Taking a Shot

Taking a shot. One of the most optimistic, exciting, fearful phrases in all of poker.

After all, “taking a shot” is the first necessary step up to the next rung on the poker stakes ladder. If you are a 1/3 no-limit hold’em player and want to become a 2/5 hold’em player, your first 2/5 session is “taking a shot.” You don’t know if you can hold your own in the 2/5 game, but the only way to find out is to sit in it.

I recently took a shot at a bigger game, and it reminded me of some of the cardinal rules of shot-taking—I thought it would be instructive to review them here.


The first rule of shot-taking is something that you don’t do. Specifically, jump up in stakes to recover losses at your regular game. One of the most reliable ways to have a miserable, bankroll-crushing session is to try to recover a loss of 300 at 1/3 by running across the room (or clicking) into an unfamiliar 2/5 game. Your brain tells you winning 300 is one medium-large pot at 2/5, and the loss will be wiped out. Somehow it forgets to tell you that 300 can go the other way, quickly doubling your loss from the 1/3 game.

If you’re reeling from a big loss at 1/3, the chances of the 300 leaving your stack, rather than returning to it, are high.


Now we have the don’t out of the way, let’s consider the dos. This one is straightforward and obvious—be in your best poker frame of mind when you sit in that bigger game. All the things you know to do before a poker session become that much important. Get in a good gym session, walk in the park, or take your daughter on a bike ride. Do not hit the casino buffet immediately before the session. Do not take your shot on four hours of sleep after closing the martini lounge the night before.


Just as you don’t want to take your shot to recover immediate losses from the next table over, you do want to do it when the bankroll and your results tell you you’re ready. Coming off a 3–4 session win streak would be a good place to consider taking your shot, and be clear about what a loss in that bigger game would mean for your bankroll.


Review those last 3–4 sessions you won. More important than the money won or lost is how you played. Did you make good value bets? Did you fold when you should? Did you follow your opening hand guidelines? If the answer to those questions is yes, you’re probably in a good place to try a bigger game.


Leave your phone in your car. If you’re playing online, put it in a different room. If you’re playing online, close the Facebook and YouTube windows on your laptop. Put every ounce of concentration into the game. It’s likely you have new opponents you’ve never seen before, and they may have a move or two you’ve never seen before—see if you can learn those moves before they get deployed against you.


So glad you asked. Because there were two more tips I was reminded of during the session.


Early in the session, a couple of hands went my way, and I was up a big number. At least it felt like a big number. Then a couple of hands went against me, and suddenly I was down a big number, and fretting. That’s when my math brain woke up. Conveniently, I have put in a lot of hours at exactly 1/10th of this game’s blinds. I said to myself,

“Self, what would you think if we were stuck 1/10th of this amount in that 1/10th scale game?”

“I’d think it was Wednesday.”

“Exactly. So being stuck this amount in this game means nothing. Either get used to routine swings of this size, or step back down.”

“Fair enough.”

Suddenly I felt much more relaxed. The point is to think in big blind units. That will enable you to use your poker brain and not your real-world financial brain. That latter brain will require a period of adjustment to the bigger swings, both up and down.


After getting stuck, and recalibrating my definition of how stuck I was, I surveyed the table and myself. The weak players who had attracted me to the table in the first place were still there, and were sitting on big stacks. Check. I felt I was playing well; in particular, I didn’t see any mistakes in either the hands I won or lost. Check. I kept playing.

Then I got into it. I raised in late position with a suited connector, and got 3-bet by the big blind. But it wasn’t a big 3-bet and the villain was one of the weak players I wanted to tangle with, particularly in position. I called, and flopped a flush draw. He bet 1/3 pot—I called. The turn brought my flush, but he bet half pot. I shoved for triple his bet—you dance with the girl what brung ya. He snap-called.

I expected to see a bigger flush or at best a big singleton trump, requiring me to fade a fourth trump on the river. To my surprise and delight, he’d turned a straight—no trumps—and was drawing dead.

At that point, I thought, “Whoo-hoo! I’m up a really big number now!”

My math brain: “And if we were up 1/10th that amount in a 1/10th scale game?”

“Um, Thursday?”

Which was fair. But I decided to treat myself to a win if I could. I had been playing for a couple of hours, and was proud of myself for not letting the size of the game get to me. And I was tickled that I was ahead – even if it only counted as half a buy-in in this game.

I played a couple more orbits, and cashed out.

Sometimes you take a shot and you lose; it’s inevitable. And trying to chase those losses beyond your best game can be catastrophic. But let’s say you get to a place where you’re winning in the biggest game you’ve ever played. Even if you’re playing well and the game is good, consider allowing yourself to walk away from a good game the first time out. Driving that stake into the ground sets you up for confidence and success in future sessions.

Then drop me a note and let me know what it was like taking a shot.

Lee Jones has been in the poker industry for over 30 years. He writes at the Global Poker blog, plays poker every chance he gets, and coaches poker. You can contact him at www.leejones.com.