Rake. It might be the most obscene four-letter word in poker. Tilt can be controlled. Leaks can be plugged. But the rake is the one element of the game that will mercilessly take your chips every time, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Rake is the amount of money taken out of each pot by the establishment that’s hosting the game you play in. It covers the cost of everything you see: The dealer and other floor staff, the equipment being used to keep the game running smoothly, the security to prevent cheating, the electricity and lights that help you see the cards, and so on. Of course, there is a profit margin built into the rake as well. And rake is not the only money that always comes off the table. Many rooms collect for bad beat jackpots and other promotions.
On this week’s podcast, Doug Hull leads our conversation on everything you wanted to know about rake. What’s good rake vs. bad rake? When does rake make a game practically unbeatable? We’ll take a look at the math and give this much-requested topic a thorough shake-down in this episode of the Red Chip Poker podcast.
“Can I Beat the Rake?”
By far, this is the most frequently asked question about rake. Hull’s answer to this question might surprise you: It doesn’t matter. Read and/or listen on to the end to find out why.
Hull begins by looking at the various ways money is taken off the table by the house.
The Different Types of Rake in Poker Rooms
How rake is collected — and how much is collected — varies per state (due to different gambling laws) and by establishment (due to different business practices).
At certain Vegas establishments, for example, the rake is 10% up to $4. What does that mean? If there’s $10 in the pot, the house will take $1. At $20, they’ll take $2. They take $3 at $30, $4 at $40, and then no matter how big the pot gets, the rake will never get higher than $4.
Hull gives the example of California, where instead of a rake they have a drop. A drop is when the house takes a set amount of money when dealing each hand, for example, $5. This is due to a law which essentially prevents the establishment from having an interest in the size of the pot. So, in this case, they drop the first $5 into their little plastic box. Sometimes if it folds around to the blinds, they will chop the big blind and give the house the small blind.
Hull notes that the “drop” is far more punitive than the rake, because the amount taken out of the pot is in no way proportional to the size of the pot.
In other states and establishments, the fee structure can be a monthly membership fee combined with a chair rental fee. This is often because law prohibits the house from taking money directly from gambling activities, and these fees work around that law. Alternatively, an establishment might charge a door fee or something along those lines.
Some rooms have charity games to work around prohibitive gambling laws, which generally means the rake is very high, because the establishment must split their profits with a non-profit.
Rake in Underground Poker Games
If you thought the rake couldn’t get any worse, you’re wrong. Underground games are notorious for having rakes, as big as the market can bear. The tougher it is to find a decent game in your area, and/or the greater the liability (both legal and security-wise), the higher the rake that you’ll be charged. That doesn’t mean there are no underground games with fair rakes, but you’re usually looking at an amount above what you’d find in a normal, fully-sanctioned poker room.
The Time Rake
You’ll see the time rake in many bigger games. This is similar to the rent-a-seat structure — you are paying for every half hour of play with a rental fee.
Often in these time raked games, you’ll see a “time pot”. This is a way to gamble over the rake, essentially, often by declaring the first big pot as being raked to pay for everyone’s fee, or perhaps by gambling on the door card of the next flop matching a seat number, which must pay the time rake for the whole table.
There are a variety of promotions that card room managers have come up with to get players in the door. You’re probably familiar with a few of them:
- High Hand Jackpots – Highest qualifying hand in the card room each hour gets paid a jackpot.
- Bad Beat Jackpot – When one qualifying high hand (often quads or better) beats another qualifying high hand, the entire table shares in an often-enormous jackpot, with most distributed to the losing hand, some to the winning hand, and a little to each player.
- Aces Cracked – A jackpot paid to someone who loses a qualifying hand with pocket aces.
- Most Hours Played – Less common, but a room might award the player who played the most hours in a given week or month with a jackpot.
- Paid for Playing – A few rooms will actually pay you for playing a certain number of hours. For example, you might collect $500 for playing 40 hours in a week.
- Sports Promotions – When the game is on, a room might tie a jackpot promotion in with the action going on in the game
- Play for Buffet – Play for a certain amount of time and get a food comp, similar to the comps earned on player cards but much more immediately gratifying.
- Freeroll Tournament – Sometimes rooms will run a freeroll tournament for all players who play a minimum amount of hours.
Be aware that these promotions do not come out of the poker room’s pocket. They are funded by a “jackpot drop”, which is usually $1 from every pot that sees a flop.
One of the important dynamics to consider is that many of the jackpots are generally set up in such a way to take money from tourists and redistribute it to the local regulars. Tourists and recreational players will rarely play enough hours or hands to qualify for the jackpots, but regs who are playing 30-40 hours per week have maximum opportunity to hit. This is particularly true in the case of a freeroll tournament jackpot structure. It’s also a way to make sure there’s always a game available when someone wants to play, much like hiring a proposition player.
Hull’s overall assessment is that these jackpot promotions are generally neutral or negative EV. There are often associated fees taken as money is added to the jackpot, so not every $1 chip makes it into the jackpot pool. Variance will be the determining factor — your results will be better on the smaller aces cracked and high hand types of bonuses, whereas your shot at hitting a bad beat is much more astronomical.
The more important thing to remember is that these types of jackpot promotions attract not-so-sophisticated players who might play differently because of the jackpot. Hull tells a story of a woman who was so obsessed with hitting a quads jackpot that she played every pocket pair regardless, and never bet her set on the flop (for fear of getting folded to and not making quads).
The players that are there to hit these jackpots will make it obvious. They’ll often outwardly discuss their strategy.
Another type of this behavior is short-stacking and playing conservatively to hit an hourly minimum to play a freeroll tournament.
What Does it Mean to “Beat the Rake”?
Poker is a zero-sum game. Equal players will be pushing money back and forth all night. Better players will take the money of lesser players over the long haul. But because of the rake, there is a third entity disrupting that equal balance of money, turning poker into a game where the losses become more pronounced.
One way of looking at it is that tight players pay less rake because they play less pots, and loose players pay more rake for equally obvious reasons.
It’s impossible to know how the rake effects your personal win rate in the game. There’s just not enough hours and too much variance to know for sure. What you should be focused on is comparing the rakes and drops of the places you have the option of playing in. But you shouldn’t necessarily just go to the one with the lowest rake. It’s entirely possible that the one with the highest rake attracts the most recreational players, and gives you a greater opportunity to win more pots. That is the calculus of how to beat the rake.
Despite not being able to mathematically calculate how exactly the rake effects your win rate, are there still games that are impossible to beat due to a high rake? Hull says, “Absolutely.”
Hull has heard of non-U.S. casinos with 20% rake on every pot, sometimes even including uncalled bets. The only person earning a living is the casino in that situation.
How to beat the rake, Hull says, is ultimately an academic issue, because ultimately, in any competitive market, the rake should get low enough to beat. If it’s not, that’s just a function of your game being in a vacuum where players have few or no other options.
“And let’s face it,” he says, “you’re going to play anyway.”
If you’ve never thought about whether the rake in your game is beatable or not, and if you have any question as to what impact it has on your win rate, please leave a comment below and our coaches will reply with expert advice.