Stakes: Steaks or Hamburgers?

31 March 2010, Created By:
Stakes: Steaks or Hamburgers?

There's a lot of chatter about the astronomical amounts of money (some) people are playing poker for these days. This interest began a couple of years ago with TV shows like High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark.

These shows began with the "usual suspects" (Doyle, Barry, Jennifer, Sammy, Daniel ...), gradually brought in lesser known but capable recreational players, WSOP winners and, more recently, the newer online phenoms.

These folks have crossed swords with serious cash on the line and it has only escalated over time.

But the focus on the "nosebleed" level games has long began in earnest among the online community, especially those on Full Tilt, and it has captured the imagination of poker junkies everywhere.

Now, we all know that there are only a very, select few who have climbed to this level and even fewer who can survive here, let alone prosper, but I suspect that the intense focus on these games being played in this rarefied realm has given a false impression of who is really playing poker and what stakes are they actually playing for.

Is the typical poker player playing for serious stakes (steaks) or for something less (hamburgers?). 

First I started asking friends who play regularly, both live and online. I got fairly predictable answers.

The ones who play live tend to think that most Limit players are playing between 2/4 and 15/30 and that the majority of No Limit folks are playing between 1/2 and 2/5. The players who focus on the online game tended to have similar estimates.

Are they right? Well, for live play you can just walk into a card room and look around. At my local room there are usually a half dozen or more 2/4 and 4/8 Limit games going, four or five 1/2 No Limit and one or two 5/5 NL tables.

But this is hardly typical. Commerce Casino will have scores of games at many levels, some quite high. Bellagio will too, as will other large rooms in major gaming cities, like the Borgata in Atlantic City.

Of course, if you go into small rooms dotted around the country you will not see many games above 1/2 NL or 4/8 L.

So, I wondered, is this pattern also found online? Will we see a similar distribution?  Are my friends basically correct in their estimates?

Not a chance. It is different in cyberspace, so different that, if you haven't taken a look, you are in for one hell of a surprise. I was.

Here are the numbers of tables in action at each of the levels that I found from the No Limit Hold-em games running at Poker Stars.

I didn't bother to record the number of players at each table, largely because there are different numbers (commonly 2-, 6- and 9-max tables) and because the numbers shift around unpredictably).

I'm letting the number of active tables tell us where the players are congregating.

STAKES                                 NUMBER OF TABLES

$25/$50 (and higher)                               2

$10/$20                                                   6

$5/$10                                                   28

$3/$6                                                     26

$2/$4                                                     72

$1/$2                                                   201

$.50/$1                                                496

$.25/$.50                                             456

$.10/$.25                                             696

$.05/$.10                                             516

$.02/$.05                                             288

$.01/$.02                                             576

TOTAL                                            3,363

There was a total of 3,363 tables going and a mere 36 (or 1%) were being played at stakes higher than 3/6. To get a feel for how different this is from live play, imagine a brick and mortar poker room with 100 tables, and only 1 is playing higher than 3/6.

Remember that old line about "nickel-dime poker by the kitchen sink?" Well friends, that's exactly what is going on. A total of 1,380 tables or a full 41% of all the games were being played for exactly those stakes ---- or less.

This isn't "steak." It isn't even "hamburger." It's tofu, or something ... radishes, lettuce?

I collected these numbers at 1:30 PM (PT), which would be 4:30 PM on the east coast, mid-evening in Europe. They are likely different at other times and they are likely different on other sites but I'm reasonably certain that the same patterns will emerge.

I also didn't bother looking at Tournament play or S 'n' Gs but my guess is that we'd find the same pattern.

It there a message here? Damn right.

All the moralists out there who feel like they need to protect us poker players from ourselves by limiting access to the game on the Internet, stop worrying.

Overwhelmingly, the folks playing here are just having a good ol' time. Even the very worst donkey, playing multiple tables with abandon and zero skill couldn't lose more than the price of a cheeseburger, fries and a beer in an afternoon.

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