How to Build a Poker Bankroll from Scratch

Posted by James Guill . Last updated:

How to Build a Big Poker Bankroll When You Have No Spare Money

Many players would love to play poker for big money – though do not have the cash to get started. The good news is that there are several ways you can start from zero, and still build yourself a healthy poker bankroll.

This page covers how to build a poker bankroll from scratch. You’ll find practical information, and strategy tips for beating those initial free games below. This will should enable you to follow in the footsteps of Chris Ferguson and Annette ‘Annette_15’ Obrestadt and become a high stakes crusher from zero.

Here is what you will find below:

Five Ways to Get Real Poker Money Without a Deposit

While no poker site will splash big amounts around for aspiring new players, there are some ways to get started in the real money poker games. You’ll need a little luck or some persistence – as even the smallest free-to-enter games attract big fields.

Here are the five ways to get started:

  • Freerolls: These are free to enter poker tournaments with real money prizes. This is the primary way you can build your poker bankroll to scratch. These games are loose and wild, and the prize pools small. Winning on might only get you $10, though that is enough to check out the real money games.
  • Free Bankrolls: Sometimes, you’ll see no-deposit offers at online poker sites. Examples include 888 Poker, which gives you up to $88 (in instalments of $8 in tokens) to try out their games. Other offers appear from time to time.
  • Free to Enter Sit n Goes: You will sometimes find 1-table tournaments with tiny (think 5c) prize pools. Grinding these will require some patience, though with some work you could accumulate enough for a shot at the micro-stakes tables.
  • Satellite Qualifiers: Play-money players are often invited to enter free satellites to live events or big online championships. Entry to the bigger tournaments can sometimes be exchanged for ‘Tournament Dollars’ and broken down to smaller parts to take a shot at smaller buy-in real money tournaments.
  • Selling Play Chips: If you are a play-money fan who has accumulated large numbers of chips, you can sometimes sell these for real money (not much!) in market-places, or even through the back-end of your site.

Poker player holding the poker chips he just won on a hand

Strategy for Winning Your First Freeroll

Completely free to enter tournaments (as opposed to loyalty reward ones for regular real money players) are some of the wildest poker games online. You’ll get a mix of crazy players making oversized raises, passive / weak players trying to see cheap flops with random cards and calling stations who will never fold a hand that has the smallest possible hope of winning.

Describing these games as a ‘minefield’ is probably an understatement! From a wide perspective, you have a dilemma from the start. It is hard to reach the money without accumulating chips from these fish – at the same time, tangling with them brings a risk of suck-outs every time you enter a pot.

The solution is to play solid, aggressive poker – and to bet for value instead of bluffing. This is known in the poker world as playing ‘ABC Poker’.

Here are the key elements:

  • Position: Play hands when you are last to act after the flop, and fewer hands when first to act (in early position or in the blinds).
  • Raising: Raise with your strong hands, there is no value in slow-playing, since you’ll likely be called anyway and can build a pot.
  • Starting Hands: Avoid starting hands which are easily dominated. Aces with kickers lower than 10 are dangerous, you will never know where you stand when you make a pair with your ace or with your kicker. Instead, choose small pairs, suited aces or suited connecters when it is cheap to see a flop. This type of hand can flop hidden monsters.
  • Bluff infrequently: If you raised before the flop and got one or max two callers, by all means continuation bet. With more opponents, you need a strong hand to continue. Bluffs are best made when you have outs to the best hand those times you get called. This is known as the ‘Semi Bluff’.
  • Value Bet Strong Hands: There is no need to disguise the strength of your hand when you do hit a monster. Bet for value at every opportunity. Most players in these games are not thinking beyond their own hand – and will happily put more chips into the pot.
  • Attack the Bubble: When there are just a few players left to bust before the money paying places, almost all opponents will play super-tight. You can exploit this (especially when you have a big stack) by raising and attacking limpers. If you meet resistance, it is probably with a strong hand. Remember, you are shooting for the final table – those times you miss out on a few cents for a min-cash will be balanced by the bigger prizes when you hit the last few players.

Luckily, freerolls are frequent enough that you can take many shots. If you do bust out, remember to review your key hands. While it is easy to simply blame the cards not coming your way, improving as a player means constantly learning from your own mistakes.

What to Play When You Have Your First Poker Cash?

Let’s say you won $10 in a freeroll. This is not enough to be a proper bankroll, even at the lowest buy-ins, though it is plenty enough to take a shot. If you go broke first time, don’t sweat it. Use this as a learning experience and take a fresh shot later.

