10 considerations to ponder before becoming a poker pro
If you’re like most of the people that have decided mull over the decision on whether or not to become a poker pro you have probably been doing things like: beating the game for a while, keeping meticulous records, studying and improving your game, as well as having a game-plan laid out as to what games you intend to play and what the likely outcomes (win rates) will be. After all, a goal without a plan is nothing more than a dream, and you my friend have a well-thought-out plan! Or do you?
The reason I say this is because, if you are like most people you have probably overlooked some major factors that should go into your decision-making process when it comes to making the plunge into the deep-end of the pool, and trying to make a living as a poker player. In this article I’ll take a look at some of the factors that aspiring poker players fail to take into account when making what is likely the most important poker-related decision of their lives: Do I have what it takes to be a poker pro?
Some of these lessons were explained to me before I took the chance on a life of poker back in the early 2000’s, and some I unfortunately had to learn the hard way. Hopefully by reading this article you’ll be able to avoid some of the pitfalls I, and many other poker players, have suffered through.
Are you a Specialist?
If you are thinking about going pro, one thing you definitely need to consider is the availability of games. While the Internet has given poker players a plethora of options to choose from, we have also seen in recent times (Black Friday) that these options can disappear overnight, and not everyone is cut out for online poker. This is why it’s crucial that you have several options when it comes to game selection.
The more games you know, the better your chances of not only finding a game, but finding a “good” game, are. A player who dominates in Limit Omaha 8 or better may have an incredible win rate, but the chances of this player putting in the number of quality hours at the poker tables is pretty slim –Omaha 8 games do not always run, and when they do it often takes until later in the evening before the poor players start venturing into the game; leaving you battling four or five nits for most of the day.
For players who specialize in No Limit Holdem this will not be quite as important, but as anyone who has visited a busy casino on a weekend can attest to, sometimes the chances of you getting into one of the “good” games could take precious hours, as you are at the mercy of long wait-lists and must-move games!
There is also a second reason why knowing more than one game can be critical. This second reason is to simply break-up the monotony of playing the same game over-and-over, day-in and day-out. Having the capability of taking a week off from your bread-and-butter game without losing too much of your edge can be a mental lifesaver!
For these reason I would implore any player considering going pro to make sure they are grounded in at least two other forms of poker other than their main game.
The REAL Bankroll Requirements
If you think the bankroll you have been using as semi-pro poker player is sufficient than you are likely overestimating your own skills and the swinginess of poker. So, unless you are one of those ultra-conservative poker players, playing $25 buy-in games with a $5,000 bankroll, your bankroll is likely not sufficient to become a poker pro.
For most poker players the ability to move down in stakes allows them to play the game with far less of a bankroll than a pro would need. The reason for this is quite simple, unless your winnings easily cover your living expenses, and your lifestyle, moving down is not as seamless a move as it is for a player supplementing their 9-5 job’s income at the poker tables.
A drop down in stakes means you have dropped down in the amount of money you can earn –it’s like a demotion at work! This isn’t a temporary demotion until your bankroll is rebuilt like a semi-pro player. Because of this a professional poker player needs to have a professional-sized bankroll (Super-Sized if you will); something that can withstand a major hit and still allows you to be able to stay at your current stakes. Moving down is NOT in the best interest of a poker pro.
Basically, if you think you are not going to suffer a horrid losing streak (see some of the other entries on this list) you are in for a big surprise when that first three-month losing streak rears its ugly head! Now a player used to bouncing up and down limits based on how they’re running (usually never possessing more than 20 buy-ins at any stakes they typically play) is going to have a terrible time if they find themselves down five or six buy-ins, followed by a couple months of breaking even –basically they will have to drop-down in limits, and stay there for a very, very long time while they try to end their break-even streak.
On the flipside, a player who is sitting on 60-buy-ins can not only weather this storm with very little stress, but could weather a storm far, far, worse!
What are the hidden costs?
Understanding the hidden costs of the game is especially important for live poker players, but it also comes into play for online poker players. As with everything else in life, when someone explains how much something will cost (whether it’s a remodel for your house or the costs associated with being a professional poker player) add about 25%-30%!
If you’re a live poker player you have to think about the amount of money you are losing in rake (usually much higher than online) as well as the amount you pay in tips, but there are also considerations like gas, wear and tear on your car, eating at the casino and so on that need to be calculated. It may not seem like much, but at the end of the month a daily meal at the buffet and a half-hour trip each way can add up to a couple hundred dollars every week.
