What I Learned Playing Poker Semi-Professionally For 5 Years

by Guest Writer - Published July 7, 2017

professional poker player

[Special shout-out to J. Money for letting me bring you guys today’s guest post. While playing poker semi-professionally for nearly 5 years (while I should have been studying) I learned a ton about money – a lot of which is still applicable to non-poker players. Hope you guys enjoy my story!]

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Given the stigma around gambling, it’s pretty easy to see why people give me the side-eye whenever I say playing poker was one of the smartest decisions I’ve ever made.

For the longest time I was never really comfortable even talking about it. It was disheartening to see the game I enjoyed so heavily criticized by so many people.

During a 5 year run from 2006-2011 I was able to amass over six-figures in earnings by grinding cash games online (grinding is a slang poker term used to describe players who use risk-averse methods to churn out a slow, steady profit).

Not bad for a kid trying to double as a college student!

If it weren’t for one fateful day in April of 2011 (while still in college at Virginia Tech), I’d probably be off playing poker professionally somewhere outside of the United States – but more on that later.

And while the income I was able to earn was a definite perk, it’s more what I learned about money while playing poker that will benefit me in the long run. From acquiring extreme discipline, to learning to respect money, to having a better awareness of my own health, playing online poker for those few years highlighted personal strengths that I’ll forever hold on to.

Most People Just Don’t Get Poker

I never really understood why people constantly lumped Texas Holdem (the form of poker most of you are accustomed to seeing on TV) in with gambling.

“How can they not understand that poker and gambling are nothing alike?,” I’d constantly ask myself.

I guess from the outside it makes sense. You get dealt cards. You shove money in a pot. You cringe when the card you’re looking for never comes. You lie (bluff) when you missed said card.

To the casual observer, that is gambling. You live and die (and win and lose) based on deceit and luck.

Experienced players know, however, that that perception couldn’t be further from the truth…it would be nothing to me to lose a $1,050.00 pot knowing I went in with 16 outs and 2 cards to come on a semi-bluff.

“But Ben, you just lost $457 in one hand. You didn’t even have a pair,” friends would say, totally bewildered.

“Yeah, I know. It happens,” as I sat there thinking “they’ll never get it even if I try to explain it.”

The casual observer just wouldn’t get how pot, implied and reverse implied odds, along with fold equity can all tilt the expected value of a hand into a marginal winner.

A +6.98% EV winner. But hey, that beats slots, right?

Also literally every single other casino game.

It makes me want to cringe every time someone sits down at a game knowing (or not knowing) the expected value (EV) of each and every single hand they play ranges from -0.5% to -27.0% (low house edge games include Baccarat and Blackjack, to Roulette, all the way to Keno on the high side).

That’s gambling.

You’re placing a bet where a house edge exists, for the chance to win some amount of money. Over millions of hands, you’re going to lose. Even with perfect strategy. Insanity.

Poker players live and die to make those +6.98% (and much smaller) margin decisions time and time again. They obsess over it. At least the good ones anyways.

This isn’t to start a war with those who enjoy table games. To the contrary, opportunity-cost would suggest there is an amount within your budget you can lose and still be allowed to have fun. It is merely to highlight just how extreme someone like me can be when it comes to extracting small money wins time and time again.

You see, poker is unlike every other casino game. While such a house edge still exists in poker (rake), it is singularly one of the only games where a player’s skill has the ability to overcome the house edge over millions of iterations – rule variations aside.

How It All Started

Televised Poker, Texas Hold’em specifically, exploded in the early 2000’s. The mainstream media prominently displayed the WSOP (World Series of Poker) and other high-roller tournaments in prime-time television and viewers couldn’t get enough of it.

That same explosion occurred online as well. Players flocked to the digital felt after a relative poker novice, Chris Moneymaker, won $2,500,000 in his first live poker appearance in 2003. Yeah, that’s 2.5 million dollars on his first try. Must be nice.

“That could be me”, or so a lot of people thought.

Not me, though.

I couldn’t care less about televised poker. I didn’t know a single professional, and had no desire to learn about them.

I was simply tired of losing my $5.00. The $5.00 I would have to spend to play at home with my friends while we were all still in high school. Seriously, I lost like 20 times in a row. The phrase, “You’re always wrong” was so heavily associated with my poker prowess that I could barely stand it.

But I loved playing. And how awesome it was that I could play online, when my friends weren’t around, for that same $5.00!

And So It Went…

For the better part of 5 years I played poker online. It was during that time I realized that learning to play poker was harder than mastering any college class I had ever taken.

