun--after all, poker is a fun game! Playing for fun at micro limits makes sense because you aren't putting a lot of money at risk yet you'll still occasionally win a (relatively) large pot.
What if you aren't in one of these groups?
The sad truth is that you probably have two goals in poker. 1. To improve your game and 2. To make money (and not necessarily in that order). In order to make both of these happen you need to move up to stakes where you care about the money involved and also where there's enough money to make skills like hand reading possible (you can't put your opponent on a hand if they raise no matter what two cards they have). In fact most advanced poker skills won't be possible at the smallest limits and you'll be forced to play each hand with a bludgeon instead of a precision scalpel.
Bankrolling the bigger game
A common bankroll amount suggested by noted poker authors David Sklansky and Lou Krieger is 300 big bets. That would imply that you need $1800 bankroll money to play long term at a $3-$6 table. This amount probably is correct for the long run;, however it isn't necessary to invest $1800 in a certificate of deposit to fund poker for the rest of your life at a $3-$6 table (assuming you are a winning player). A much more meaningful amount is 50 big bets or $300 at a $3-$6 table which is your session bankroll. You should buy in for this amount (at least when playing online--you may or may not want to do this at a live game depending on how you feel this will work for or against your table image--if you do buy in for $300 at a live $3-$6 game it may be worth considering buying a single rack of chips and putting the rest of the money on the table in the form of $25 or $100 chips).
By focusing on the session bankroll you have a much more accurate benchmark for deciding which games to play in because let's be honest if you were to lose your entire session bankroll that is not the same as your poker bankroll for life. It's actually much more important to sit down with the right amount of money and then set a stop loss for losses which should be about 30 big bets. Meaning if you lose $180 or more at a single session of a $3-$6 game you walk away. Although having a run of bad cards or bad luck doesn't mean that table conditions are bad, the psychological stress of losses above 30 big bets and the desire to get even (often through bad play or playing at limits you cannot afford) make this stop loss a sensible strategy for most players.
Why sit down with 50 big bets if you are going to walk away if you lose 30? Because you always want enough money in front of you to extract maximum value from the rare monster hand that comes to you. Do you really want to buy in for 30 big bets and then after you lose 29 of them get pocket aces and only be able to put $6 in the pot? That's a rhetorical question and the answer is no.
The bottom line
No matter what limit you play at make a session bankroll, and make it 50 big bets. Never sit down with less than 50 big bets. If you lose 30 big bets or more then walk away and come back to fight another day. If you're winning then stay as long as you're playing well and the table conditions are good. And most importantly play at a limit where the money means something to you.