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Small stakes online poker, explained by an expert

Small stakes online poker, explained by an expert

A bar chart made Nathan “BlackRain79” Williams famous. Neatly organized by the stakes he was playing, the table — which went viral in the poker world around 2009 — catalogs his online poker winnings: He’d made a $53 profit playing at a table with $3/$6 “blinds” (a term used for the starting bets of each poker hand); $40 on $0.50/$1. He had lost some, too: He was in the red $250 betting at the $0.25/$0.50 table, but that wasn’t as bad as he’d done in $2/$4, where he was down nearly $3,000.

But it is the bottom of that table where the legend begins. In games where the blinds were one cent and two cents — literally the lowest possible stakes anyone can play in North America — Williams had turned an incomprehensible $13,000 profit. In $0.02/$0.05 games, one notch higher, he had made another $13,000. If you’ve played poker at these stakes before, you know that the pots rarely breach the one dollar mark. That didn’t matter. Williams had built a small empire, one penny at a time.

The archetypical card shark makes peace with the fact that sometimes, they’re going to lose a gigantic pot. Those are the unavoidable circumstances of the industry; $50,000, gone in an instant, when the guy across the felt has a slightly better full house. It’s what’s made the game a great spectator sport, and also a brutal way to make a living.

But Williams broke the system. One-cent games were designed for ultra-casual players who want to play for money but don’t want to think about their mortgages. It created a culture of players that were looser, wilder, and generally less skilled than those you’d find at higher-stakes games. That was a natural advantage for Williams. He didn’t have to sit in with the high-rollers, as long as he played enough hands.

Small stakes online poker, explained by an expert
Nathan Williams

There was a time in Williams life where he was playing 24 games at once, and 10,000 hands a day. It’s the sort of scale that makes those $13,000 figures more reasonable, and according to his own calculus, the No. 1 all-time winner at those stakes in history. In 2019, at 40, Williams is only a part-time poker pro who dedicates most of his time to his website, his books, and his YouTube channel, all of which offer guides for anyone looking to follow his model and crush the microstakes. Today, he lives in Thailand, where he moved from his native Vancouver in 2012. On a Skype call, we talked about the endurance it takes to make a living on the microstakes, how he found fame in the poker community, and the mistakes players make when they’re competing for infinitesimal profits.

So when did you start taking poker seriously? When were you like, “Okay, I want to focus on this as a living?”

It was really just a coincidence. I had just graduated university and I was working all these odd jobs. I discovered online poker, and I started winning at it with a very tight style. I was still working my day job, and I slowly moved up the stakes till I was making more money playing poker at night than I was at a job.

When did you decide to focus on the one-cent/two-cent games? What made you want to specialize in those stakes?

When you go pro, you don’t have a boss. You don’t have anyone to tell you what to do. So I was basically just screwing around. I started playing millions and millions of hands at the lowest stakes because it was just so easy. I became an expert in that, and I transitioned into teaching it. I wrote a book called Crushing The Microstakes [in 2011] that became very popular, and it just kind of went from there.

Speaking of that, how did you go from a guy who was playing a bunch of microstakes games, to being the microstakes guy. How did you cultivate that fame?

There was a website, which I think is now defunct, called Pokertableratings. They started tracking all the poker sites, and publishing everyone’s winnings or losses without their consent. I thought it was ridiculous, a lot of people threatened to sue them. I was pretty pissed off, I don’t want my income known to the world, but people saw that I was making significant sums of money at extremely low stakes. So ironically, that website made me kind of famous in the poker community. My profile became a freakshow full of comments, so I said, “Hey guys, I’ve got my own website, I’m only answering questions there from now on.”

So I got a huge amount of traffic on my site from Pokertableratings. I started writing some articles about how to beat the lower-stakes games, and I looked into some online marketing stuff and learned you could write an ebook very easily. I took a shot at it, and it ended up doing really well.

How did the lowest stakes feel different to you than the higher stakes? What about it made you think that it was better for you to farm those stakes all day, rather than play with more money?

It’s just full of people who are pure amateurs. The money involved is not significant for an American. It’s a lot of people where it’s just their hobby, and nobody is taking it seriously or [is] that good. When you go up to higher stakes you encounter more professionals. They’ve got notes on you, they’re studying your game, they’re using tracking software. They’re playing to win. It’s a much, much different environment.

