Why You Should Probably Stop Playing Zoom

Author: Patrick Howard - Lead Strategy Developer

In my last post, The Money Spreadsheet, I talked about why playing-high quality poker is far more important for your profitability than the amount of volume you play. When I wrote that post, I mainly had in mind low-stakes players who struggle because they play way too many hours per week, or they play distracted or exhausted, and end up crippling their win rates by playing lazy and unfocused poker.

A lot of these break-even players are currently multitabling on PokerStars Zoom. The speed of the software, combined with their grueling play schedules, allows them to put in a ridiculous amount of volume. Upwards of 60,000 hands per month is not uncommon—a sad fact considering these players are not making any money. It’s like the guys who go to the gym 6 or 7 days per week but still don’t get results. I always suggest these players cut their volume goal dramatically, find some softer games, and put all their focus on improving their quality of play.

That being said, there are plenty of Zoom players who actually play solid poker. They generally have healthy playing routines and they don’t try to put in more hours than they can handle. The speed of the software still allows them to get in plenty of hands per month and they gradually make money in their games. Still, almost all of them find their win rates hovering around the low single digits and are struggling to move up in stakes. But why? Is poker really that hard to beat, or is there something else going on?

As a side note in the last post, I wrote: “Sites like PokerStars spend a lot of time and money making fancy software to make pumping volume as easy as possible so that you can pay them more rake.”

These days, PokerStars Zoom seems to be the crown jewel of the MSNL reg, which is why I feel obligated to offer the following counterpoint: Zoom is fucking stupid. I realize that may be somewhat incendiary, but hear me out…

Zoom does not exist because it’s in your best interest to play Zoom. Zoom exists because it’s in PokerStars’ best interest for you to play Zoom. Poker sites are incentivized to reduce players’ win rates because when win rates are lower, the money stays on the site for longer. Players have to play more hands to turn a profit, which means the site gets paid more rake. (This is the same reason why many poker sites do not offer high stakes heads up games.)

Most of you probably understand this intuitively, but you’re willing to make the trade off because you think you get disproportionately more volume for the amount of win rate you give up. I think this is usually a mistake for a couple reasons:

  1. Even if you are able to increase your hourly rate in theory by playing Zoom, this does not account for the fact that lower win rates increase the probability of a loss. This will be detrimental to your mindset. More importantly, it will massively increase your risk of ruin. That means you will need to be much more conservative with your bankroll management and it will be difficult to move up. This is a significant hidden opportunity cost that most people never even think about.

  2. With every hand per hour you add to your volume, you reduce the amount of focus you are able to allocate for each individual hand. Thinking less about your decisions at the tables means you will learn less from each session you play. This will stunt your development as a player, which will have compounding negative impacts on your earnings over the long term. Again, this is a substantial penalty, and most players don’t know how much it’s costing them.

Take a look at the chart below, which plots the minimum bankroll needed for less than 5% risk of ruin vs. win rate. In other words, this is how large of a bankroll you would need to ensure that a downswing will not bankrupt you more than 5% of the time. I would suggest multiplying this number by 3-5x for your normal games, but it’s fine to be a little riskier when you’re taking a shot.

As you can see, a player whose win rate is 3 bb/100 needs a bankroll of at least 50 buy ins for less than 5% risk of ruin. A player whose win rate is 15 bb/100 needs a bank roll of only 10 buy ins for the same level of risk. As win rate decreases, risk of ruin increases exponentially. So if you’re moving up in stakes, you want to ensure that your win rate is as high as possible.

If you read my introductory article, you know that I played Zone on Ignition back when I was moving up through 200nl and 500nl. Luckily, my win rate was pretty high and I only had to grind those games for three or four months before I took a shot at high stakes. That being said, if I could go back and do it all over again, I think I would probably stick to regular tables from the start.

If you’re crushing Zoom and your win rate is greater than 5 bb/100, it’s probably fine to just optimize for volume if that’s what you prefer right now. But if your win rate is less than that, I think you should strongly reconsider your strategy. And if you’re breaking even at Zoom, well, any amount of volume multiplied by a win rate of zero is still zero, so you should get out of those games immediately. You might agree with my feelings about Zoom, or you might not, but my intention behind this article is to at least get you to do the math on Zoom and decide if it’s actually worth it for you. You should consider all the hidden opportunity costs that I have talked about, because it’s more than just a simple win rate * volume equation. Don’t just play Zoom because that’s what everyone else does. If you pick an average strategy, you’re going to get average results.