No matter how well paid or how highly respected we are, from the cubicle to the corner office to the board room, we were all young once. We all dreamed of having a really cool lifestyle. The lynch-pin in our plan to hike the Himalayas, to take a weekend on the French coast, and to just generally impress everyone we met, was a really cool, well-paying job. The Cool-List is dedicated to those jobs, the sort of jobs where the answer to, “And what is it you do?” raises eyebrows and elicits admiration, and likely more than a little envy. The real reward for having a cool job, though, is the age old axiom that the happiest person is the one who gets paid to do what they love.
So, with this series about jobs that are likely to elicit a “wow!” from the other patrons at the martini bar, as well as have you happy to head to the office on a daily basis (or the jungle, the rig, the beach, the streets) and make a good living doing it, it makes sense that one of the entries covers something that most people wouldn’t consider a job at all: being a professional poker player.
Playing poker for a living is gambling with a lowercase g. People in the know compare playing poker to playing the stock market, and they’re right. The difference is that every hand of poker has enough information for a masterful player to know exactly the mathematical chance he has of making or losing money. While playing the stock market can be a stab in the dark, playing top set vs. a straight draw is a guaranteed 75% chance to win. The theory that the pros put into practice to build their bank accounts is that by always making statistically “+Expected Value” decisions, they will end up ahead, maximizing their wins and weathering the inevitable losses.
What is playing poker professionally really like? Read on.
Gambling With a Lowercase G
Many poker players will tell you that playing poker is not gambling. The smart ones, however, will never say this. When a poker player tells you that poker isn’t gambling they mean one of two things: “Poker is a game of skill,” or, “You can make money at it long term with less risk than playing dice.” Both of these statements are true, but ask any poker player about their bad beats and they’ll tell you about the time they got half of their bankroll into the pot with a 98% chance to win and the one card that could beat them came. Make no mistake, poker is gambling. You can lose no matter how good you are, no matter how strong the odds are in your favor. But people do make a living playing poker, and many recreational players strive to.
Poker is the one popular game where you can control the odds to some degree. You do have the option to only wager money in the middle when you can reasonably expect to win. This means, for serious poker players, studying takes up a huge amount of preparation time.
Around the early 1980s, private computers started becoming more available, and poker players famous for making their money on smart plays realized that they could calculate their odds to a much greater degree of accuracy. The ancient wisdom, “Never draw to an inside straight,” became antiquated when you learned that with enough money in the pot, it can actually pay to occasionally do just that.
Recognizing potentially profitable situations and exploiting them is how a profitable player makes money. Doing that requires more time studying away from the tables than is spent playing, and that’s why today’s winning poker players are young, bookworm-ish, studious types you’d expect to find at a web design firm and a far cry from the smoke-stained, cowboy hat-sporting gamblers of yesteryear.
Every good poker players knows that you can’t win what you don’t risk. They also know you can’t lose what you don’t risk. The two types of poker players can be summed up by which of those two statements they prefer to live by. The best usually fall somewhere in the middle.
Truly professional players don’t take big risks. They set an hourly rate that they believe they can earn based upon the size of the game and endeavor to meet or beat that amount on average over a period of time. Some players – the greats you hear about making millions in a night – do wager more than is reasonable, trying to hit it big and buy their next luxury car in a single night. For each one that succeeds there are twenty who don’t, while the grinders keep at it day after day until they have enough to move up to a bigger game.
The amount each player aims to make varies, but a good win rate can be anywhere from $20-$50 an hour at typical live casino games. This doesn’t mean a pro expects to sit down for three hours and see $60 – $150, it means that at the end of the month they expect the average amount of money earned divided by the hours spent at the table is in that range. Some days are winners and some losers, and riding the waves takes fortitude. That’s why it’s called grinding. Just like any other hourly job, poker is a grind. The difference is that the more you have, the more you can wager, and the higher your hourly can be.