Organic chemistry. Physics. A vast array of economics classes.

All a joke. Seriously. Learning the various playing styles, poker theory, and the math behind optimal play made those classes look juvenile.

But that was the part that I found addicting. Just how complex something that seemed so simple, really could be.

I didn’t have time to play large tournaments, some of which can last over 20 hours, but the allure of making money while killing time between classes was too good to pass up (never mind studying).

Cash games provided just that opportunity. You could sit down on multiple tables in just minutes and play several thousand hands in less than an hour.

You wouldn’t believe the bizarre looks I would get at Starbucks when someone would try to sneak a peek over my shoulder as I frantically commandeered 24 open poker tables on my laptop! It never ceased to blow their mind how one could know what was going on in 24 different poker games all at once.

But quick wit, a general understanding of technology (Poker Heads Up Displays for those of you that are familiar) and a strong ability to conduct quick math allowed me to do just that.

Eking out those small marginal wins over and over and over again, millions of times in fact, helped me earn money in a way I never thought possible.

I was paying my own way, and the profit was enough to pay off the over $100,000 in school loans I needed to take out to fund my education.

Good enough for me, I thought. I could get used to this.

And Then It Was All Gone

Consistently cashing out my earnings to pay for school left my “bankroll” on life support for most of my poker career. It prevented me from taking shots at the games highest levels (where you needed the ability to cash flow bigger swings), but I didn’t care.

I was making nearly $100/hr mashing buttons, doing the same thing over and over.

I was consistently playing with sub-optimal bankroll management (in terms of adequate buy-ins available) but my basic skill level allowed me to get away with it.

But on April 15th 2011, everything changed and none of us saw it coming.

Internet poker as we knew it came crumbling down. The Department of Justice had slapped the top honchos of multiple poker websites with what amounted to money laundering charges, and those websites in turn closed off all access to US facing customers.

I got one last check from PokerStars for just shy of $10,000, and that was the end of it.

The DOJ later clarified in December of that same year that playing online poker for money was not illegal, but the damage had already been done. Online poker in the United States had come to a screeching halt for the time being.

That stark reality turned my little money making operation into my own personal heap of ruble. I immediately needed to focus on finishing college, and all of a sudden I needed a “real” job.

What Poker Taught Me About Life and Money

When it was all said and done, I had ended up making almost exactly what I had put in (to school).

Just over $112,000 in loans – just under $112,000 in poker profit. And that’s after paying taxes.

It was a huge burden lifted off my shoulders. One I’ll forever be thankful for. Aside from finishing up payments on my recent car purchase, I’m currently debt free.

There are a lot of lessons here though, that will benefit anyone regardless of their love (or hate) of poker.

#1. You have to be extremely disciplined

Like “NNNobodYYY” shared in J’s Confessions of an Online Poker Player here years ago, playing poker is mentally exhausting. So too is being disciplined with your money. You constantly have to make decisions with no one around to hold you accountable.

You overspend on things you wanted, but didn’t really need. You buy things for people because you truly enjoy the feeling it brings when you see that look on their face, but you can’t really afford it.

If you’re one of these people, try seeking out an extra form of accountability. With poker I’d publicly post big hands I had lost and seek feedback from others. I’d post earnings/losses from sessions in full transparency – it helped because I wanted to be proud of the decisions I made at the table.

J. Money sought out that same transparency when he created Budgets Are Sexy and it has allowed him to document his net worth every month for everyone to see. Others, maybe even you, seek financial apps to help track your own finances down to the penny, such as Personal Capital – a tool I also highly recommend. (Related: Why I Use Personal Capital Almost Every Single Day – A Real Life Review)

Try talking to others about money. Surround yourself with people that have good money habits and who don’t pressure you into making unwise spending choices. Find a good role model and learn from them!

#2. Every little bit counts

In poker, I literally obsessed over making the most +EV decision at all times (positive expected value or outcome of a situation). That has carried over to my daily spending habits in a huge way.

I cannot stand the thought of wasting money, and it’s a feeling I hope never goes away.

I’m not obsessed with minimalism and I don’t even coupon or any of that stuff, but I do have a strong aversion to making decisions that I know are not in my financial best interest. It’s that sort of attitude, perhaps ironically, that allows me to save for the purchases in life that I do enjoy (e.g. vacationing and/or stuff for my car- my other guilty pleasure).

