So You Wanna Be a Poker Pro?
It’s a Little Better than Being in Iraq

by , Oct 30, 2007 | 1:30 pm

I recently received a thoughtful email from a young guy who has great interest in playing poker for a living or finding a good job or possibly doing both. He has asked for my advice regarding various topics of passion and career. I thought that my response might be helpful to others figuring out where poker fits in their lives, and Pokerati readers might be able to provide genius insight or alternate feedback.

Here are some excerpts from what he sent, and my honest opinions:

My name is Ralph, and I am a very big fan of your book. I am an avid poker player who is hoping to become a professional in the distant future. I just wanted to commend you on authoring such a simple, yet brilliant book. It has reemphasized so much of the values that have already been instilled in my life, yet has reminded me so much of the important things that I have forgotten along the way. I just couldn’t put the book down.

Right away, you can tell that this young man has wonderful taste, and no, this is not a fictitious caller on Beyond the Table.

I was hoping you could pass along some winning wisdom to me if you had the time. I am 26 years old and graduated from college with a BA in Communications in January 2007. I have been unemployed during this time with the exception that I have been working part time for the past 7 years. I’m really struggling to find my place in the “real world” being that I don’t consider myself too business savvy, or intellectually smart.

First of all, most people who graduate from college don’t know anything about business when they get out. The good news for you is that you are being honest with yourself about where you stand, and maybe a little too hard on yourself. You might be surprised, but most people have great discomfort about entering the business world. I thought I was pretty smart after graduating and found out that I was a tiny, dumb fish in a huge pond. Fortunately for you, astute business people realize that recent college graduates aren’t very business savvy right away, so they are looking primarily for effort and attitude, moreso than keen business acumen.

The one thing you need to work on is your lack of confidence. You are competing against people who do think they know what they are doing, and they have immense, unwarranted confidence. When hiring young people, I looked for people who had confidence in their desire to deliver significant effort and someone who wouldn’t disturb my cohesive team. I didn’t want a know-it-all. However, get excited about what you do know. I took a job as a CFO for a public company with no experience filing SEC documents. A friend of mine gave me excellent advice. “Act like you deserve to be there, and show up with confidence. No one expects you to know everything.”

You say that you don’t consider yourself to be very intellectually smart. The one thing that all good players have in common is that they tend to be pretty darn smart. This could be a problem too if you really believe what you are saying.

I started playing poker 3 years ago and have gotten very serious in my studies and commitment to the game. It is really hard to develop a professional poker career here in the suburban community where I live. I make drives down to the Commerce, Bike, and local Indian casinos. But it is hard grinding it in small no-limit games trying to build a bankroll. I believe my skills are up to par, but being the local home game hero does nothing to improve my game. It’s hard enough trying to network with other real players who can help me develop. I had saved enough money to play one $1500 event at the 2007 WSOP and enough money on the side to play a few satellites. As fate would have it, nothing but bad beats and cold decks. I am realistic about my skills, not thinking I’m the best, but knowing I’m good enough to make it. I’m old fashioned, and I don’t like to play online. I’m willing to put in the time, and gain more experience playing live. I recognize that I have bad bankroll management issues as well.

You really said a lot in this last paragraph. What I heard was, “it’s really hard” a couple of times. First of all, none of this is hard, but it does take commitment and effort. Saying that is an excuse. Most every time I have had any success in my life, it took significant effort and perseverance, but I never said to myself “this is so hard”. That phrase should be stricken from your speech.

Really hard? How about hanging out in Iraq getting bullets fired at you every day with sand that’s been in parts of your body you didn’t know you had while your wife is back home screwing your best friend? The stuff you’re talking about isn’t hard, especially if you love it. At one time, I loved poker. I couldn’t get enough of it. I don’t think I could blame anyone or anything on my pursuit of becoming a professional player. I had a full time job (60 hours/week), a wife and two children. I had excuses but chose not to use them.

What is a professional player anyway and what should you expect from a career in poker? From my vantage point, many of the people that you might call professional aren’t even close. My definition of being a professional player is someone who supports themselves by deriving more than 51% of their annual income through playing poker, year after year. Rich people who travel the circuit playing poker, aren’t professional poker players, they’re lucky to be able to do that. Players who borrow money to stay in action and owe bunches of money for more than a few months aren’t professionals. Based upon what I believe, I think that there are only 100-200 professional live tournament poker players in the U.S.

The other concept that is important is that if your full time poker playing provides you less than 50% of what you could make in another profession, you are wasting your time. This all may seem very harsh, but the reality is, most poker players are not professional including those that you see on T.V. all the time. Bankroll management is the most important concept of being a professional and some guys that you know who have won many events on and off T.V. have gone broke many times. As a professional that should not happen. Ego gets in their way, playing way too high for the bankroll.

As the WSOP player of the year, we could say that I had one fantastic WSOP. Yes, but let’s look at the facts. I cashed for about $400,000. I spent about $130,000 (guessing because I’m on the road) in entry fees. I made $270,000…that’s it. It seems like a lot of money, but I had an unbelievable WSOP. I spent/lost $25,000 in Barcelona and $20,000 at Niagara Falls. This stuff adds up fast. I’m not complaining. I’m trying to paint reality.

You mentioned that you are grinding in small games. That’s what 99 percent of the successful poker players have done in their careers. Poker is a food chain. You must grind in these lower games until you can move up the food chain until you get so high that you become the food. You will know when this happens if you keep detailed records. Do you know what your hourly rate is in these games to the nearest $0.25? If not, you need to go back to the drawing board.

