Do you know what percentage of poker players make it to the highest stakes? Despite the bragging you might hear in your local card room, it’s not very many.

Though we all begin our poker careers with a dream of pulling ‘a move on Chan,’ the reality is that most players spend their time stuck in a rut. They’re too weak to move up and too proud to move down.

So, what stops us from progressing?

  • Do we lose the hunger?
  • Does the dream die?
  • Or are most of us just too unlucky?

We’ll examine ten reasons why you may be struggling to move up in stakes. 

1: You’re Not Being Honest with Yourself

Here’s some bad news: You’re probably not as good at poker as you think.

It’s not that you can’t play - on the contrary. You're probably pretty good if you've done your fair share of work in the lab on your poker combos. It’s just that there’s a lot of ego in poker, so players will blame their opposition, variance, or even their lucky pants way before criticising their skill level.

Top 10 Reasons Why You’re Not Moving Up in Poker Stakes - Honesty
Top 10 Reasons Why You’re Not Moving Up in Poker Stakes - Honesty

This thinking is down to a coping mechanism known as self-soothing. It’s a pretty simple idea: losing a big hand hurts. So, blaming someone else lets you feel sorry for yourself, which is better.

This reaction is normal - kids do it all the time. However, the problem that it prevents us from taking responsibility for our mistakes and being as self-reflective as we need to be to succeed.

Reflecting on your game honestly is vital for poker players.

It enables us to be impartial when studying and identify the parts of our game that need work. It ensures we play in games we can beat and helps us recognise when we are tilting or should leave a bad table.

If your win rates are slumping or you’re struggling to move up in stakes, you could be blaming other people for your shortfalls.

Do you find yourself pointing a finger or criticising your opposition whenever you lose a pot?

If you do, perhaps you need to be more honest with yourself.

2: You’re Only Watching the Highlights

Although playing is much more fun than studying, most of us appreciate the importance of doing both to improve. However, one thing that often gets lost in translation is how to study well.

Many people make mistakes in the selection of poker hands that they choose to study. In my experience, many people spend too much time looking at the big pots they play.

Top 10 Reasons Why You’re Not Moving Up in Poker Stakes - Watching Highlights
Top 10 Reasons Why You’re Not Moving Up in Poker Stakes - Watching Highlights

This scenario might seem to make sense since it’s these pots that make or break your session, but there are a few issues with this:

  1. Many big pots are coolers and play themselves.
  2. You don’t play big pots very often.

Big pots are fun to review, but it’s crucial to pay enough attention to how well you are playing in the most common spots, too. A small leak might not seem as significant as a total stack blow-up, but it can add up quite quickly.

In fact, small fundamental mistakes can be the difference between losing and moving up. Because of their perceived insignificance, you often miss (and don’t correct) them.

Solid fundamentals are the key to winning at poker, so improving requires focusing on the right things in the lab. While you should review your big hands, be sure to give the small spots enough love, too.

A cheap c-betting mistake on a dry poker board might seem insignificant. But if you make hundreds of these a session, it can get pretty expensive.

Whichever way you try to dress it up, replaying a highlight reel will be far less helpful than checking your fundamentals aren’t slipping.

3: You Don’t Study Enough

Misusing your time in the lab isn’t great, but it’s not as bad as neglecting to study altogether. 

We’d all prefer to spend time playing, but the skill difference between just one stake can be huge. Moving up requires a lot of improvement. Even the best players with multiple WPT poker tournaments under their belts face a constant battle to stay ahead.

Top 10 Reasons Why You’re Not Moving Up in Poker Stakes - Study Enough
Top 10 Reasons Why You’re Not Moving Up in Poker Stakes - Study Enough

Remember, the game is evolving year after year.

If you want to move up, you must not sacrifice study time for play. This advice might seem like a bit of a ‘Catch 22’ since you’ll need a decent bankroll before taking a shot, but you need to be patient.

If your game is too weak, you’ll find yourself dropping straight back down again.

4: Poor Study Discipline

If you’re itching to grind after just five minutes of review or are an amateur whose day job makes it hard to find study time, you’ll find it hard to improve.

You’re not alone if you find studying boring, but the trick is to find ways to make it less of a chore. Thankfully, there are many different ways to do this, such as using idle time in your day-to-day life.

Social media wastes a lot of time, so replacing your ‘doom-scrolling’ is an excellent place to start. Try to switch the time spent on apps like TikTok and Instagram with poker-related content like poker streams or hand history reviews.

  • If you use public transport to work, why not take a poker dictionary?
  • Or you can listen to a strategy podcast if you drive.

Moving up is hard work, so if you’re serious, use your time wisely.

You’ll improve faster, have more time to play, and move up sooner.