To make every little bit count, start by reducing frivolous spending in your routine and make your hard earned dollars go further. Even something as simple as dumping your extra change in a jar at the end of the day adds up nicely! It’s how I actually paid for my last cruise. (You can also be lazy these days, and have automated robots save or invest your spare change away as you go about your business too – whatever it takes)

#3. Being healthy matters

Sitting at a poker table, either in person or online, for long periods of time is extremely unhealthy. Your physical state directly correlates to your mental ability.

Even the best poker players experience intense periods of stress. So too do people with poor spending habits!

How do

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

all sound?

Not too good.

Fortunately, my love for poker also extended to the gym. It helped keep me awake and mentally sharp (think endorphins) while allowing me to withstand the physical “demands” of having to sit in one place for stupidly long periods of time.

By practicing good money habits you eliminate a stress point in your life. Your body will thank you for it. As will your wallet. Hospital bills and doctor visits are incredibly expensive – why not avoid them all together? Preventive maintenance is the best medicine.

#4. You have to respect your money

I’m not here to guilt you into not spending. Okay, well maybe I’m here a little bit to guilt you into not spending.

But really, not everyone is in a position to spend freely without a care in the world. Prioritize what is important to you and cut out what isn’t necessary. Spend where it matters – save where it makes sense to save. If you could salvage $57.31/month by cutting out a Caramel Macchiato every 3 days then do it. If you’re not making ends meet each month it is this sort of sacrifice that could put you over the top. Little, repetitive purchases like this really cut into your bottom line without you even noticing it.

Look past the $40.00 tank of gas. Look past the $35.00 water bill. What are you spending less than $10.00 on? Those are the purchases that will be the death of you because you barely even notice them. You’re shooting yourself in the foot without even realizing it.

#5. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

Ah yes, the hardest lesson of all. You don’t put all your eggs in one basket. You just don’t do it.

I almost made the decision to quit school and play poker full time. Now that would have been a sick beat. Could I have made it post April 2011…? Maybe. I’ll likely never know, and that’s okay.

Your financial life shouldn’t be any different.

Take on risk where it makes sense to take on risk, but don’t go chasing after huge paydays.

  • Should you take on high-risk investments when you’re still in debt? Probably not.
  • Should you burn through thousands a year on scratch-off tickets. Nope.
  • Should you spend money freely banking on your tax-return coming soon? Negative.

The growth of credit has made it easier than ever to spend now, worry about it later. And that’s a terrifying habit to get into.

A scary fact of life is that you don’t always know what’s going to happen.

But that’s okay. Be smart. Be prepared. Have an emergency fund for when things get tight, and don’t always assume that the money will always be there. Tilt the odds!

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Outside of his recreational poker playing activities, Ben writes for the finance blogs Breaking the One Percent and VTX Capital. When he’s not busy at the gym or getting yelled at on the job (registered nurse), he enjoys sharing with others on how to make and save more money.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lance @ My Strategic Dollar July 7, 2017 at 7:37 am

Love this! I’ve never been much of a Poker player, but I appreciate the aspects that make this game challenging. As you outlined, being disciplined, taking advantage of every little bit, taking necessary risks. You’re totally right it sounds a lot like the game of personal finances.

Thanks for sharing. I appreciate the perspective.

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2 Gene Roberts July 7, 2017 at 8:01 am

Very interesting article. “Grinding” sounds grueling. I would think that you could add “carpal tunnel” to your list.
I played for fun some a few years ago. (not on a money site) I never really got into it.
My brother on the other hand, fancies himself a great poker player. However, he doesn’t have the math skills or smarts to do what you can do.
Several years ago, he was awarded a settlement from an accident of just under $250k. At the time, this was significantly more than my net worth. I tried to get him to invest it legitimately. I say “legitimately” because his idea of “invest” was to travel around to big $$$ poker tournaments and systematically flush every last cent down the toilet. Every loss was just one more bit of education that would eventually enable him to triumph.
After about 6 months, he was again penniless. It almost made me physically ill to see him do that. These days, he is still a hairs-breadth away from being homeless. You can’t just help some people.
This is not to denigrate your history with poker in any way. But watching what it did to my brother made an impact on my view.

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3 Ben @ Breaking The One Percent July 7, 2017 at 12:01 pm

Yeah, a sad reality of gambling is some people don’t have an off switch (and have no business ever setting foot into such a facility).

People often have their own personal vice and a sudden influx of cash is not something they’re accustomed to having (e.g. such a large percentage of lottery winners filing for bankruptcy within just a few years is winning).

Whether its material items (or large poker tournaments) the sudden availability of seemingly endless cash is not something they’re ready for – and then it’s gone.