For instance, I love to explain to new players just how much they are doling out in tips. If you play live poker for 60 hours a week (at a pace of about 25 hands per hour) you are likely winning two tip-worthy pots an hour, or 120 per week. With an average tip of $1 per pot (depending on where you play this amount could be higher or lower) you are losing $2 an hour, or $120 every week, just in tips! If you are a low to mid-limit grinder, making $20-$40 this could very well be 5%-10% of your hourly income; it’s not life altering money, but it isn’t chicken-feed either.
Don’t forget, that those free drinks and waters come with a tip attached as well, so you very well could be shelling out another $5 each day in tips of this sort; putting our total tip expenditures for the week at about $150.
Now, even if you’re a thrifty person who takes the time to plan your meals and such, when you throw in the occasional meal or snack at the casino, your tips, gas money, and an occasional impulse purchase or bet, you can see how the expenses for a professional poker can quickly add-up.
This doesn’t only apply to live poker players either: Online (and live) poker players often overlook purchases like PokerTracker, Sharkscope and other subscriptions, books and other training tools, and even the need for a larger monitor or an upgraded computer system. All of these things are business expenses for a poker player –which should also be factored in at tax time, but that’s a different discussion! These expenses are typically overlooked because they are small payments or one-time costs, but over the course of the year don’t be surprised if a few thousand dollars is spent on these items.
You may not even realize it because the bills come in monthly (usually deducted automatically) but these things are most definitely an expense. You could be ponying-up $100 every month for a subscription to an online poker training site, Sharkscope, or some other data-mining site. Then there are the one-time fees for PokerTracker, the sign-up fee for an online training site, the purchase of a poker book, etc. Before you know it you’re shelling out as much money every month as a live poker player!
There is one other major factor for some players: Health Insurance. You have to realize that as a poker player you will need to purchase your own health insurance which could run you hundreds to thousands of dollars a month (based on what type of coverage you want and whether or not you have a family).
Are you prepared for the inevitable downswing?
If you’ve made the calculations and found that your win-rate can support your lifestyle, and your bankroll is large enough to give you some wiggle room, the next thing you need to figure out is whether you have enough money in reserve to deal with any downswings you suffer: This is IN ADDITION TO YOUR BANKROLL.
Throughout this article you will find numerous references to “downswings”, the reason it is mentioned so often is simple: They happen! And when they do happen you had best be prepared for them, both financially and mentally.
Bankrolls can deal with downswings at the tables by keeping you from going broke (if you have 40 buy-ins in your bankroll and go on a 12 buy-in downswing no big deal), but when you are relying on WINNINGS to pay bills a good bankroll is simply not enough. That same 12 buy-in cold-spell could send you spiraling out of control.
In the example of a player going on a 12 buy-in downswing, if they didn’t plan ahead and start a reserve fund, this person will now have to use more of their POKER BANKROLL to pay bills! The 12 buy-in downswing could be 18 after bills are paid. At this point every buy-in becomes sacred (which could cause the player to play “scared”) and even a break-even run could bankrupt this player, since they will have to use a further 6-buy-ins to once again pay bills next month! It’s nothing more than cannibalization of your poker bankroll.
Basically, a 12 buy-in downswing has been turned into a 24 buy-in downswing at this point, and the player will likely have to move down in limits, which means even when things turn around they will be earning less money. Even though the actual losses at the poker tables tallied only 12-buy-ins, after two months this player is in the red 24 buy-ins, simply because they are co-mingling their expenses with their bankroll.
This is why you need a reserve fund, used for living expenses when you are running bad, typically players set aside 3-months to 6-months of living expenses (some conservative types may set aside a full year) so when they do run bad their bankroll doesn’t suffer doubly. Without this reserve fund you are virtually at the mercy of lady luck.
Are You Emotionally Prepared for the Swings?
In addition to being financially prepared for these inevitable downswings, you also have to take into account the emotional stress you will be going through when these swings happen. If I were to throw out a wild guess I would bet that Tilt, and emotional stresses, ends more potential poker careers than any other factor.
Good players can easily find a backer even if they mess up to the point that they bankrupt themselves, but even backers know that “tilty” players are a bad bet in the long-run –it’s fine to back them here and there, but inevitably their deficiencies when it comes to the mental side of poker will always be an issue.