Top 10 Reasons Why You’re Not Moving Up in Poker Stakes - Poor Study Discipline
Top 10 Reasons Why You’re Not Moving Up in Poker Stakes - Poor Study Discipline

5: You’re Impatient

Being too comfortable can make you insensitive to the financial swings of your stake. A 10bb pot might have felt huge when you first started at your stake, but now it probably feels like ‘whatever!’

  • Being insensitive to swings can help some players play better. It allows them to focus on making the right decision or control tilt.
  • But it can make others too impatient, play too loose or chase big pots.

Which are you?

6: You Take Winning for Granted

If you’ve been at the same stake for a long time, you might consider your seat a given. Even if things aren’t going well for you right now, you’ve put in the work. You have a history of beating the stake, so you deserve to be there, right? Well, not really.

A doctor will always be a doctor once they have the relevant qualifications, but poker doesn't work like this. There’s no magical poker cheat sheet to winning. The game is constantly evolving and getting more demanding each year.

Things have changed so much in the last few decades. Strong arguments claim that those beating small-stakes games would crush the most elite players from 30 or 40 years ago.

Even if you disagree, it’s hard to deny that the average player’s ability continues to increase.

At one point, discipline, talent and instincts were enough to win - this is no longer the case. Poker is all about the here and now, and previous success doesn’t guarantee anything.

If you’re not improving, you’re falling behind. So, always be open to learning more and acknowledge that you are making mistakes (even the best players do).

7: You’re Getting Complacent

You should never get complacent because this will cause your game to stagnate.

Really good players can get away with this for a while because their skill advantage gives them a buffer. But eventually, the average ability of their stake will surpass them, and they will struggle to compete.

Top 10 Reasons Why You’re Not Moving Up in Poker Stakes - Complacency
Top 10 Reasons Why You’re Not Moving Up in Poker Stakes - Complacency

This situation can result in entitlement tilt, which is when a player struggles to accept losing to players they perceive to be beneath them. It can do even more damage to a player's win rate.

Being established at a stake can also make you defensive in the face of criticism, making it harder to fix leaks. If you have a lot of experience, it’s natural to think you “know best”. While you might have a point, there’s nothing to say you’re playing your best possible poker and maximising your results even if you are winning,

Remember, there will always be players willing to work hard. So, if you want to move through the stakes, you need to improve faster than the rest of the population.

The growth can never stop.

8: You Should be Moving Down Instead

Moving down can be as hard as moving up because it takes a lot of discipline and self-control. Admitting you’re no longer good enough to win can be a hard pill to swallow, especially for players that have crushed in the past. Nonetheless, it’s easy to fall behind if your opposition is working harder than you.

If you’re struggling to improve or losing at your stake, you should consistently assess your opposition to see where you are in relation to them. There’s a good chance you might need to move down and rebuild some confidence.

This move is easier said than done since most people are too proud, but it’s critical to be honest with yourself.

It’s better to move down and be a small winner at NL10 than a loser at NL25.

Fortunately, poker isn’t like football, where players will deteriorate after they reach their peak and struggle to compete at a certain level. Moving down in poker doesn’t mean you can’t move up again later, and it can often give you the confidence boost needed to turn things around.

Try to see it as a learning experience and not a failure.

Top 10 Reasons Why You’re Not Moving Up in Poker Stakes - Moving Down
Top 10 Reasons Why You’re Not Moving Up in Poker Stakes - Moving Down

9: You’re Mimicking Bad Habits

The issue with spending too long at a specific stake is that you can become too comfortable and autopilot your way through decision after decision. This habit can be dangerous because humans learn by copying others.

Sometimes, our instinct to copy can be a good thing, like when we first start playing poker and don’t know what to do. We can mimic what everyone else is doing and play better by osmosis.

Intentionally copying better players helps as you improve because it allows you to see what the regs at each stake are doing. You can study their play and see if there’s anything worth exploiting or adding to your game.

The situation becomes dangerous when we begin copying plays subconsciously because it opens the door for leaks to creep in. If we unintentionally begin mimicking a bad habit and repeat the mistake often enough, in time, we may consider it ‘standard’, and our profits will start to suffer.

10: You’re on Autopilot

The biggest issue is that you won’t even know you’re doing anything wrong when you’re on autopilot. Even with the best discipline in the world, you’ll make a mistake if the play seems standard.

If things aren’t going your way, perhaps you’re on autopilot and have absorbed some bad habits.

You might be making fundamental mistakes without even realising it.

There’s a difference between being comfortable and being complacent, and the latter will hinder your ability to progress.

You must stay sharp and hungry to move up and not let your standards slip.

Poker is like a romantic relationship: if you stop looking after yourself, you’ll lose that spark that keeps you sharp!

Dan O’Callaghan is a professional poker player who got his start in the online poker world as danshreddies. He has racked up over $290K in online earnings.