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4 J. Money July 10, 2017 at 6:43 am

ACK!!! That $250k would be worth soooooo much right now! Could have probably retired on it after a while :(

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5 Chris @ Duke of Dollars July 7, 2017 at 8:24 am

My father loved playing poker on the weekends – nice way for him to relax and make money. He had charts of hands, odds, and color coded sheets. He took it serious like you!

I’m very much with you in that poker is different than gambling, although not everyone is as successful at making money with it as you were. There are many people who don’t learn the math and odds, ending with ruin instead of money. Kudos to you!!

The main reason I have trouble playing poker these days is that people work very hard for their money, me included, and although everyone at the poker table willingly is risking that money, it is hard for me to still take it from them.

I think the online factor would be easier for me though, it gives the anonymity instead of a poker game with your buddies over the weekend. In my teenage years we played often in the neighborhood, and after once winning around $20 from one of the kids – that night their parents were knocking on our door lol! I think that experience has stuck with me and has made me turn to other side hustles, but man I would have loved to pay off all of my student loans from it – awesome stuff.

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6 Ben @ Breaking The One Percent July 7, 2017 at 12:05 pm

I think playing with friends in high school from purely an enjoyment/competitive standpoint helped alleviate that feeling.

It never felt like we were “taking” money from eachother because we all got so much enjoyment from it that it offset any monetary loss that was involved.

I think the lesson I learned is that there is a budget (or stop loss as we call it in poker) where you can lose money and still have a good time/not regret it later.

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7 Chris @ Duke of Dollars July 9, 2017 at 10:04 pm

Definitely agree – I think another solution for the entertainment poker -> $10 buy-in tournament. Lots of fun with a lot of chips, not much money to lose, but money to gain.

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8 Ms. Frugal Asian Finance July 7, 2017 at 9:14 am

I think the stigma against gambling comes from the fact that it has left so many families in financial ruin and even divorce. I think you have provided a refreshing look at playing poker. And you must have been so good at it to make so much!

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9 Ben @ Breaking The One Percent July 7, 2017 at 12:09 pm

Very true. There’s no denying that many cannot handle/don’t have the discipline to stop when and if they should.

I know for me personally there truly was a very large difference between “gambling” and poker. By employing set strategies I was able to generate a skill set/mathematical approach that churned out a consistent positive outcome.

I also am not a huge fan of gambling in the sense that I am not a huge fan of consistent uncertain outcomes that are mathematically not in my favor.

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10 Mrs. Picky Pincher July 7, 2017 at 9:23 am

So cool! I’m terrible at poker, so it’s neat to see things from someone who’s actually good at it. ;) I do like that you used your earnings to pay for school; not many college students can pay for school with poker!

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11 Ben @ Breaking The One Percent July 7, 2017 at 12:11 pm

For sure! It’s been such a relief. I had way overpaid for college between my time at Virginia Tech and then actually going on to get another bachelors degree so poker definitely helped me afford my education.

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12 The Savvy Couple July 7, 2017 at 9:33 am

Being an avid poker player in high school and college this was an awesome guest post. Really awesome to get a different perspective on things.

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13 Ben @ Breaking The One Percent July 7, 2017 at 12:12 pm

At the peak of the poker boom my college had a poker club with hundreds of active attendees. It was a good time for sure.

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14 Dads Dollars Debts July 7, 2017 at 10:18 am

I love playing poker also (though never did it semi-professionally). Some sons and fathers fix cars, I play poker with my dad. In fact, when I was looking to move to California one of the pros was that there was a casino 15 minutes away. I only go when my dad visits (maybe 3 times a year) and we sit down and play Hold Em for 4 to 5 hours. It is awesome and a great bonding time.

I am an okay player until I get tired. As you said it is exhausting. As the night drags on and I notice myself loosing hands I often get up and leave. The same can be applied to persona finance. If you are making bad money choices, you may be fatigued and just need a break. That is okay and definitely cheaper then just blowing through the cash.

Thanks for sharing your story!

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15 Ben @ Breaking The One Percent July 7, 2017 at 12:16 pm

Thanks DDD!

Knowing when you’re too physically/mentally beat to keep playing is something that few/any poker players ever really get a grip on. Even the best players can typically pick a spot during they’re session where sub optimal plays crept in.

Can’t quite get my dad to play poker but occasionally I’ll whoop him in rummy

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16 J. Money July 10, 2017 at 6:45 am

Haha… I love me some rummy too.

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17 Brian July 7, 2017 at 10:46 am

I enjoyed playing poker online back in college too. I never made the money you did, but I made enough to cover my tabs and have left over money. In the end, I realized, I didn’t have the mental toughness to grind so many tables for the long term so I quit playing.

