Should You Consider Playing Poker Professionally?
A reader recently wrote to me and asked, “What advice would you give a young person (mid 20's blue-collar job) who is considering becoming a full-time professional poker player? What is a proper bankroll? $10-$20 is my target game.” Because this question is one that a great many successful amateur poker players consider, I think the answer is worth a main page article.
With a few exceptions for exceptionally talented people, I think "professional poker player" is a great second job and a lousy first job. By that I mean that a good player can and will make money, but there are a lot of lifestyle issues and financial issues that make it tough without some other means of support or a serious nest egg sitting somewhere for back-up.
Mason Malmuth usually cites 300 big bets as an adequate bankroll for a winning player (no bankroll is sufficient for a losing player, of course, because the money all goes away!), and that number seems reasonable to me. So to play 10-20 full time, you'd need $6,000 in your POKER bankroll, money that you aren't going to touch for the rent or other expenses.
10-20 IS PROBABLY TOO LOW A LIMIT
10-20 is the absolute rock bottom limit someone can play to support himself in any sort of reasonable lifestyle. Even 15-30 is probably too low if poker is your only job. It's not that you can't beat a 6-12 game, you can. You just can't make enough money to make it worth the number of hours you have to put into it. The rake and/or time charge tends to be too big a percentage of the pot in lower games.
At 10-20, a truly great player might be able to average two big bets an hour. No offense intended, but if you're asking this question, you probably haven't hung around enough truly great players to know if you belong in that category, or even if you have the potential to reach that category.
Even if you have been having a good long winning run at the 10-20 level (say, six months of regular play), that's not necessarily enough time for the "long run" to set in. It's probably more realistic to hope that you can make one big bet an hour, and a $20 an hour job, with no benefits (health insurance, paid vacation, retirement, etc.) isn't such a terrific job. Figuring a 40 hour week, that's 40k gross a year, before all the taxes and living expenses. That doesn’t leave much room to handle unexpected expenses or savings in that budget. Most players who play for a living need to play at higher limits, and the opposition at higher limits is tougher.
YOUR CAREER PATH
Is there “opportunity for advancement” in this new career? Certainly if you turn out to be a great player, you can wind up making more than $40,000 per year. The hard reality is that very few players have the talent and the emotional self control to win more than that.
Here’s an analogy for you. Should a good high school basketball player ignore his college classes in order to focus entirely on basketball, in the hope of making it in the NBA? I’m not talking about one of those high school superstars who get drafted in the first round. I’m talking about someone who is the second best player on a good high school team, and who winds up as a non-scholarship player at a small school. This kind of player is certainly a talented basketball player, far above average when you consider the general population, yet the odds against him making it in the NBA are huge. Even the odds against him making it in the CBA or the European professional leagues are huge.
I think the odds of the typical good amateur poker player making it as a well-paid professional poker player aren’t all that different. In the vast majority of cases, the good high school player, IF he decides to stick with basketball, will be doing well if he can land a job as an assistant coach in a college program or perhaps as a high school coach. In the poker world, the good amateur player will probably be doing much better than average if he manages to eke out a living working as a prop or a dealer.
ONE BIG BET AN HOUR ISN’T EASY
Getting back to poker, even winning one big bet per hour is MUCH harder than most people think. Occasional losing sessions destroy good hourly rates pretty fast. You might have three or four sessions where you make 2.5 big bets an hour rather easily, but after losing in session #5, you find your net rate is only 0.7 big bets an hour. If you run bad for a few weeks, as even the best players often do, you might suddenly find your hourly rate is only 0.2 big bets an hour, and that’s scary and pressure-packed without another means of support.
If you are really serious, I would suggest you play as a part-time professional for a while, at least a year, to see how you like the lifestyle, and to see, with accurately kept records, how good your performance is. You need to be brutally honest with yourself about your vulnerability to going on tilt, your expertise and mistakes you make and repeat, and the quality of your opposition.
I believe that anyone who is truly capable of making a living as a professional poker player is CAPABLE of making a better living doing something else, although the choice to play professionally isn't necessarily a bad one if you like the lifestyle. But the lifestyle is a good deal less glamorous, and a good deal harder on one's health, than you're likely to see from the outside, which is why I recommend not diving in headfirst.
If, after a year or so of playing lots of part-time hours, you find that you win at an acceptable hourly rate, and that you like spending lots of hours hanging around with other poker players, you can think about making the move. It may seem glamorous to you, but you may find many women fleeing when they hear you are a professional gambler. Your conversations with (and observations of) other pros will also teach you a lot about the lifestyle.
A lot depends on what you are giving up to make the move. You say you are a blue collar worker, but that could mean lots of things. Some blue collar jobs pay very well and aren't easy to return to once you leave; others pay poorly and someone willing to work them can always find work in that industry. If you are thinking about moving away from a locale where you have family and friends to try your luck in Atlantic City, LA, or Las Vegas, you're giving up quite a lot.
A lot of people think about playing professionally when they are having a good run; I know, I was one of them. I like playing as a second job, but I did not like playing when poker was my sole source of support. There are a lot of players capable of handling a good run and making lots of money. What separates the successful pros from the 99+% of other players and wanna-be pros is there ability to handle themselves when things aren't running so well, and I assure you, no matter how talented you are, that time will come... and go... and come... and go. You need a lot of mental toughness to make it in the poker world. There's a lot more involved than playing cards well.
My best advice for someone considering leaving the working world to be a full-time professional poker player? Don’t. Just like in basketball, only people who have been hugely successful as “amateurs” have a realistic chance to make a great living at it.
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