Is there also an element of people at lower stakes who are just going to be more likely to call, say, a 25 cent bet, because of how small the sum is? Are people more willing to part ways with their money at those stakes?

“People equate money with what it is in real life. You raise someone 50 cents, that’s not even a cup of coffee.”

Definitely. People equate money with what it is in real life. You raise someone 50 cents, that’s not even a cup of coffee. You raise someone $100, that could be a grocery bill or something.

What do you think is the No. 1 mistake a good player makes at lower stakes? I know there’s the basic advice you’d give total beginners, but what’s some advice you’d give someone who knows poker and is interested in winning?

Honestly, it’s probably just tilt control. [Tilt is a poker term that refers to a drop in discipline after losing a big hand.] I’ve seen so many good players who can be incredible, but when they start getting a lot of bad beats — which happens a lot at lower stakes, because you’ve got bad players chasing every draw — they kind of lose their mind a bit and start going on wild bluffs and throwing away money. It’s the mental game.

Is that a strategy for you, to stay as stoic as possible?

Yeah, I think after playing millions and millions of hands, with the crazy ups and downs of poker, and just the crazy stuff you see with the players at those stakes. … I don’t know if I ever got to the point where it wouldn’t bother me, but I think my quitting strategies got better. I knew when to stop playing, rather than being Captain Comeback, and trying to chase it all back.

When you were playing poker full-time or close to full-time, how many of those microstakes games did you have going at once?

I played full-time for about six to seven years, and I’m part-time now. When I was full-time I would play the table limit on Pokerstars, which is 24 tables. And then I’d sometimes add a couple more on other sites.

I played a very systematic approach. I know exactly what I’m doing with every hand. It’s a very tight, aggressive game, there’s not a lot of creativity to it. I’m playing against people who are going to make massive mistakes, so I don’t need to think too deeply about it. It’s a straightforward process.

How many hands did you play a day?

There were times where I’d play as many as 10,000 hands a day. But I’d say I’d average around 3,000 to 5,000 hands a day. That’d be pretty normal for me.

Did that ever make you miss the more artistic side of poker? Did you miss getting into some fancier, more complicated hands with people who were at your skill level? Or was that never a concern for you?

I probably didn’t. I was playing to pay the bills, and that was the biggest thing. I would play tournaments on the side to keep the fun level up sometimes, but once you turn pro you approach it like a job, so I wasn’t in it to make big plays.

It’s crazy to think that you were able to make a full-time living, literally a dollar or 80 cents at a time. The aggregate of that sounds insane. I guess it just adds up faster than you think it does?

“Yeah, I mean I wouldn’t recommend what I did to very many people. It was kind of stupid to be honest.”

Yeah, I mean I wouldn’t recommend what I did to very many people. It was kind of stupid to be honest. [laughs] It’s weird because it’s turned into a business of me teaching the game. But I don’t think it was a good idea. I was probably making around $15 an hour during my peak on the lower stakes. I did play the higher stakes, where I’d average more.

But when I was playing the lower stakes, which is what I’m most famous for, I was literally making minimum wage in Canada. I live in Thailand now, where the cost of living is much lower, and $15 an hour is quite good out here. It’s a tough game, it’s a tough way to make a living, but it does give you that freedom. That’s what I always wanted.

So what’s your business portfolio like currently? How much of it is poker, how much of it is the business of teaching poker?

The business side is the majority at this point. Poker is a smaller part of my income. It’s a full-time business with YouTube, my blog, all the books. I do some freelance work as well, I write for Poker News.

Poker is a game that’s always changing. How do you make sure you’re still up on the scene, even if you’re not playing quite as much?

I try to play a decent amount each month to stay on top, just to keep my pulse on what’s going on. In my business I’m talking to people all the time about their struggles at lower stakes. They’re sending me their hands, I’m reviewing them on YouTube, so I think it’s definitely enough.

Do you look back at the times you were playing 10,000 hands a day with any nostalgia? Or is it more of a, “I can’t believe I did that?”

I don’t know. It’s very interesting how it all turned out. I had a lot of blowback from my family. “You’re throwing your life away, what the hell are you doing!” And I almost started believing them like, “Yeah, what the hell am I doing.” But ironically, it ended up turning out alright.

It’s cool that you’ve found a way to stay in poker without having to be on that ridiculous grind.

It’s kind of just something silly that you’re known for. I’m known as being that microstakes guy that played two million hands of one-cent/two-cent. But everyone has to be known for something in life, right?

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