That is awesome that you were pretty much able to fund college by playing poker. Maybe I missed it, but do you ever go into a casino and play live games these days?

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18 Ben @ Breaking The One Percent July 7, 2017 at 12:19 pm

Yep! That’s actually about all I do in terms of playing poker anymore (I go up to Maryland Live! up in Baltimore and that’s the closest decent poker room at just under 5 hours away ).

Fortunately my skill set hasn’t diminished/the learning curve hasn’t surpassed me yet so I could probably beat live cash games up to 2500NL fairly comfortably

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19 Adriana @MoneyJourney July 7, 2017 at 3:00 pm

Great post :)

I’ve actually played quite a bit of poker, both Texas hold’em as well as 5 card draw. I learned it’s indeed, not gambling, although luck has a little something to do with it.

I’ve only played with my boyfriend though (and nope, never bet on clothes :D hahah!) but I agree there are lessons to be learned from playing this game.

I also love your conclusion about respecting your money. So many people take their income fro granted these days..

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20 J. Money July 10, 2017 at 6:48 am

I was just about to ask you about those clothes ;)

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21 Mr. TYMP July 7, 2017 at 5:24 pm

Just goes to show that there are opportunities out there of you work hard enough. Props to maintaining grueling, sometimes mind-numbing work while college-ing, most people complain about handling a full course load and working 8hrs/week waiting tables.

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22 Ben @ Breaking The One Percent July 8, 2017 at 2:40 pm

Thanks Mr. T.!

And yeah, I learned way more than just the 5 things I included in this article and time management/prioritizing was definitely one of those lessons.

I like to think of myself as somewhat of a go-getter. We all have time to work, be with family, work out and accomplish what we want in life. Sometimes its “stressful” to get it all done but the feeling of accomplishment you get in the end is so worth it.

Cheers!

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23 Mike B. July 8, 2017 at 11:33 am

Great perspective on Texas Hold’em. Fondly remember those days when the game exploded onto the scene. Had a buddy who took to it semi-professionally too. Couldn’t agree more with the idea that surrounding yourself with financially responsible people is the way to go. And (this applies) no matter how you make a living, which is why we read PF blogs after all right?

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24 Ben @ Breaking The One Percent July 8, 2017 at 2:37 pm

For sure!

The more you know, the more accountability you create for yourself.

Even if you’re unable to surround yourself with smart decision makers, by practicing what you preach (from time to time) you’re setting yourself up for success/your conscious guilts you into making smart decisions from time to time. (:

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25 [email protected] July 11, 2017 at 1:06 am

Never done this myself – I’m a compulsive gambler and this places limitation on how I can earn my money. My trainer, though, paid for his university degree playing poker and still does it on weekends. It seems to me that the boundaries between gambling, investing and ‘legit’ money making are very blurred. Poker and FX trading can be gambling when people rely on more luck than quick thinking and understanding probabilities and trends. Conversely, poker playing and FX can be investing when two rules are followed: make sure that your understand ‘the game’ well enough to have some control over the outcome and make sure that the win to loss ratio is approx 5 to one (in which case you can lose approximately 40% of the time and still make profit). Just my two pennies :).

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26 J. Money July 13, 2017 at 7:18 am

I never knew you were a gambler! Always surprising me over there :)

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27 Peter July 12, 2017 at 3:50 am

Agree on the gambling misconception. Back at the University years (the rising time of online poker), I was considering to go all in mastering this game. But when I dug deeper, started to read about it and the true complexity was revealed I assumed it would take about six months of pure learning just to getting started to play on a “scientific” way and decided not to do that. However, it is haunting me to present days “what if”. Somehow I feel that maybe I would be further with my finances, but we will never know this. Anyway interesting read, thanks for sharing.

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28 J. Money July 13, 2017 at 7:19 am

Maybe you can dive into cryptocurrency or other exotic investing ideas to solve future what ifs? :)

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29 Ben @ Breaking The One Percent July 14, 2017 at 11:34 pm

I really can’t say enough about just how complex/hard the game has become.

There is no stake/limit in online poker now a newer player could survive at over any decent sample size of hands (e.g. even limits like .01/.02 have “regs” that know enough about the game that make it somewhat difficult to ascertain high enough win rates to make grinding worth your time).

The widespread availability of information on optimal playing theory (even if incorrectly implemented by poorer players) has made becoming a long-term winner extremely difficult without hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of learning/practicing/critiquing and repeating ad nauseam. It’s though to play online nowadays.

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