Why most players lose at poker – the rake

With the WSOP quickly approaching, I would like to share with you a concept that many amateur players are either unaware of or completely ignore. Most amateur players do not lose because they are bad at poker. They are usually not much better or worse than their competition. Instead, they lose because the casino consistently rakes away a significant amount of money in play. The rake, the money the casino takes in exchange for letting you play, is a key determining factor of whether or not any game is potentially profitable.  

Tournaments

In the vast majority of small stakes tournaments, it is not uncommon for the casino to rake 15% or more of the prize pool. One of the major tournament series that many amateurs will frequent during the summer in Vegas features $305 + $45 buy-in events (13% rake). Of this $350 total, $305 goes into the prize pool and $45 goes to the casino.

Before moving forward, it is important that you understand the concept of Return on Investment. Your return on investment is how much you expect to win (or lose) on average every time you play. Do not be concerned with “how much you can win”. Many amateurs are enamored with the potential of a huge payday, but everything evens out in time.

The structure of most small stakes events are quite poor such that world-class players could potentially win at about 50% return on investment before the rake. This means that world-class players can win about $175 minus $45 rake = $130 per game. This doesn’t sound so terrible. The problem is that most amateur players are not world-class. Instead of winning at a high rate, they either lose or win at a small rate, perhaps 15% return on investment before rake. This leaves most amateur players either losing a lot, losing a little, or winning a little. If you expect to be a small winner versus your opponents, if the rake is too high, you will become breakeven or a loser.

Unfortunately there isn’t a great solution to avoiding the rake in small stakes tournaments besides being disciplined with your bankroll and only play events where you should have a significant edge. I strongly suggest you avoid any tournament with more than 20% rake. If you play random $305 + $45 turbo events (with poor structures), you should expect to go broke if you play enough games. This concept has recently become applicable to the European Poker Tour events. I used to play all of their turbo events when they featured 7% rake but now that they have been increased to 13% rake, I, along with many other excellent pros, are opting to skip them.

Cash Games

It is also not uncommon to see the small stakes cash games being raked for a huge amount in terms of big blinds. Notice at $1/$2, assuming the house takes on average $4 per hand and you play 30 hands per hour, the table is raked $120 per hour. If the best players in the game can hope to win about 12 big blinds ($24) per hour before the rake, if each player pays $120/9 = $13 per hour, the biggest winners in the game are only winning $24 – $13 = $11 per hour. If you are merely a good player and win $10 per hour before the rake, you will lose at the rate of $3 per hour despite having a decent edge over your opponents.

In general, if you are doing reasonably well at $1/$2 in the live casinos, I suggest you move to $2/$5 as soon as possible where the rake is less detrimental. At $2/$5, the average rake per hand is $5 per hand. However, excellent players can win about $60 per hour minus the rake, which works out to a hefty $45 per hour win rate.

Do not be ignorant to the amount you have to pay to play poker. I have seen cash games where they rake 5% uncapped. In this $25/$50 game I played (for about an hour before quitting) when you get all-in for a 100 big blind stack, which happens somewhat often in aggressive cash games, the casino takes $500! The players eventually wanted to switch to PLO where the biggest edge a strong player can hope to have when all the money gets in is on average roughly 57%. Notice if we both put in $5,000, the pot will be $10,000 and the strong player will own 57% of it, or $5,700. After the house takes their $500 (10 big blinds) from the pot, the person who got it in great will only profit $200, or 4 big blinds. Again, if you can only get in with 53% equity on average, you will likely be a loser in this game.

Thanks for reading this article. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comment section below. If you want more info on bankroll and rake considerations, I discuss them thoroughly in my best-selling book Jonathan Little on Live No-Limit Cash Games. Please share this article with your friends and be sure to check back need week for another educational blog post.

16 Comments

  • Janez says:

    Can you explain this for the online games. Is it the same, or is it somewhat different?

    • The rake in most online games is usually lower, although in the smallest stakes, some of the games are still raked quite high. Figure out how much you are paying and do some math to figure out if it is beatable. It is worth mentioning that good online players typically have a lower win rate than good live players.

  • Stacey Bertran says:

    Thanks for the article. It confirmed what I had been thinking.

  • roger says:

    eye opening article thanks alot great writing style i like it.

  • CSINSC says:

    In all the casinos I play at I’ve never seen the average raked pot be $4 for a full hour based on the parameters that the house gets 10% up to $5.

  • Arsenio Perez says:

    Jonathan great article! Very good information. I have followed you for years mow and I appreciate all your shared information. You’re a good man for helping all of us out! I have recently moved to Vegas as a semi-pro. I’ve played years and years and years of cash games in San Antonio Texas. I needed a change and more options. I’m rooting for you for sure! I certainly would like to meet you on a break when I’m at the Rio, if you’re there playing. I’m the one wearing Marine Corps hat 🙂

    PS. I already cashed in a smaller tournament ($235) a few days ago. I’ve been running pretty good in the Cash games as well.

  • Joe says:

    Why does online players have a lower win rate than live players?

    • There are a few factors. People play many hands faster online, which causes the skill advantage or disadvantage to become apparent. There are no live reads to help good players make better decisions. In general, online players are more fundamentally sound. If you compare the win rates of good online players to good live players, or the win rates of the same good player from live to online, you will see a huge difference.

  • Carl Grounds says:

    Hello Jonathan,

    Do you believe that a tight aggressive strategy combats the high rake at 1-2 or 1-3? By playing far less hands the players win comes from playing less hands therefore he or she pays less rake.

    Carl, Twoblkaces

  • Bruce says:

    Then there is the jackpot rake and / or promotion rake. It’s 2 bucks a hand at Pensacola. Tip a buck. Hand rake is a buck at $6, another at $16, another at $26, another at $36, and even another buck at $46 or $50, as I recall. Not every pot hits all these points but the jackpot rake does — and the tip does, if you have any bets and follow local standards.

    In a nutshell, few if any 1-2 players can beat it. No 3-6 or 4-8 players can beat it consistently.

    Recommendation: Find some honest Homegames. Best wishes, Bruce

  • Poker Fan says:

    Great eye opening article. Never looked at it that way, thanks!

  • ted says:

    Can anyone tell me the name of the casino that takes 5% uncapped rake? Let me get this straight, your saying on a $10,000 pot the casino takes $500 for the rake? On a $300 pot the casino takes $15? On a $1000 pot the casino takes $50? Am I hearing this correct? What is the name of this casino and poker room that does this? Can anyone tell me?

  • Tom says:

    Definitely possible to win more than than 12 BB per hour in 1/2. When I was playing consistently. A couple years ago was making just under 15 BB per hour after Tips/rake/bad beat was taken out and most of the time I wasn’t the best player on the table and would consider myself much better now but am lacking the necessary volume to calculate a proper win rate.

    • While that is true, it is important to always underestimate your win rate when trying to develop long term plans because you may be running hot and the games may get tougher. If you plan to win at 15bb/hr and you only win at 10/hr, you will be screwed. If you instead plan to win at 5/hr and win at 10/hr, you will be thrilled.

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