The most entertaining character in the greatest poker movie of all time once said, “in the poker game of life, women are the rake.” Despite loving Rounders, especially Worm, I couldn’t disagree more with this memorable line. If anything, taxes are the rake in the poker game of life. Taxes are unavoidable, annoying as hell, and they burn a serious hole in your pocket… unless you live in Texas, Florida, or New Hampshire. So, what is rake?
What is Rake?
Quite simply, rake is the house cut. Unlike other casino games, when you play poker you are playing against the other patrons at the table, not the house. It’s easy to see where the casino makes a profit on the gaming floor. They are taking money away from people at slot machines and table games because they have the edge. In poker, there is no house edge. They are simply supplying the table, chairs, chips, cards, and staff. In order to profit from poker, they need to take money from the poker players.
In some larger games, the rake is taken over time, usually paid every 30 minutes. When the rake is timed, each player owes a given amount for every 30 minutes they play. Proportional rake, however, is the more common form of payment. In this case, a certain percentage is removed from each pot up to a maximum amount.
If the rake structure is 5% with a $6 cap at a $1/$2 game, then 5% of the pot is taken until the dealer has raked $6 out of that pot. If a player raises to $10 preflop and gets one caller, the dealer will take $1 out of the pot after the preflop action. Another $10 bet goes in and gets called, so the dealer takes another $1 out. The turn checks through. On the river, a player bets $40 and their opponent goes all-in for $100. The bettor calls the raise and the dealer takes another $4 out of the pot. So in total, the pot is $240 and $6 was taken out. If the rake were a flat 5% with no max, the total rake would’ve been $12, but the cap prevented that.
This rake structure may not seem so bad. Only the winner of each pot is paying for the hand, rather than each player paying for their time. However, there is a reason pros in high stakes games prefer a timed rake rather than raking each pot. Raking each pot can eat up all the chips in a game quickly. If nine players sit down with $200 each, and have a 5% rake capped at $6, the game won’t last long. Assuming the average pot is $100, and there is a good dealer dealing 25-30 hands per hour, everyone will be completely broke in 13 hours. To keep poker rooms sustainable with this rake structure, you need people re-buying and new players joining whenever a seat opens up. If there is just a small group of players available, the rake has to be low for the game to continue.
Close to 90% of poker players lose money over the long run. Rake strongly affects this outcome. There is a reason beating the rake is a popular point of conversation in poker strategy courses. Small stakes poker has the worst rake structure, thus it is important to cater your low stakes strategy around that rake. One example of this is to force a hand to end pre-flop. Many card rooms will not take any rake if a hand ends before the flop. Thus, preflop aggression and winning pots by 3- and 4-betting can be more valuable than taking a pot down with a c-bet after the flop.
Rake is such a significant win rate killer that it is important to find games with the lowest rake in order to maximize your odds of coming out ahead.
Here are 7 Strategies to Find the Lowest Poker Rake Available:
1. Avoid Raked Home Games
Getting together with a group of friends for a casual card game is a great way to meet new people, stay in touch with old friends, and have fun killing time. It also helps that you can make some money in the process!
The term home game can have many meanings. If you and some friends are getting together and passing the deck around the table, there likely isn’t any rake. However, if you find yourself in some Rounders-style backroom game with security cameras, there will be rake. Even if the game is in someone’s home, if they are supplying dealers, drinks, and food there is likely going to be rake.
Raked home games always have a higher rake structure than casinos. There are several reasons for this. First, raking a home game is illegal, so the host has more to lose if they get caught. Hosts will thus rake more to make it worth the risk. Second, home games are harder to sustain than casino poker, so to make up for the likely short lifespan of a game, hosts are incentivized to rake more. Lastly, there is usually only one table running at a home game. Casinos can rake less because they have multiple tables running. Each table doesn’t need to rake as much per hour to be profitable.
2. Ask the Floor About the Rake
If live poker is your preferred scene, ask a floor person at your local card room to tell you the rake. Regulated poker rooms are required to disclose their rake structure. While you can generally find this information online, you may want to ask the floor person just to make sure. Getting the information directly is important to make sure you are getting the right information. Online information can always be outdated, and rake structures may have changed. So be sure to ask your local floor staff at multiple rooms and see which offers the best rake.
3. Compare Online Sites
There is a wealth of information online comparing rake structures across online poker sites. Use this information to compare the online sites available for you to play in your local jurisdiction. The sites themselves should publish this information as well, so you can visit each site to find their rake information if you want to do some sleuthing yourself.
4. Look for Rakeback Programs Online
Many online poker sites offer rakeback once you’ve played enough hands. Sometimes you can even get rakeback if you merely email support and ask. Rakeback programs should be taken into account when you are looking for low-rake games. One site might have a higher rake structure than another, but if they offer an attractive rakeback deal you could end up paying less than a site with a lower rake. If rakeback is based on hands played, make sure you are accurately assessing how many hands you play per week/month/year. If you use a heads-up display or HUD, this is easy to track. If you don’t, you should be able to find that information from the sites themselves either by talking to support or checking transaction history.
5. Avoid Micro Stakes
This tip might not be possible for everyone, but unfortunately, the smallest stakes games are raked the highest. This is because low stakes games are typically the most popular. Micro stakes online have a much larger player pool than $1/$2+ online. Since most players will be stuck in the micro pool trying to build up a bankroll, sites can set higher rake on these games. It is simple economics: micro stakes poker is an inelastic product, so price changes will not have a large effect on demand. Players trying to grind a bankroll will always need to start at the micros, so sites can rake what they please.
6. Avoid Games with a “Drop”
Drop and rake are different ways for casinos to take their cut. Rake, as discussed, is a percentage of the pot with a cap. Drop, however, happens when a game runner takes a flat amount per hand regardless of the pot size. As a former Los Angeles resident, I am far too familiar with games that have a drop. Many LA-area rooms remove drop instead of rake. Drop is much worse than rake, because the size of the pot doesn’t matter. For instance, currently, the Bicycle Casino’s $2/$3 NLH game takes $6 on the flop ($5 for the house and $1 for the jackpot), and another $1 on both the turn and river. So in total, there is $8 coming out of a pot that goes to showdown. This is the same whether the pot is $30 or $3,000. In comparison, a $30 pot raked at 5% would only have $2 taken out as they will typically round up. It is thus much more advantageous to be in a game that takes rake instead of a drop.
7. Watch Out for Jackpots and High Hand Promos
Everyone loves the possibility of a bad beat jackpot or a progressive high hand bonus. These may seem like a great way to hit it big in poker and can add a fun element to the game. However, poker rooms do not offer these promotions and jackpots out of the kindness of their hearts. These are all paid for by the players. Most casinos that offer a bad beat jackpot or high hand promotion will add $1 drop to their rake structure. You may see a game post their rake as 5% capped at $5+$1. That “+$1” is for their jackpot. While casinos may not consider jackpot money part of their rake structure, it doesn’t matter to the players paying that rake where the money is going. Sure, it comes back to the players in the form of a jackpot or high hand payout, but most likely it won’t come back directly to those individuals who paid it.
Rake eats away at all poker players’ profit margins, but it is an unfortunate reality of the game. After all, card rooms and online sites are providing a service by hosting poker games, so they are looking to turn a profit. Luckily, regulated card rooms and online sites are required to provide their rake information. So you only need to ask to determine a room’s rake structure. Follow this guide and keep playing the best games you can. Low rake and bad competitors will make your bankroll grow!