The idea of playing poker for a living is alluring to poker players. If you frequent poker discussion forums such as those over at TwoPlusTwo.com, you’ve probably seen dozens of new threads started by poker players asking for advice on going professional.
Before we jump in, let’s define the term “professional.” In most pursuits, the term “professional” is applied to anyone who competes for money. Boxing, football and darts, for example. But in poker, the definition is more specific than that because everyone competes for money.
In poker, the term “professional” is reserved for those who rely on poker earnings to pay all or part of their bills. I don’t mean simply winning a little money and using it to pay the electric bill one month. I mean that you actually rely on poker to pay those bills. If you don’t win, the bills don’t get paid.
I have played poker off and on for about a decade now and part of that time was spent playing professionally. I used poker to pay for everything – my rent, electricity, tuition, going out, watching movies. Everything depended on poker. Hopefully this proves that I am qualified to speak on this topic today.
It’s Awesome… But it Sucks Too
There’s an old saying in the poker world that goes something like “poker is the hardest way to make an easy living.” That saying is so true. Let me explain.
Why It’s Awesome
In some senses, poker is an easy job. You don’t have to show up to work at a specific time, deal with unpredictable customers or work under an overbearing boss. You sit in a chair all day and click a mouse until you feel like stopping. Physically, it beats the hell out of digging ditches for a living.
Poker is also awesome because of the freedom it gives you. You can stop any time you want and take the dog on a walk. You can take a vacation whenever you want. You can drop everything and meet your girlfriend for lunch. Poker gives you the ability to do a lot of things that you wouldn’t get to do with most other jobs.
Another big perk to playing poker professionally is that you can make a lot of money. When you don’t have some other full-time job distracting you, you can spend a lot of time honing your skills and becoming a better player. In the end, this can help you make significant amounts of money. At one point, I was pulling in anywhere from $10,000 to $40,000 a month as a 20-something college kid.
Why It Sucks
The life of a poker pro isn’t always as glamorous as you might imagine. One of the biggest downsides to playing poker professionally is stress. When you depend on poker to pay the bills, you simply have to win. If you don’t win, your life can get real complicated, real quick.
Now, you can mitigate much of that stress by keeping a big rainy day fund in your bank account. In fact, saving up a bunch of money is one thing I stress to poker players even considering going pro. If you don’t have six months or a year of living expenses set aside in a safe place, you shouldn’t go pro.
But even if you do have that rainy day fund set aside, the natural swings you experience at the tables are rough on the psyche. It’s not like you enjoy dipping into that rainy day fund. Every time you dip into that rainy day fund, you wonder if this is just the beginning of the end.
One of the traits of successful poker players is mental toughness. There are a lot of good poker players out there, but there are not many good professional players. Some people just can’t handle the natural swings that come with the game.
You have to be able to separate what happens at the tables from what happens at home. This is very difficult as a professional poker player. You absolutely cannot look at every pot that you play in terms of real-world dollars. This is hard to do because it’s in our human nature to say “well, there goes a month’s worth of rent” after losing a $2500 pot at the $5/$10 NL tables.
And that’s just for one pot. Just wait until you go on a month-long downswing and drop 20 or 50 buyins. This hurts. It makes you question yourself. You wonder if you’re ever going to climb out of the hole you’re digging.
You shouldn’t think like that as a professional poker player. Confidence and calm-under-pressure are must-have traits. If you can’t learn how to stuff negative thoughts down and out of the way, you probably won’t succeed.
If you live in the United States, another HUGE downside is getting paid. It’s great to say you won $10K at the tables this month, but that excitement fades as you log in to your poker account every day for a month just to see the word “pending” next to your last cashout request.
(Note – there are ways around this issue if you’re willing to bend the rules a little. I’m not qualified to give advice of this sort on the blog, but I’ll give you a hint: VPNs and foreign bank accounts. Proceed at your own risk.)
And last but not least, you have to consider the long-term implications of playing online poker professionally. Do you honestly see yourself retiring from this job? If not, what kind of job experience or skills are you developing? Are you going to tell future employers that your last job was online poker?
A Day in the Life
I’m sure everyone has their own routine, so I’m just going to tell you what it was like for me.
My typical day was to wake up anywhere from 6AM to 10AM. I actually preferred to wake up early because I always felt sharpest in the mornings. The games weren’t as good in the mornings, but that wasn’t a big deal back in 2004. The games were significantly softer back then.
I would take a shower, eat breakfast and brush my teeth just like I was going to a regular job. It felt better to play refreshed and fully awake. I felt sharp, focused and “fresh” if that makes any sense. If I just rolled out of bed and went straight to the computer, I felt bleary, slow and unmotivated. I had to be fresh to play well.
I would then play for about 4 to 8 hours, depending on how I felt. It was always a challenge to decide how long to play because on one hand, I only wanted to play when I felt confident and in charge. On the other hand, I didn’t want to become a softie who could only play a couple hours a day.
Anyways, I would grind it out for as long as I could stand. Most days, I could go for at least 6 hours, sometimes 8 or 10. As long as I didn’t hit an exceptionally terrible run of cards, I had no problem sticking at the tables. If I started to feel frustrated, confused or lacking in confidence, I would quit.
One thing I tried to do was maintain a fairly level emotional state from day to day. I didn’t want to let myself get too excited if I had a good day because then I would feel like crap the next time I had a bad day. Grinding out a living is all about making the best decisions possible with limited information over and over and over, day in and day out. Emotions have no place in such a pursuit.
My routine was pretty standard (and probably pretty boring to read about), but every day at the tables was different. Some days I would just grind out a profit, other days I would duel back and forth with some maniac, other days I would play like a maniac just to irritate the ABC Tag on my right and some days I would lose a few grand.
Towards the end of the day, I would close shop when I started feeling overly tired, distracted or frustrated. Sometimes I would just quit if I felt like I’d done a good job and earned the rest of the day off. After poker, I would step outside for some fresh air and then go do whatever I had planned for that evening.
Is it worth it?
I realize that my “sucks” section is longer than my “awesome” section, but that doesn’t mean poker is a bad gig. If I could go back and do it over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I played professionally for a couple years, made a lot of money and then eventually moved on to running websites. It was a nice transition for me.
I loved playing online poker professionally, but I want to be clear that it was not the most exciting thing in the world. I didn’t travel the world and pop bottles at the Spearmint Rhino every month. I sat in a room and clicked a mouse all day long.
In the end, the only person qualified to make this decision is you. It might be worth it for you and it might not. Consider both the best case and worst case scenarios. Have a plan in place in case everything blows up.