Building a Poker Bankroll From Scratch

A Blogtoberfest Guest Post by Ben Ragusa of A Ben’s Life

Ever since the poker boom of 2003, I have had a strong love for the game.

I love everything about it. The numbers and statistics, the psychology, meeting people from all walks of life, the rush of winning a big hand, or cashing in a tournament, the fact that the house has no say in who wins or loses, the freedom afforded to professional players, and even the disguising and deception.

The high-stakes players on TV always seemed larger than life. They would play stakes that just seemed astronomical to me. The blind levels were more than a year’s salary. The pot sizes were more than what most people retire on. I remember thinking to myself, “how the hell can they afford to play for those kinds of dollar amounts?” They would bet tens of thousands of dollars on a bluff without even batting an eyelash. It was incomprehensible. It wasn’t long before I discovered online poker, and it all started to make sense.

Shortly after poker’s explosion in popularity, many online sites began popping up. It allowed players that didn’t have a lot of money (or in some cases, ANY money) the opportunity to be able to play in their pajamas without having to leave their homes, and with little or no investment. Many of these sites would run free tournaments. At Full Tilt Poker, for instance, the tournaments would run every six hours or so and would max out at 2,700 players paying out the top 27 spots. If you were lucky enough to cash, you might make $2, and if you made the final table (top 9), you might get anywhere between $3 and $15 depending on what place you finished. You could then take that money and play low-stakes tourneys and cash games in order to start building up a small bankroll. Many players who didn’t have the patience for that kind of grind would simply deposit small amounts of money into the site hoping to parlay it into something bigger.


The first site I played on was called Poker Room. I knew nothing about bankroll management, and very little about how to play. As a result, I quickly lost the $600 I had put into it. I was playing tournaments for $20 or more, and buying into cash games for $50 or more. I had no clue what I was doing, so I went out and purchased some books to hone my skills.

The first book I picked up was called Ace on the River by Barry Greenstein. I couldn’t have made a better choice. Not only did it teach me a little about how to play, but it taught me how to manage a bankroll as well. I had no idea how important bankroll management was until I read that book. That’s when I realized how these high-stakes players were able to do it. It was poker’s best kept secret. Many books taught you how to actually play the games (Super System by the great Doyle Brunson comes to mind), but few mentioned bankroll management.

Basically, the rule of thumb was: no more than 2% of your bankroll should be used for tournaments, and no more than 5% for cash games. Shortly after my Poker Room debacle, I started playing on Full Tilt Poker. My initial investment into the site was $40. In two years’ time, I had made it into over $1,300. I had to replenish it once or twice along the way due to some unwise violations of the 2%/5% rule, but I pretty much stuck to the plan.

My big score came in March 2011, less than one month before the government shut them down. It was for $650. I did it by playing single-table tournaments called Sit N’ Go’s. Full Tilt had a version of these that were called STEP tournaments. Step 1 was $1 to enter and there were 9 players. If you finished 4th-9th, you got nothing. If you finished in the top 3, instead of receiving cash, you received a buy-in to Step 2 which was $3. The same basic rules applied. 1st and 2nd got Step 3 tickets worth $10. 3rd and 4th place got their money back in the form of a Step 2 ticket, and 5th place received a Step 1 ticket. There were seven steps in all. Step 4 was worth $26, Step 5 was worth $75, Step 6 was $200, and Step 7 was $500. I might be wrong on the exact amounts, but you get the picture.

Basically, you didn’t have to get 1st place every time in order to move up. I would play tons of these. My bankroll at the time was around $400, so I would buy in at Step 2 and work my way up from there. $3 was a relatively small dollar amount as far as my bankroll was concerned. At one point I had 10 Step 4 tickets, and a few Step 5 tickets. The higher up you got, the more difficult it was to advance because the competition was fierce at those levels. So one day I took decided to use one of my Step 5 tickets to enter a $75 tournament. The tournament was the main event of the very popular Mini FTOPS which stood for Full Tilt Online Poker Series. The tourney was huge. One person was allowed to buy in up to four times, and as a result, it drew over 45,000 entries. I only used one ticket and I ended up finishing in 645th place which paid out a little over $650. My bankroll had gone from $400 to over $1,000 in one day, and I didn’t even have to put any actual money at risk. The ticket had really only cost me $3. One month later, the government forced the shutdown of all the major online poker sites, and my run was over.

