You've seen all the stars on tv making it look easy to splash a few chips around, bluff some pots, make soul reads and win hundreds of thousands or millions
of dollars in a single tournament.
And you look at your own life, you hate your job, you live paycheck to paycheck and you just feel like you'll never get ahead, you spend your life working
and have nothing to show for it.
So, why not you? Why can't you throw your hat into the arena and start raking in the dough "the easy way"?
I'm here to give you the low-down on playing poker professionally, the good and the bad of it.
I tracked my results starting in Dec of 2005 and used poker to supplement my income as a semi-pro. I wound up making more money than my day job, and
eventually left work to play professionally in Sep 2006 (just a few short months before the UIGEA, great timing, right?)
I supported myself for a few years playing poker, then turned to the business side of the industry. I spent a few years focused on that without much
success, forcing me to return to working a regular job, since I hadn't continued to put the time in on the felt to maintain a regular income to sustain me.
I've made my mistakes in life (yes, more than one), but I'll do my best to provide you with some insight into what playing poker professionally entails.
DISPELLING THE MYTHS YOU LEARN FROM TELEVISION
Most poker on television is focused on high buy-in No Limit Texas Hold Em tournaments. Most players satellite into these $10,000 buyin events through
smaller events, earning a seat after winning their way through anywhere from one to 3 or more previous smaller buyin tournaments.
Some players are sponsored to play, and others just pony up the cash themselves. But facing facts, the vast majority of poker players cannot realistically
afford to play one $10,000 tournament, let alone the huge number of them spread out across the span of a year.
Most long-term professional poker players don't put their main efforts into tournament poker. Instead, they play cash games.
WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
In a tournament, everyone pays a set fee and receives the same amount of poker chips. You then play until only one person remains with all the chips.
In a cash game, you can buyin for a range of money (for instance, most $1/2 NL Hold Em cash games allow you to buyin for between $60-$300). You can play one
hand and leave, or you can go bust and put more money on the table and play as long as the game continues to run and you have money to play.
A tournament features a countdown clock that constantly raises the blinds each level that you must pay to play a hand. Eventually the cost to play becomes
so high related to your chip stack that you have only the option of going all-in or folding if you're playing correct strategy. This takes some of the skill
out of the game and forces you to rely more on luck.
A cash game, however, maintains the same blind structure throughout, allowing you time to play your game without being forced into action like in a
tournament. This makes cash games lower variance (i.e. less luck and more skill). This doesn't mean tournament poker doesn't have any skill involved, it's
just.........different. And it's a less reliable source of income if you want to depend on poker to pay the bills.
PRIMARY CONSIDERATIONS BEFORE PLAYING FOR A LIVING
Unless you've got yourself a sugar momma (or daddy) you need to consider your "monthly nut". This is the amount of expenses you incur (rent, utilities,
groceries, car payment, insurance, etc).
You should AT A MINIMUM have 3 months of living expenses socked aside. My recommendation is to have 6-12 months to
give yourself more breathing room.
By not needing to book wins immediately, you prevent yourself from freaking out over suffering a loss here or there,
because you've been prudent and planned.
So, if you spend $3,000/month for your current lifestyle and wish to maintain that, you need at least $9,000 in savings, and preferably $18,000-$36,000
available to cover you.
This is separate from your living expenses. Do you understand? I'm going to type it again, because this is extremely important....YOUR BANKROLL IS SEPARATE
FROM YOUR LIVING EXPENSES. Do not mix the two.
Your living expense savings determines how much time you have before you need to consider finding something outside of poker to provide you an income. Your
bankroll determines what games and limits you can play.
You see, there's more than No Limit Texas Hold Em tournaments or cash games out there. There's pot limit games and limit games, there's Omaha, Omaha hi/lo
split poker, 7-card stud 8 or better (also known as stud hi/lo), 7 card stud, razz, badugi, 2-7 triple draw lowball and the list continues to grow as new
games are invented, mixed, etc.