From the lowest limit player to the biggest baller, it’s every poker player’s dream to get their roll big enough to move up stakes – but true poker players fold a lot more hands than they play. The most important virtue for a poker player is patience and, let’s face it, no one gets into gambling because they’ve got the patience of a saint. The game isn’t big betting Cadillac dreams, it’s a slow climb. The big-bet million dollar bluffs are usually reserved for the movies.
Heading To The Office
Your office is either a laptop, a casino, a bar, or all three. Wherever there is a game with fewer grinders than gamblers, you’ve got an office, and they tend to be relaxing, fun, social places with drinks and jokes and an atmosphere you can really enjoy. Your job is to sit, think, analyze, and make your own money without anyone telling you what to do. Even better, when a pro is making money, they can set their own hours and even at the lowest stakes, the work to pay ratio just can’t be beat.
A typical working day in the life of a pro poker player will begin around noon with a wake-up and some studying. After that, they’ll check the online tables and their smartphone app of choice to see how many tables each local casino has going at the moment, and head to their laptop or whichever casino has the best table selection at the moment. For a live player, this usually means getting to the game after the recreational players get off work. Then it’s a matter of the grind described above.
First they sit at their table of choice and, if they are wise, watch the table for fifteen to twenty minutes before playing a single hand. This observation will determine the play style of the table and consequently the play style the pro adopts.
How long they play, how many hands per hour, and how many breaks they take is all a matter of personal style. They’ll try to take command of the table, or sit back and get a really big hand and collect an entire day’s winnings at once. Some players will sit for a set number of hours per day (4 – 6 is not atypical) and some will stay as long as it takes to ‘make their day.’ The best players stay as long as they are making the right moves and playing their A game, and leave the moment they realize they are making poor choices.
Once they leave the table they will review their play for the day either by taking notes, discussing with other pros, entering their hands into equity calculators, or all of the above. The learning curve for poker defies traditional learning – the game is random, after all – and so identifying their irrational biases and the ‘leaks’ in their game takes up a lot of time. The never-ending goal of the true pro is not simply to make money, but to make the most money in any given situation. Sometimes, that just means losing the least.
After the studying is done, it’s time for the player to relax, and then begin again the next day.
It only sounds like it’s comparable to any other late shift day to day job because it is. But it’s not the nature of the work that attracts many professional poker players; it’s the fact that any card table anywhere in the world is a source of potential money – a lot of money at times – and all the freedom that affords. The other attractive feature is that you are paid in cash, right away, for every correct decision you make.
The dark side of the poker pro’s life is that no matter how antagonistic you may think your office is, the poker table is truly a battleground. Everyone else at that table wants each others’ money and it’s the pro’s job to protect it, while simultaneously using it as ammunition to get everyone else’s. It’s a zero-sum game where every dollar won comes from another player. Furthermore, one can only take what another voluntarily gives. Playing poker well is an exercise in deception second only to running a con game.
Who Are Professional Poker Players – And Should I Become One?
Every dollar the pro won yesterday comes from someone they’re likely to see again today. It may come from a pensioner, a degenerate gambler, another pro, or a rich businessman – whoever it comes from, they were trying to take it from the pro. And sometimes they did. The pro must be competitive and aggressive to the point of ruthlessness, but more than anything else the pro must be studious and courageous.
Studious enough to know when to risk their money, and courageous enough to do it, the professional poker player is intelligent, analytical, fiercely independent, and above all patient, disciplined, and sober.
If you think you may want to become a professional poker player… you can easily start yourself on that path. There is no degree necessary, and millions of people around the world eager to give you a very expensive education the moment you let them. If you want to be a winning professional poker prepare to study, study, study, and throw away all your preconceived notions about how to play.
Learn the math behind every hand and situation you are likely to encounter. Subscribe to poker forums and participate in conversations. Realize you are a fish and learn to take criticism. Learn to divorce your emotions from your game. Prepare to make all the right decisions and lose money, the wrong decisions and win money, and don’t let that bias you at all.
The best place to get started, if you live where it is legal, is to play online for very little money and get a feel for the game and its players. When you find you are profitable over time you can move up stakes and may end up supplementing your regular income. After several years, with a ton of discipline, you may be able to make a living solely from playing poker.