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Why Tough Ring Games Are Very -EV

When talking about EV and variance, many poker players prefer to play ring games since the variance is much lower than tournaments and they can grind out a solid profit over time. Back when I was playing poker on a professional/near-professoinal basis,  I played ring games the majority of the time, and rarely had a month where I lost money.

Times have changed though and games are much tougher than in the past. There aren’t $15-$30 fixed-limit games where players will just cold-call a raise with A7 offsuit preflop. Rake has gone up, not down. A higher percentage of players playing poker have been playing for at least few years, and the number of new players as a percentage of online players in general is much lower.

For these and other reasons, ring games have gotten tougher. But one thing to remember about ring games is that even if you are an average player at the table, the game is very -EV. The rake at a ring game is about 5% of the pot (it’s lower at higher stakes since the max rake kicks in, but these games are also shark filled). If you are an entirely neutral player, this means the game has a 5% edge. That’s slot machine type play. You need to be significantly better than the other players at the table. This means you can’t just be good, you need to be confident that everyone else is terrible.

Tournaments are a bit different. While technically the vigorish is around 9-10% for a tournament, you get many, many hands in a tournament, so the vigorish per hand played is much lower. In other words, when factoring in skill, luck, and vigorish paid, when you pay the 5% vigorish in a ring game, the skill you use to make up for that vigorish lasts that one hand only. In a tournament, you have dozens of hands where you can employ skill to overcome the 10% vigorish.

Also, in a tournament, the lottery-aspect of the tournament will continue to bring in the fish. Tournaments also offer better value for skill-neutral players. If you play a $100+$10 tournament for 2 hours, and let’s say you are exactly an average-skilled player, you are paying $10 in EV for 2 hours of entertainment. That’s still pretty cheap entertainment.

In comparison, a ring game where $2 in rake is taken on average a hand, with about 50 hands per hour and 8 players, amounts to about $12 in rake paid. That’s quite a bit more per hour going to the casino, which makes it that much harder for you to turn a profit.

What to make all of this? Well, quite frankly, if you are playing ring games a lot, and your numbers are looking bad, then it may be time and suck it up and admit they are -EV for you. They probably are for 90% or more of most players out there.  If you still want to play poker, try low buy-in tournaments. At the very least, the variance is so horrible that if you continuously wash out, you can trick yourself for years into thinking you’re a +EV player.


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