It’s hard to quantify to players who are playing poker for fun, or simply to supplement their income, but for players who have had to earn a living at the poker tables, emotional restraint and the ability to shrug off losses is considered one of the most important skills a player can possess. Poker Theoretician Mike Caro referred to this as the “Law of Least Tilt” back in the day, with a definition that read: Amongst equally skilled players the player who goes on tilt the least will win the money.
This advice is as true today as it was when Caro first stated it. Poker moves really, really, fast; players can go from their last buy-in to millionaires in a single tournament, but the reverse can also happen, especially to “weak-minded” players.
My advice to any poker player thinking about becoming a pro is to play a few sessions above your comfort zone and see how you respond emotionally. Now, I’m not telling you to put 25% of your bankroll on the table, but maybe 5%-10% and see what kind of stress you feel. The reason I say this is because at some points in the early part of your poker career you will likely face similar stresses. If the stress is too much for you, you probably are not ready to go pro, if you are able to comfortably play the game, and make solid decisions like when to quit the game, than you might have what it takes mentally to be a poker pro.
What’s your backup plan?
Before you make the decision to become a professional poker player you have to understand what it is that you are leaving. Now, if you are janitor or work the front desk at a hotel it’s not that big of deal if your poker career doesn’t pan out, since you can likely return to these professions without taking too much of a whack in pay. On the other hand, if you have been with a company for 10 years and quit to play poker you need to understand you’ll likely return on the bottom floor if you don’t succeed. This is even more of an issue for people who are leaving sweetheart jobs that they wouldn’t be qualified for had they not been with their original company for so long. You may have proven yourself to your current employer over the past five years, but any new employer is going to look strictly at your resume.
And speaking of resumes, a gap of a year or two where you haven’t worked is going to look really bad, just not as bad as putting “Professional Poker Player” down! So, keep in mind that your stint as a pro poker player isn’t going to be looked on very favorably should you return to the real-world job market.
Because of this, you should formulate a strategy that will allow you to reenter the workforce before you turn pro. In doing so, you will already understand what jobs you’ll be qualified for and what the expected pay will be. Even if this means determining the bare minimum you can live on.
Are You Willing to Admit You Still Have A Lot to Learn?
If you think once you turn pro you will be relying on your current knowledge and your current skill-set from here on out you are sorely mistaken. Poker is an ever-evolving game, with players and theoreticians constantly testing new concepts and strategies. If you are not ALWAYS working on your game you will eventually be left behind, trying to implement outdated strategies against opponents who have seen that show before.
Take for instance players who were on top of the poker world in the 1990’s; some of these players have adapted with the times –learning to play online, use software, take part in forum discussions on the latest theories—while others have simply let the game pass them by. These players are easy to spot; they typically complain about “these hyper-aggressive KIDS always three-betting” and other crazy comments.
The fact is that in 2004 these players were still able to be profitable, even playing a strictly 1997 poker game, but by 2005 they were already way behind the learning curve.
Now obviously it is hard to teach an-old-dog-new-tricks, especially when those tricks have made them successful, but it’s imperative that you never become complacent with your poker game, and constantly try to outwork your opponents.
As I mentioned above; part of your ongoing poker expenses will be utilizing software like PokerTracker and SharkScope, as well as subscriptions to online poker training sites and purchasing the latest books on the game. BUT, you not only have to buy these things, you have to use them and learn from them! Far too many poker players feel they have reached their knowledge-cap when they start beating the games, but the truth is that a GOOD poker player will never know everything.
Will you still enjoy the game when you HAVE to play?
Thus far most of the considerations I’ve gone over have mostly been financial, but this one is all about your mental well-being. Poker is a very fun game when you are playing for fun, and for the competition, but when poker becomes a job –something you HAVE to do—many players soon lose the romantic attachment they once had for the game.
Sitting at a poker table or behind a computer screen for six, eight, or 18 hours at a time is tough, especially if you’re not in the “mood” to play. Add to that the studying, reading, and Internet searches that most poker players take part in and you’ll see that poker isn’t a four-hour job “when you feel like it” it’s a constant grind, day-in and day-out.
When you are playing the game for fun, or to supplement your income, the game is FUN; you are playing on your terms, when and where you want to, and if you don’t feel like playing for a week, or even a month it’s fine. As a professional you have to play –time-off means no income—even if the poker world is constantly kicking you in the balls day after day; you have to just sit there at the table and ride it out.
