This is a guest post from an Anonymous Professional Poker Player (sexy!). Update: Part 2 is now live.
There is an old saying, “Poker is the hardest way to make an easy living.” After playing full-time poker for 4 years, I can’t think of a better statement to describe it. There are obvious benefits to poker: You set your own schedule, you work when you want to work, and your performance is relatively proportional to your income. If you play on the internet, you can work from practically anywhere. Unfortunately, every one of these have a catch.
You can set your own schedule, but over time you’ll realize certain times of day are much more profitable than others. Playing from 10PM to 5am on Friday nights, and 12AM to 5AM on Saturday nights is as profitable as playing 8 hours a day Mon-Thursday. If you want to be successful as a poker player you can set your own schedule, but the hours you want to play won’t necessarily be the hours you want to work.
Poker is difficult, psychologically.
In the long-run when you play well and put in your hours, you will make more money. The actual income that comes out of poker comes in violent swings, though. There are many different systems you can play to try to maximize your return. Note: it is important to devise a system, you cannot play professionally and wander from game to game at various limits-IT DOESN’T WORK. I try to play a system that minimizes swings, but I will get into my own play in my next post (J: this will feature a “day in the life of a poker player” – stay tuned!).
The most miserable feeling in the world is to put in an 8 to 10 hour day working as hard as you possibly can, and then have a week’s worth of salary taken away from you. This makes it hard to relate poker to the real world. At the same time, it is necessary to make this connection on other levels. Anyone who chooses to play professionally will experience $1000+ daily swings, even if you are more of a grinder trying to make $50,000-$100,000 a year. $100 is nothing at the poker table, but when you return to the real world, $100 should be the same to you as anyone else making $50,000-$100,000 annual income. This is hard to relate after a $5,000 up day or even a $5,000 down day because what’s $100 more?
Cash Game players
Online, you can be a cash game player, a sit and go tournament player (SNG player), or a multi-table tournament player (MTT player). I think playing cash games is the best way to make a living as a poker player. Although it’s psychologically tougher than playing tournament style freeze-outs, you can always find a cash game running and it is easy to slowly move up in limits.
Sit and Go players (SNG)
SNG players will eventually find that there isn’t a lot of action at the higher limits, and you can find yourself waiting and competing with other pros for a limited amount of bad players to show up. Often times SNG pros will make the move to cash games after a few years – this is not a bad career path. The toughest thing about being a no limit cash game player is the reality that you can always lose your entire days work in 1 hand. Your money is on the table and you cannot be afraid to put it in. SNG players don’t have this issue because all you can lose at one time is the initial “buy in” for the tournament.
Multi-Table Tournament players (MTT)
The most popular and most fun system is playing multi-table tournaments (MTT), but there is a lot you need to know before embarking on such a life. My first 6 months as a poker player I was a multi-table tournament player. The big draw of MTTs is the chance to win $10,000 – $1,000,000+ in one tournament. There is also prestige surrounding the MTT world. The online poker community tracks tournament players closely (there are tournament leader boards on poker sites themselves, and tournament player rankings on poker blog sites). You can get sponsorships for major events like the World Series of Poker just from making a name for yourself as a top online tournament player! A cash game player who is twice as successful could go completely unnoticed.
The biggest difference between a MTT player and a cash game or SNG player is that while the cash game player is steadily making money, sometimes with down days and down weeks (or even down months), the multi-table tournament player is steadily losing money with huge spikes at random times. A multi-table tourney player is likely to make more than his average annual income in one tournament at some point. You never know when it will come, though. If you look at the graphs of top MTT players, they make all their annual income over the course of a handful of tournaments, an amount that makes for less than 0.5% of the total tournaments that they play.
You can go months, slowly losing money as an MTT player and be playing flawless poker. This can affect your sanity: when poker becomes your sole source of income and you go months without making any income, you start to question if you can succeed. This is the nature of tournament poker, they have massive fields and you are not going to make any real money if you aren’t finishing in the top 3 (very rare for any player). The biggest problem I had as a MTT player was the schedule. All the tournaments overlapped, so the day was very long. MTT poker takes less focus on an individual table than any other form, so you want to be playing a bare minimum of 6 tournaments at once. Really, with an ideal dual monitor setup, you should keep joining tournaments with optimal structure and maintain 12 tables at a time. This sounds difficult, but MTT poker is actually less stressful and more fun because you never lose a lot at once and you come in expecting to lose so all the big swings are upswings.
The problem is 6 hour days turn into 14 hour or even 20 hour days, without breaks for meals or even using the bathroom, without taking a laptop with you. MTTs take a minimum of 4 hours to get to the end, if you end up lasting that long, but it is foolish to only sit 1 table at a time so you never hit the end of your day until you make the decision to stop joining more tournaments. Cash game players can sit out whenever they want and not lose out as a result; this allows for a better lifestyle. I try to exercise every day and eat healthy meals., but as a MTT player this is almost impossible. You’d have to pre-make your meals and get everything done before you start playing each day because you just never know when you’ll finish.
Most everyone who decides to play poker full-time has ambitions of winning a World Series Bracelet and making a million dollars. I, myself, normally go to Vegas in June-July for the WSOP events. I bring about $10,000 and lose it every year, then go back home and get to work online again; even with my lack of success I enjoy the vacation and the break from monotonous online play.
Poker can become a grind.
This year I skipped the WSOP and bought a house. The grind becomes so boring after a while, that it’s easy to forget why I am even doing it. Moving up in limits, shots at the Series or World Poker Tour events–that is the fun part of the job. The chance of winning big is the fun of poker; otherwise it becomes the same grind of any other job, without the guaranteed income and health insurance. Not all poker players feel this way. I know a live cash game pro who never has any desire to take a shot at anything and only moves up in limits when it is mathematically sensible. This type of mentality is built to succeed as a poker player, but usually the type of person with that kind of mindset is not the person who aspires to play poker in the first place.
I also know people that are taking so many shots with their money, they waste all their income trying to get on TV or win the big tournament and sometimes they do win it, but then they put all that money on the line again, going for the even bigger shot. That type of mindset will kill you.
Poker gives you freedom
What you get as a poker player is total freedom. Freedom to gamble, to take your shots, to work from anywhere, and to not work when you don’t feel like working. If you don’t have discipline though, you’ll fail – plain and simple. You also need to recognize when you’re tired at the table, when your mind isn’t focused right and get up and quit, even if you don’t want to. You can’t show up to work tired and hung over and half-ass it in poker, it will cost you.
Poker can be very rewarding, but if you are thinking of playing professionally you have to know it is a job, it has to be taken seriously, and it will stop being fun (J: perhaps like blogging full-time?). My favorite part of the job is waking up when I naturally wake up in the morning (afternoon), having no commute, and not having to answer to anyone else.
J: I know this was pretty long, but I hope you enjoyed it! As a guy, the thought of playing poker full-time is incredibly fascinating (and is one of my top 5 dream jobs!). Stay tuned for part 2 when we learn the “day in the life of” a professional poker player. That’s when we’ll *really* see what it’s like!
This Series in the news:
– MSN Smart Spending: Secrets of an online poker player
– 2+2 Poker Forums: Confessions of an online poker player