My game seems to have hit something of a plateau, well tuned to beating the lowest microstakes but not seeming ready to take on anything higher. So while I gird myself up for the next step I thought I would take a look back at how I got this far and see what advice I could give to those just starting out as I did.

I came to Pokerstars and to PSO with no knowledge of poker at all. I'm proud to have built up from nothing without depositing any money. My initial aim was simply to be able to play microstakes cash games with an appropriate bankroll, and win. I was determined not to deposit money but build my bankroll for free. It worked for me, so here is my three point plan for absolute beginners:

1. Learn.
Read anything you can find relating to microstakes online poker. As much as you have time for. Print out or bookmark anything good to reread later. Anything that keeps cropping up in every source is probably vital info. Concentrate your study on what is relevant to the basic levels you will be playing at. Watching pros on tv doesn't really count as relevant study as any lessons you learn are not likely to be relevant to situations you will face.

I had no idea which hands I should be betting and which folding, so I got hold of a load of starting hand charts from different sources, compared them, and drew up and printed out my own, based on the consensus where there was one and leaning to the tighter end of the spectrum when in doubt. Just doing this exercise I learned more about starting ranges than any amount of watching or reading.

Attend PSO live training sessions/watch recordings. Some of the advice will go over your head. Don't worry about this but take what you can from the sessions. Even without having the specific concepts at your fingertips, getting a feel for how a good player thinks about a hand as it develops is a really useful learning experience.

2. Earn.
Before you can get stuck into cash games, you need a solid bankroll. Your reading should have told you this, as bankroll management is a staple subject in most poker tutorials. So to start with you need to be playing freerolls. Lots of freerolls. Just by having a basic understanding of the tight aggressive style the experts recommend, and by sticking to it, you will have an edge over many players in these games. Remember you will need to loosen up and take more chances as the stacks get smaller, or you will suffer from mincashitis, forever sneaking past the bubble but rarely going any further. There is a lot of luck involved, but stick at it and you will pick up some prizes.

The PSO Bankroll Builder promotion didn't exist when I started, but it looks a very worthwhile way to help kickstart your bankroll, while exposing you to good advice and learning materials along the way.

Once you are up to about $10 (nit that I am, I waited till I had $20), you can consider starting to play the 25c 45 player sit and goes. These are a popular bankroll building option, as soft as any real money games you will find on Pokerstars. And once you can start to beat these games you are well and truly on your way.

Personally, I played the PSO Skill League games to augment my freeroll winnings, as I soon discovered they rewarded careful patient play, which I was capable of, even while my other skills were still on a primitive level. Consider playing these too, if you have the time available - no point playing one or two, you need to be playing enough in a month to get into the leaderboards. [Edit: these do have a ffp requirement to qualify for the higher tier of prizes, so unless/until you are making enough points to qualify they may not be the best option except for practice].

3. Practice.
Of course the freerolls etc are useful in getting your first steps in playing the game, but cash games and tournaments are different beasts. Cash games are in general a more stable learning environment, because the stack sizes are much less volatile. If you are initially leaning on a starting hands chart to decide what to play and what to fold, it will remain relevant throughout the game. In a tourney once you become shortstacked, everything changes.

If you are starting with no prior knowledge of the game then I recommend mixing some play money cash games into your initial schedule. Some dismiss play money as a waste of time. I can understand that point of view, but I still think for complete beginners it's a good place to start. I needed somewhere just to get a feel for basic stuff like how often a flush or straight draw hit or when two pairs is a strong hand and when it isn't. I had read the answers, but the knowledge needed reinforcing in actual play.

So, grab your new starting hands chart and sit in on a first level play money table. Practice your recommended tight aggressive style. Remember, the chips don't really matter, you are just practising your game. Get a feel for the dynamics, see for yourself why for example only opening premium hands from early positions makes so much sense. Why small pairs and suited connectors are more useful when everyone is limping into the pot.

It is true you will encounter a lot of random crazy play that can be distracting and misleading, but learning how best to exploit maniacs who want to shove all the money in with any two cards is a useful skill. Beating terrible players who just don't care is good practice for beating poor players later on. And if you are of a cautious disposition, you will find it easier to get into the proper mindset, that of trying to play right and make good decisions, regardless of the immediate outcome, when there is not real money, or a potential tournament payoff, riding on the outcome.

In any case, if you bust out of play chips, you just restock for free, and try again. Stick to a sensible gameplan and you will soon have more chips than you know what to do with. And once you get bored with winning play chips, you should be ready to start winning real money, bankroll permitting.

I even applied bankroll management to my play chips and moved up through the levels as my pile of chips grew. Of course that is overkill, just down to my ultra-cautious nature, and not recommended, but it did give me a good grounding in how bankroll management works in practice. And a lot of confidence.

Finally, make sure your three development strands, Learning, Earning, and Practice, all link together. If a tournament didn't go to plan, treat it as a learning opportunity - review you own play in a replayer, or post key hands on forums for review. Study advice specific to the tournament types you are playing (there are many different formats, and strategies differ). Concentrate on one specific newly-learned concept when practicing. Don't allow yourself to neglect any one of the three strands in favour of the others - if you are crushing one freeroll after another, it doesn't mean you can stop learning and applying new concepts. If you are losing, don't stop practicing.

Above all, stick at it. Plenty of us have got our start this way, it can be done!