The Money Spreadsheet – How To Make Money Playing Poker

Author: Patrick Howard - Lead Strategy Developer

As I mentioned in my intro post, I play solely on Ignition, which is a site that only allows players to play up to four tables at a time. Ignition has Zone tables (i.e. fast-fold) up to 500nl, which allows low and mid-stakes players to get a decent amount of volume despite the four-table limit. Once you get to 1000nl and higher, you’re stuck playing four regular tables. The software is slow and, at best, you can expect to get in about 250 hands per hour.

Before I moved up to 1000nl and higher, I thought this was going to be a major problem. I expected 250 hands per hour to be devastatingly boring. I briefly experimented with adding two extra tables on ACR, but quickly got sketched out by what appeared to be an extreme level of disorganization on the part of the site’s operators and pulled all my money out after a few weeks. I also didn’t want to play high stakes on the Chinese apps because of concerns about cheating and collusion. Like it or not, I was going to have to settle for 250 hands per hour on Ignition. Luckily, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise for a few reasons…

First, I noticed that I was able to learn a lot more from my sessions when I had time to think about every single decision I made. I also tried to watch every hand that I was not involved in. This helped me identify fish even faster than my HUD could. I also learned more about the other regs’ tendencies. (Even in semi-anonymous games, you can often ID the same players over and over again by observing unique bet sizing sequences, provided you play in a small enough pool.) My improved focus allowed me to bring my A-game to every session I played. This, combined with the higher stakes and the greater number of fish at regular tables, had such a powerful impact on my hourly rate that I no longer cared about my lack of volume.

Understanding the relative unimportance of volume is, in my opinion, the most important realization a beginning poker player can have. It seems like most low-mid stakes players these days are trying to leverage volume for all it’s worth*. The basic problem with this strategy is that volume doesn’t scale. To illustrate this point, I’ve created a spreadsheet which I call the Money Spreadsheet. It allows you to plug in your win rate, stakes, and volume and gives you an annual income projection based on all of these variables. Feel free to download it and tweak it with your own numbers, or just make your own. *Sites like PokerStars spend a lot of time and money making fancy software to make pumping volume as easy as possible so that you can pay them more rake.

Volume (Hands/Month)Win Rate (bb/100)Stakes (USD)Vacation (Months/Year)Annual Income (USD)

Note: Please go to File > Download in Google Sheets if you want to make edits to the spreadsheet.

If you play with the spreadsheet enough you will find that the factors which affect your income are: 1. stakes, 2. win rate, and 3. volume, in that order. However, you need a good win rate in order to move up in stakes. Therefore, the most effective way to make more money is to focus on playing high-quality poker.

Think of it this way: imagine you are currently playing 20,000 hands in a month and winning at 5 bb/100 at $100nl. That means for every 1 bb/100 you add to your win rate, your monthly income increases by $200, which is the equivalent of adding an additional 4,000 hands of volume at your current win rate. Each additional 4,000 hands of volume require exponentially more energy to sustain, and there is definitely some threshold where you will literally die if you try to add more volume. On the other hand, you could certainly add another 5 bb/100 to your win rate, which will take a lot of effort in the short term but will take almost no effort to sustain. As someone who has doubled his win rate over the past year, I can tell you that poker is no harder for me while I am playing now than it was a year ago. In a lot of ways, it’s actually easier. Furthermore, we can agree that it would be almost impossible for you to 10x your win rate to 50 bb/100. However, if you merely sustain your current win rate and move from 100nl to 1000nl, you have managed to 10x your income. Again, as someone who has done this in the past year, I can tell you it’s not any “harder” to win at high stakes than it was at low stakes. Yes, the swings are sicker, but you gradually get used to them.

In the three charts below, I have plotted the annual income projection vs. volume, win rate, and stakes, respectively, so you can see a visual representation of each.

As you can see, the first two charts show a linear relationship. As volume and win rate goes up, annual income goes up in a straight line. The key difference between volume and win rate is that increased volume takes a significant amount of energy to sustain. Win rate, on the other hand, is more scalable. Increasing your win rate takes very little energy to sustain because once you get better at poker, you’re just better. It really doesn’t take a ton of study effort to maintain your current skill level.

The third chart is the most interesting because it’s the only chart that shows an exponential relationship. Every time you double your stakes, your annual income also doubles, assuming your volume and win rate remains constant. Moving up in stakes also takes very little energy to sustain as long as you don’t get lazy and stop working on your game. Clearly, the stakes you play is the most scalable factor which affects profitability. The hardest part of moving up is the initial adjustment to the slightly tougher regs at the new limit, combined with the anxiety of risking more money than you’re used to. Again, once you adjust to those factors, and learn to stop respecting other players so much, it will not be any harder for you to win at high stakes than it was to win at low stakes. You’ll just be making a lot more money.

I see a lot of up-and-coming players confusing volume with profitability. They frequently justify playing their B or C game just to hit some arbitrary volume goal, and I hope this post makes it clear that this is a big mistake. Volume goals are a good idea in general, but like anything else, they can be taken too far. Past a certain point, the volume has nothing to do with the one reason why we’re all here: to make money. I personally aim to play only 80 hours of poker per month (20,000 hands). If I want to play a little more, I do, but I like how the goal is easy to hit. It makes me feel good, and it allows me to focus on what is really important, which is the quality of my play.

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Charles Goodhart