This is enough to make most professional poker players have a bit of a love/hate relationship with poker, and it makes getting burnt-out on the game very likely. I once took two years off (YES YEARS) where I didn’t even play in home games with friends; I simply lost all interest in the game. Not because I was losing, I simply didn’t want to play.
Can you handle the odd hours and temptations of the poker lifestyle?
Another thing most people fail to consider is the impact that the “Poker Lifestyle” will have on them. What at first seems glamorous quickly becomes a life of temptations, failed relationships, and a certain level of disconnect from the rest of the “normal” world.
For most poker players, breakfast typically occurs sometime after noon, followed by some random shenanigans ranging from golf to video games, and finally a late arrival at the casino or behind the monitor for an all-night session. Dinner might occur either before or after the session, and at this point –with the rest of the world in bed for the next day of work—you’ll find yourself eating alone or at some late-night diner with like-minded poker players.
At the casino you are tempted with everything from blackjack tables, to women, to drugs and drinking, to expensive restaurants and shopping, especially when you are flush with cash after a big win. “I’ll just play a few hands of Blackjack”, or “It’s only one $400 dinner” are the famous last words of many an aspiring poker player. The lifestyle sucks you in when you are running good, and then mocks you during your downswings.
Even online poker players have to deal with the odd hours kept by poker players, and the strain these hours force on your friends and family. Basically, being a poker pro is anything but easy, and more people fail due to the transition to the lifestyle than because of a lack of skill; it simply is not for everyone.
Then there is the terrible diet, and sitting for hours upon hours. It’s hard to be a well-rounded professional poker player; poker demands your undivided attention and forces you to be a societal non-conformist (to put it nicely).
You’ll also have to explain to your family what it is you’re doing (trust me, these are the most painful conversations imaginable, and are akin to telling a 3-year-old why they have to eat lunch before they get a lollipop). If you thought convincing yourself to turn pro was a tough sell, just wait until you have “the talk” with your parents, or worse for people with families of their own, your spouse!
Finally, in poker there are never any guarantees, so as a professional poker player you have to be prepared for just about any inevitability that comes about. I liken this to an episode of Top Chef, where aspiring chefs are thrown to wolves as they compete in random, unrealistic, challenges. From watching the show you can see how the most creative or technically-skilled chefs are not the ones who always succeed, instead it’s the contestants who can think on their feet, adjust, and remain calm that tend to prevail.
The world of poker is very similar to this, in that poker players often have to make hard, split-second, decisions in a wide array of areas. The only way this is accomplished is through preparedness. If you are not prepared, you will find yourself in a world of hurt as a professional poker player. If you haven’t done your homework you won’t know what to do if:
- An online poker site is shutdown and your money locked-up for months –or gone forever
- You become incredibly sick or injured and cannot go to the casino for a few weeks
- A seat in a really juicy game (that is above your bankroll) opens up
- Poker is suddenly banned entirely in your country
While there is low probability that any of these things will come to pass, if you don’t give the slightest bit of thought to all the situations you may have to possibly face you could find yourself in a very sticky situation.
So before you turn pro think about the things I mentioned above, as well as your own concerns or questions, and how you can preemptively deal with them, in addition to how you could deal with them as they come up.
For instance, it never hurts to know the regulars in a casino, especially the backers. The reason for this is that if that juicy seat opens up you may be able to pool your money with one or more of these players, or get backed for the game. Even if you are typically against being backed, there are ALWAYS exceptions.
So there you have it, 10 things to consider before you make the decision to turn pro, and this is all in addition to the typical and far more important factors like:
- Am I good enough to make a living from poker?
- Where will I play?
- Have I proven myself for a long enough period of time?
- Will I make more money from poker than from my current job?
Each individual person will also come up with their own important factors, which will vary from person to person. While one potential poker pro (figure a young college kid who already works a graveyard shift and isn’t tied down in any way) may not need to worry about changing their lifestyle to suit the late-nights and odd hours of the poker world, for another player (this time a married father of three who has worked 9-5 for 20 years and has to bring the kids to soccer practice, theater rehearsal, and gymnastics) this may be the sole reason they choose not to take the plunge! They could very well have all the tools needed, but the lifestyle change could simply overwhelm them.
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