If you love playing poker and are any good at it, you’ve probably dreamed about ditching your current job and taking it up full-time.
It’s a tempting proposition, after all. Who doesn’t want do what they love for a living?
Be warned, though: poker is a demanding job that’s not for everyone. If you are genuinely considering taking a shot at becoming a professional poker player, then you should make sure it’s an informed decision.
Luckily for you, we’ve weighed up all the pros and cons of professional poker so you can decide for yourself.
Let’s get started.
3 Perks of being a professional poker player
1. Doing something you love
This is the main reason anyone who’s ever played poker professionally does so. Being able to turn something you love into your living, whether it be poker or something completely unrelated, is one of the most common aspirations in the modern world.
You may have heard professionals say that they’re in it “for the money”. And while that may be true, if they didn’t enjoy the game they wouldn’t still be playing it. Poker is too demanding a profession for those who don’t have a real passion for it.
The most successful players don’t just play poker because they can beat it, they play it because they are fascinated by the strategic complexities of the game. This is what motivates them to put in the necessary study time to be successful as well as persevere through the downswings.
2. Freedom and flexibility
Being able to set your own hours is a huge perk in any profession. Of course, you’ll likely be incentivized to play poker at certain times based on player pool tendencies, but ultimately it will be up to you. Having this freedom can go a long way in staving off poker fatigue and keeping you motivated.
You’ll also be accountable to no-one but yourself. There are very few jobs these days which offer the same level of independence as professional poker. Of course, that’s not to say it’ll be easy. You’ll have to work just as hard as at any other job. The difference is that no-one will be breathing down your neck as you do so.
3. Earning potential
If you’re able to reach a high skill level, there’s still a lot of money to be made by playing online poker. There have been a few changes to the industry in regards to rake and player rewards in recent years that have decreased the profitability of playing online, but it’s still possible to achieve a livable hourly. It’s just a lot harder than it used to be.
One of the toughest challenges facing aspiring online pros these days is starting in and breaking out of micro stakes — 2NL through 25NL. The high rake and low rakeback in modern day games eats away at a micro stakes player’s winnings, making it tough for them to attain a decent win-rate.
Live poker, on the other hand, has been and likely always will be a highly profitable venture for skilled players. The average live player is simply much weaker than the average online player.
This may be because live poker is played in casinos, and consequently attracts people who play poker to gamble rather than because they are good at it. Or it may be because of the social element of live poker. It’s likely a combination of both. Whatever the reason, it’s a phenomenon that shows no signs of changing any time soon.
4 Downsides of the professional poker life
Variance is without a doubt the single biggest drawback to playing poker for a living. It’s what stops anyone who’s beating a game from beating it full-time.
It’s challenging in two ways:
- The first, and most obvious way, is financially
You can’t play poker if you’re bankroll has been decimated by a downswing. This is why proper bankroll management is essential if you expect to make it as a professional. You need to be prepared for downswings by being financially insulated enough to survive them. We’ll revisit this in more detail later.
- The second way in which variance is challenging is emotionally
When you keep getting sucked out on, or seem to run into the nuts at every turn, it can start to affect how you play the game as well as your motivation to continue playing it. Doug Polk talks about his experiences with this here:
Downswings are always going to be emotionally trying; there’s no avoiding that. The best we can do is prepare ourselves mentally for downswings, just like how we prepare our bankrolls to absorb them. If we accept that downswings are inevitable, the variance becomes a lot easier to deal with.
Variance is also the cause of the second biggest downside of being a professional poker player.
2. Difficulty assessing your win-rate
Understanding your own win-rate is an asset for any poker player. If you don’t have a good idea of what your win-rate is, then you will not be prepared for the length and magnitude of the resulting downswings.
A player with a high win-rate will experience shorter and shallower downswings than a player with a low win-rate. Take a look at the following simulation, which compares the negative variance of a 2bb/100 win-rate to that of a 5bb/100 win-rate:
What do these numbers mean? Let’s start with the red boxes:
- 83.73% of the downswings Player A will experience will be over 300 BBs
- 63.16% of the downswings Player B will experience will be over 300 BBs
So, only ~16% of Player A’s downswings will be less than 300 BBs, compared to ~37% of Player B’s downswings.
And now the blue boxes:
- 82.41% of Player A’s downswing stretches will last over 5000 hands
- 60.18% of Player B’s downswing stretches will last over 5000 hands
So, ~18% of Player A’s downswings will last fewer than 5000 hands, compared to ~40% of Player B’s downswings. (A downswing stretch is defined by the amount of hands it takes to get back to the peak of your graph.)
As you can see, Player B’s higher win-rate means he experiences shorter and shallower downswings.
If you’re a live player, finding out your approximate win-rate in big blinds per 100 hands (BB/100) is extremely difficult. This is because of the sheer number of hands needed to provide a large enough sample combined with the absence of tracking software.
Online tournament players face a similar problem. Because tournaments have much more variance than cash games, it can be difficult to assess your win-rate even when using tracking software. This is exacerbated by the fact that the decisions made by tournament players will be for chips, which don’t have a concrete value.
For these reasons, live players and online tournament players need to be extra careful when trying to decide if they have what it takes to play full-time.
3. Initial capital required
If you want to play poker for a living, you need to have a bankroll that’s large enough to take a beating. The amount of buy-ins (BI) you’ll need will vary depending on what variant of poker you play, and whether you play cash or tournaments.
The general consensus is that for No-limit Hold’em your bankroll should be at least 25-40 buy-ins.
Guidelines for multi-table tournaments are much hazier, because the format lends itself to dramatic upswings and extremely long downswings. It’s often recommend that you start with at least 100 BI, although if you’re regularly playing online tournaments that have over a thousand entrants, it would be wise to increase this to 200 or even 300 buy-ins.
There’s some debate over whether and to what extent these numbers should be reduced if you’re playing live poker rather than online poker. The argument is that the player pool is significantly weaker, so your edge will be larger. For this reason, you can be a bit more aggressive with your bankroll management if you’re a live player.
No matter how much you enjoy poker, if you have to play it full time, you may begin to get tired of it. This is true for both online or live poker.
A casino can become a noxious environment when you spend all your time there, and the pace of play can be frustrating. Likewise, sitting in front of a computer making 1000s of micro-decisions all day is exhausting.
However, like most things, you’ll find your passion for poker may ebb and flow. If you feel like it’s beginning to ebb, it’s a good idea to stay away from the felt for a few days. Often you’ll find that when you return you’re back to your usual self and enjoy poker more than ever.
We hope that you’ve got to the end of this article feeling enlightened about the perks and perils of professional poker.
If you’re still unsure, don’t worry: it doesn’t have to be a snap decision. Try increasing how much you play and see how you feel. If you’re still not sure, just keep playing as a hobby.
After all, poker doesn’t need to be all-consuming. It can still be rewarding – both emotionally and financially – without being a job.
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