Different game types have different levels of variance. NL and PL games have bankroll recommendations based on the number of buyins. A buyin is usually 50
bb's (i.e. 50 big bets). So, in a $1/2 NL cash game (the most commonly spread game at casinos) a standard buyin would be $100.
For limit poker games, the
recommended bankroll is based on the number of bb's. Here's how it all works out:
NL/PL Cash Games: Minimum of 20 buyins (i.e. $2,000 to play 1/2 NL)
Limit Cash Games: Minimum of 300 bb's (i.e. $3,000 to play 5/10 limit)
The above are minimum recommended bankrolls, it may not hurt to increase this figure if you're risk-averse or easily tilted. Having more cushion can be
comforting and make weathering potential downswings easier.
***How Much Will I Make?***
Poker is a long-term "game". While there is a range of income you can expect in certain games, you can't expect to earn that amount every single session you
play. If your long-term expectation is to make $25/hr playing poker, you may earn $38/hr one day, and lose $13/hr the next. Your average expected return is
based on the long-term, and some days, weeks or months will be better or worse than others.
I have had months where I had a great first three weeks and it all turned to **** in the final week and I saw most of my profit eroded or even turned a
winning month into a losing month. That's why bankroll management and separate living expense savings are crucial to maintaining your mental wellness during
Bear in mind I was primarily a limit mixed-rotation cash game player, and didn't dive into NL/PL cash games much. My understanding is that you could expect
to earn somewhere from 3-5bb/100 playing some of these games. What that means is that for every 100 hands played, you will earn 3-5 big bets. If you play
1/2 NL and earn 5bb/100 hands and play 100 hands/hr (good luck doing that live btw) then you'd make $10/hr.
With limit poker, most of what I've read is 1-2bb/hr. So in a 5/10 limit poker game you could expect to earn $10-$20/hr.
I played mostly Omaha hi/lo online
when I started (and most of my figures above are based on live play, not playing multiple tables online and enjoying the benefit of volume). This allowed me
to regularly earn over 3bb/hr, and online I usually played 10/20 or 15/30 limit games, although I played as high as 50/100 one time just to "take a shot"
In live games I used to regularly play 20/40, but would also play 5/10, 30/60 or 40/80. I also played 75/150 once to try my hand at the higher stakes.
Generally, live games are much softer than their online counterparts. I write this article shortly after Online Pokers Black Friday, so if you're a U.S.
resident, you have few options but live poker, which is why I slant my information on that.
Also, how much YOU will earn depends on a variety of factors. How good you are at poker, how bad your opponents are (table selection can be huge, some
tables are far more profitable than others), how tired or focused you are, etc.
***$20/hr sounds great for me!***
So you're working for the man, getting $12.50/hr and hating life and think if you could just make $20/hr playing live poker that your life would be great!
Well now, hold the horses, you're forgetting a few things about playing poker for a living:
- Taxes (you're now self-employed and must report your income to the IRS plus you have to pay self-employment tax)
- Insurance (whoops, you're working full-time but now you don't have any health or dental or vision insurance, crapsticks! That's another potential
- Food & Tips (you're at the casino, there's the waitress, the dealer and of course meal breaks you may take)
- Travel (unless you can walk to the casino you must factor in the commute expense (time, gas, wear & tear on your car)
- Hours (the best times to play are not usually 9-5. Instead, you want to play when other players are drunk, tired or stuck and chasing their loses, this
means late hours when the potential to win is greater)
- Undesirables (you're going to be surrounded by people trying to take your money, sometimes smelly, rude or obnoxious people. Sure, that can happen at a
9-5 job as well, but usually you aren't crammed into a tight table with your coworkers)
That $20/hr becomes far less quickly when you're being hit with a bunch of other expenses, so take off the rose-colored glasses and keep a level-head before
you dive in.