Despite my initial disappointment, I had a lot to be thankful for. I had learned how to play virtually every version of poker imaginable, I had built up my confidence, and most importantly, I had learned how to build and manage a bankroll. Over the past five years or so I have not played much other than a couple of small home games, one trip to Atlantic City that was unsuccessful, and a couple of local tournaments with no cashes. The itch to play has never really left me, and although I have no bankroll currently, I know it can be built back up, even though playing online is no longer an option. I just have two rules that I must follow at all times.

First, any money I win, I save. Whether it’s a scratch ticket someone gave me for Christmas that I win $2 on (I NEVER buy scratch tickets. EVER.), or a cash in a home game, or a win in a March Madness or Super Bowl pool, or a win in fantasy sports, I save it. Just this week I hosted a small poker game at my house and won $6. So, my current bankroll is $6. (Side note: I will be updating my progress on this blog so stay tuned!)

Second, any time I buy into anything for $100 or less, I use my own hard-earned money, not my bankroll. So, for instance, if the buy-in to a tournament or a cash game is 50, it comes out of my paycheck, or my savings, etc. I never use my bankroll to buy in to a game I can’t afford myself. This way it never goes down. When you have a small bankroll (and I’ve had many), it’s not worth risking until it gets to a point where it can work for itself.

The way I’m treating it is as soon as I get to $100 I will open a savings account and keep it in there. When it reaches $1,000 it goes into a CD so it can earn a small amount of interest. When it gets to $6,000 (hopefully before I’m of “retirement age”) it starts getting interesting. $6,000 is the minimum number of buy-ins required to play tournaments of $120 or less (remember the 2%/5% rule?). $120 is too much for me to justify pulling money out of my savings account, or my paycheck, so the bankroll now becomes my main source for tournaments.

I’m not comfortable putting more than $100 on any poker game in which I have to use my personal funds to cover the buy in. Your comfort zone might be different depending on your financial situation, but that’s just my own preference. When the bankroll reaches $10,000, I can start using it to buy in to cash games of $500 or less. I prefer to play Pot-Limit Omaha for cash rather than No-Limit Hold ‘Em, but that’s just me. If the buy-in to a game is $100 or less, I will continue to use my own money as always. I usually start with $40 at my home game, and with a buy-in that small, it isn’t necessary to use the bankroll, but any game where the buy-in is over $100 comes out of it as long as the 2%/5% rule applies.

I believe there are two kinds of money. Money you earn, and money you win. Earned money comes from the work you do. It’s your weekly paycheck, or your tips, or what you made from mowing someone’s lawn, or maybe even money you received as a gift. You use it to pay your bills, or to go on vacation, or to buy Christmas presents, or to go grocery shopping, or to buy clothes, etc. It can also be used to make more money by investing it. Some people buy stocks, some buy property, and some start businesses. Since I look at poker as an investment, I can justify using my earned money to buy into games as long as the amount isn’t so large that I feel uncomfortable playing. I have my limit set at $100 as I just mentioned, so anything $100 or less can come out of my earned money.

Won money (bankroll) should only be used if the buy-in exceeds my earned money limit ($100) and the amount of the buy-in doesn’t exceed my 2%/5% rule. That’s why the $6,000 and $10,000 plateaus are so important to me. At those dollar amounts, I can start using my won money to play. Now, this is subject to change if I can earn more from working which is why I am pursuing my Master’s degree next fall. The main goal is to be able to play at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas someday.

Until then, stay tuned to my blog to find out how things are progressing.