There are 4 real money poker formats which can be used to build your bankroll from scratch. These are cash games, tournaments, sit n goes and fast-fold poker games. Each have pros and cons for their ability to help you build your ‘roll.

  • Cash Games: With a tiny poker bankroll, you’ll be playing the games with 1c / 2c blinds. I recommend full-ring (9 player) games, rather than 6-max, as these are easier to beat with a solid, basic strategy. These games have the advantage of a lot of choice, and the worst real-money players possible. They are usually loose, passive (a lot of calling) and you can get your monster hands paid off easily. While $10 would not be enough to withstand the variance over the long run, this is 5 buy-ins at the lowest level – enough to give you a realistic shot at building a bigger bankroll.
  • Tournaments: You can enter multi-table tournaments for just 50c and up at most poker sites. Even at this low level, they will sometimes have guaranteed prize pools. The fields will be big at this level. While not as crazy as freerolls, the standard of play will not resemble higher buy-in games – many players simply don’t care at this level. The disadvantage of tournaments for bankroll building is that there are big swings. You can do everything right, and still fail to make the money multiple times over. I recommend saving this format until you have a bigger poker bankroll.
  • Sit N Goes: There are now many variations of Sit N Go tournament. A good way to build up is to hit the 9-player games where 3 get paid. Again, buy-ins from 50c to $1 can be found at most poker sites. You need to check out Sit N Go strategy basics before you play these games. There are some significant differences in approach – particularly at the bubble. A variation of this game known as Jackpot or Lottery Sit N Goes has random prize pools. While you can win up to 10,000x your buy-in, the variance is way to high to be a realistic bankroll builder.
  • Fast-Fold Poker: This format exists in both cash game and tournament formats. You sit in a pool of players at your buy-in and each time you fold (or the hand completes) you are sent to a new table to start a hand with players at random from your pool. These games play tighter than regular cash games as it is easy to fold junk hands. They can be profitable, though if you have little real money experience, the swings are too big for a starting point.

People playing poker with a piggy bank containing the winning prize in the middle of the poker table

You Have Started a Bankroll from Scratch: Parlay This into Bigger Money

As you play and build your poker bankroll, you’ll be gaining valuable experience on the difference between the real money poker games and the free ones you started with.

Let’s say you built up to $100 from your initial freeroll win – what comes next?

I would take a step back here – and ask what poker bonus offers you can take advantage of. Many sites have incentives which kick-in for a deposit of around $20. These include a matched bonus, tournament entries (often with big guarantees) and other offers. You will sometimes find 200% bonuses, which can give your bankroll an extra boost.

Before you jump right in to clearing bonuses, remember to check the terms and conditions of each offer. Some poker bonuses have easy play-through requirements, while others are hard to take advantage of at the micro limits. The poker reviews section here at covers the best and safest poker sites for different geos.

The other ‘next step’ is to start employing poker bankroll management. Going from scratch to $100 is not an easy task. You would be foolish to give up your bankroll by hitting games which you are not properly rolled for. The general rule of thumb is to use the following:

  • Cash Games: Use max 5% of your stake on any table (1/20th)
  • Sit N Goes: Use max 2% of your stake for a buy-in (1/50th)
  • Tournaments: Use max 1% of your stake for a buy-in (1/100th)

These can seem overly strict for many new players. Keep in mind that poker has a big chance element at all buy-ins, and even solid, winning players can and do have downswings.

How to Adjust as You Move Up Stakes

There are a lot more elements of poker strategy that you need to learn if you are going to move up stakes and take your no-deposit poker bankroll to the next level.

As you hit the $25 or so buy-in cash games, your opponents will be experienced at reading hands, and spotting situations where opponents are likely to be weak. You’ll need to balance better here, playing a range of hands in similar ways so that you do not have obvious bet-sizing tells. You will also need to understand all the types of poker bluff, and (most important of all) when and when not to use them.

Solid, tight, ABC style poker will win the chips at the lowest buy-ins. As you get to $50 or $100 buy-in tables you’ll need to assess and exploit the tendencies of individual opponents to make a profit. Tools like Poker Tracker can help with assessing your opponent’s behaviour – and also show you what leaks you need to fix in your own game.

Whichever format you choose to specialize in, you’ll need to make poker a life-long learning experience. Strategy evolves, and the players get much tougher as you move up the stakes. Time away from the tables spent working on common situations will help immensely when you next play. I also recommend taking detailed notes on opponents you see at the tables regularly.

Best of all, when you do cash out 4 and 5-figure sums a year or two down the line – you’ll have the personal satisfaction of knowing that you built your poker bankroll completely from scratch.

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