***What Game Is Right For Me?***
This can vary greatly from person to person. Some players become specialists in a certain discipline, pouring all their efforts into becoming as strong as
possible in a particular game type.
Myself, I prefer to learn as many games as possible, because growing up the big games were 5 card draw and 7 card stud,
which are virtually dead because of hold em nowadays.
Imagine if you specialized in just 5 card draw, you'd be stuck trying to play catchup to learn the
current hot games to remain competitive.
By learning multiple games you expand your skillset, keep your options open and make yourself a more well-rounded and versatile player.
I prefer mixed cash
games because most players only know one or two games. If there are five games being rotated, I expect to have an edge that equals more profit for me in the
What games and betting structures work for you will depend on your personality. Some players love the rush of all-in bets, making massive bluffs or hero
calls. Others prefer the slower limit games that are more about hand selection and math than psychology.
The game that's right for you is the one that brings you enjoyment and profit, if you're looking to play professionally. Realize that playing for a living
will cause poker to sometimes lose some of the glamour it had when it was played more for fun. That doesn't mean it won't remain fun, but it may be
different for you as you adjust.
***How Will I Know I'm Ready To Quit My Job?***
One of the most devestating things that can happen to some first-timers is to begin on a winning streak that doesn't accurately reflect their actual skill.
This creates a false sense of entitlement. You've seen it before, some luckbox wins a big event and then blows through all their winnings over the next year
or two, bemoaning how unlucky they are when in actuality they just weren't as good at poker as they thought, they allowed one big win to distort their
Statistically speaking, playing 20,000 hands of poker is insignificant in determining if you're a long-term winner (i.e. this many hands is still considered
the short-term and you may be experiencing variance in your favor that is providing you with an unrealistic win-rate)
I believe you can expect to see around 30 hands/hr in a live poker game. That means to hit 20K hands played you'd need to play 666 hours of poker. If you
played 40 hours/week that's over 16 weeks of sustained full-time play (or roughly four months)
From what I've read on the subject, to have a statistically relevant sample size, you'd want around 250,000 hands played. That's 8,333 hours of poker, or
more than 208 weeks (i.e. 4 years!) before you could know with a certainty in the high 90% range roughly what your expected earn (or loss) rate is in a
particular poker game.
This is why online poker was so huge in making some big stars so quickly, they were able to play more than one table at a time, and each online table dealt
more hands per hour than a live game could possibly hope to achieve.
The winning players were able to reach their long-term more quickly, because of this
volume, and with tracking software could see what their statistics were, their earning potential.
SOME QUESTIONS I'VE BEEN ASKED
should I quit school - I don't recommend it. Sure, I've read countless stories of this young internet phenom who was 3 hours away from earning their
engineering degree and gave it all up to play poker and now they're a multi-millionaire. You don't hear about the kids who quit, failed at poker and now
have no degree, few marketable skills or any job prospects.
I won xx home game xx times or I won a tournament, am I ready to quit my job? No, I already went over this a bit when I mention the statistical
significance of volume and variance. Winning a fun, recreational event is far different than doing this day/in day/out trying to make a living.
If I gave you $2,000 and you went to the casino, what are the chances you could double or triple that up for me? I mention this question because a friend of
mine recently asked me this very question, which prompted me to write this article. The truth is there are no guarantees. I might lose it all, I might lose
a little, I might break even, I might win a little or I might win a lot. It's impossible to predict the short-term outcome. While I'd love to take that
money and hit the casino, because I enjoy poker and am confident I'm a long-term winning player, there's no way I could guarantee a specific result, and
money between friends can become a very sore point for problems quickly in this game.
There's a ton of stuff I haven't even touched in this article, things like tilt control, moving up or down in limits, psychology vs math, taking shots, etc.
But I tried to cover some of what I feel are most important to consider when looking at playing poker professionally. I hope this was helpful for you, and
feel free to leave comments or questions below, I'll do my best to respond!