The micro stakes and the small stakes might seem distinctive, but the truth is that they are one of, if not the most immense jumps in online poker. Next to going from mid stakes to high stakes games, this is the biggest transition that almost any player will face. At 100NL (.50/1) is upon where the micro stakes end and the small stakes begin.
The most indisputable difference between these two limits is the number of regulars at each table. The density of regulars vs. fish starts to shrink more and more as you move up in limits. Along with this, the average skill level will rise tremendously. You are going to be facing a lot smarter and a lot more aggressive players in the small stakes arena. If you aren’t comfortable with some increased variance in your bankroll, the small stakes are not for you. The games truly do end once you step out of the micro stakes.
There is no denying that playing styles between micro stakes and small stakes games vary greatly. With that in mind, however, you should not be anticipating a complete shifty in your strategy when you move up a limit. One of the worst things that you can do is attempt to revamp your game completely, whether you are moving up or down in limits. The chances are that a winning skill set in the micro stakes will also do just fine in the small stakes. Plus, who knows, maybe you will do even better. Players know that the odds are that they will need to make some tweaks to their game before they find success at the small stakes, but you shouldn’t make changes until they are proven necessary.
The pre-flop differences between the highest micro stakes games and the lowest small stakes games are not incredibly noticeable. The one thing that you will notice, at least over time, is an increased amount of aggression. There will be very few players who limp into pots and fewer still who will make min raises. You may also notice that the opening raises and re-raises will be a bit smaller than you were accustomed to in the micro stakes. While this is not going to always hold true at 200NL (1/2), you will certainly notice it in the 2/4 and 3/6 games.
The real increase in aggression levels at the small stakes is evidenced by the increase in players who are ready and willing to 3 bet at every opportunity. Position becomes one of the biggest advantages imaginable in these games as it means that players can steal, re-steal, and re-re-steal pots over and over again. You shouldn’t be all that shocked to see some players get all of their money in the middle with very random hands from time to time. Players will attempt to make moves that fail and will have no choice but to call off the remainder of their stack. This is where the variance begins to come into play, but that is discussed in further detail below.
In addition to increased overall aggression pre-flop, you are also going to find that the general play can seem somewhat illogical. Players are going to get involved with hands that you would not ever see at the micro stakes tables. The true profitability of most all winning poker players comes from an ability to manipulate the opponent post-flop. As a result, players in the mid stakes can get away with playing weak hands as an instrument to take down pots after the flop. Be careful, though, there is much more to this than may meet the eye. A skilled small stakes player will know exactly what they are doing when they re-raise with 3h Kh. If you don’t have a specific game plan for post-flop execution, it would be a mistake to jump into pots with seemingly random hands just because you see other people doing it.
Post-flop differences fall in line with the same general differences that you will notice pre-flop. Aggression as a whole is on the rise and odd lines are almost the regular. Players in these games know when to check raise for value, check raise as a bluff, or how to make money off of middle pair. To put it into context, there are plenty of small stakes online players who are better than the lower tier “pros” that you see on shows like High Stakes Poker on TV.
Do not underestimate the ability of a small stakes player to sniff out your bluff with nothing more than bottom pair, ace high, or even king high. Players in these games are very good at hand reading. If you are showing up with nothing, there is a good chance that they will make you pay for it. On that same note, winning small stakes players will ensure that they have earned every penny possible from you when they have a made hand. These games, particularly post-flop, are not for the type of player who is even remotely inexperienced. You should have a beyond complete understanding of pre and post-flop dynamics if you want any shot at posting a win rate in the small stakes.
Variance is one of the unfortunate realities that comes along with higher limit games. As you move higher and higher up in limits, the competition becomes more and more fierce. The product of this competition is a clash in skill levels. In other words, players are so evenly matched that often times there won’t be anyone at the table who has a significant advantage. In these games, players tend to trade more money around than they actually make. The best way to reduce your variance as you move up to small stakes games is to table select very well. The players who can find the best games will have the fewest tough opponents to deal with.
Regulars, also known as regs, are another common staple of the small stakes online games. If you open up four tables of $3/$6 in the middle of a week day at any given poker site, the odds are that you will see each table is occupied with the same sets of names. The only time that you can really see who the “fish” are is at nights and on the weekends. A lot of players will try to take advantage of this by playing exclusively at night and/or on the weekends. If you are not looking to make poker a full time job, or anything close to it, playing at these times of the day and week will be the closest thing to great table selecting in the small stakes.
The reality is that the games are just so flooded with professionals and winning players that it can be quite tough to find anything that would be considered a “good” game One good line to remember, especially when you are new to small stakes games, is that “If you can’t spot the fish, you probably are the fish.”