You mentioned that you played in a $1,500 tournament. How big was your bankroll when you did that? I’m guessing it wasn’t big enough to take that shot. Playing professionally means guarding your bankroll with your life. It is your biggest and most important asset.

Finally regarding this paragraph no more bad beat stories. I have heard them all. The pros I really respect don’t tell them. If you tell them, you haven’t been around poker long enough. Start acting and talking like a true professional. Bad beats happen just like you don’t always get exactly what you order at the drive-thru.

Now I’m back home looking for a career so that I can save enough to get married and start a family, and also fuel my ambitions to one day become a tournament pro (I’d prefer it over being a cash game grinder).

I hate to harp. Marriage and poker work very infrequently. Great poker marriages are rarer than successful Hollywood marriages. Why? Most spouses don’t understand and don’t want to understand why poker is not pure gambling. Long hours, lost money, unpredictable earnings and other traps create a lot of stress on a marriage. If you have a dream of playing poker, play poker first, then get a wife after you have had success. Most women will insist that you get a day job and pursue this gambling thing later, and later will not come.

Am I trying to dissuade you from becoming a professional poker player? Partially, yes. Your goals of having a wife and family are in conflict with most everything about poker. There are some young guys that are playing on-line and have started families with some success. On-line play does make family life a little easier if your wife understands the gambling thing. You might have to change your views regarding on-line play.

If after all of these warnings and criticisms you still want to do it then pursue it with more energy and commitment than you’ve ever expended. It’s the only way you stand a chance. There are sharks out there waiting to take your money, and not all of them carry around a plastic one so you can identify them. Read, read and read some more. If you haven’t read at least 15 books on how to play better poker then you’re not serious.

You seem like a real nice guy, so I didn’t sugar coat anything. I could tell you that everything has been wonderful but it hasn’t. I have lost so much money that it made me physically ill. This is a tough business, if you look at the right people, you can see it in their eyes, and it’s not pretty.

Best of luck.

21 Comments to “So You Wanna Be a Poker Pro?
It’s a Little Better than Being in Iraq

  1. on tilt

    “If you haven’t read at least 15 books on how to play better poker then you’re not serious.”

    do you really believe this or are you slightly exagerating to make a point?

    i’m not arguing, i’m just curious? i think i learn more from playing than i do from reading.

  2. California Jen

    Excellent post and advice, Tom.

    Being in the poker business, I hear these kinds of stories quite often from players who believe with every fiber of their being that they are good enough to make it as a pro player but haven’t gotten their fair shot.

    The truth is that if there are people depending on you – wife, girlfriend, children – you simply can’t afford to take the risks of going broke. Such are the choices you make in life. It may seem like these guys can’t pursue the big dream of playing poker on the circuit, but what they don’t realize some people who live life on the road would trade places in a minute for a loving family to come home to every night. It’s all about appreciating what you have and working with the choices you’ve already made.

    I’m certainly not advocating giving up on a dream. I’m only saying that it may take much longer to achieve it. Grinding it out at the cash games and low buy-in tournaments isn’t fun all the time, but it might just be the only way. If you’re truly good enough at poker, it’s only a matter of time before you can build a comfortable bankroll that will allow you to do bigger things.

    Take a few notes from Tom. Keep very detailed records. (If someone wants to back you, it’s the surest way to prove what you’re capable of.) And take a seriously honest look at the poker world before deciding to dive in at the expense of everything else you’ve worked for.

  3. DanM

    Do they have Cliff’s Note’s for poker books?

    On a serious side, Greg Raymer cashed four times in the 2007 WSOP. That included two final tables and a 14th place finish in the $50k HORSE event. His net earnings for the Series: -$100,000. As in negative. Tournament poker is apparently expensive for non-bloggers.

  4. Ed

    “This is a tough business, if you look at the right people, you can see it in their eyes, and it’s not pretty.”

    Vinny is a good example here. Look what the lifestyle has done to him.

    About the keeping track. I have a nice spreadsheet that has grown over the years and this year I finally added something that totals the # hands played this year along with how much i actually made and the time spent playing. Wow…I have a long way to go or need to move up and stop wasting my time at the .25-1.00 tables. Not at home or I would share the numbers so far. Something around 760+ hours and only $1.55 per hour made. Quite a few SnGs have been added to the cash games the past 2 months and a few $10-30 tournaments throughout the year.

    This is all online of course. My record for live play at Choctaw is not going broke after 5 hours….but i have never left with more than I took.

  5. Michele Lewis

    Yes, there is a condensed version of poker for dummies.

  6. DanM

    Maybe I’ll just wait for Sklansky, the Movie to come out.

  7. Mean Gene

    I thought it was “Sklansky, the Musical”. Tommy Tune was slated to do the choreography.

  8. DanM

    You might be right. I did hear they were making Super/System into an Italian opera. But that was a couple years ago where people thought anything associated with poker could make money. I think the plans were scrapped once Pavoratti died

  9. DanM

    Good strategy column in Poker Player Newspaper sharing Tom’s sentiments, saying “don’t quit your day job”:

  10. Ed

    Here are those yearly stats for me I mentioned.

    Total Gain/Loss: $1,195.41
    Total Time Played: 784h 11m
    Total $ Made Per Hour: $1.52

    Total Hands Played: 43908
    Hands Per Hour: 56

    Best Month for total gain/loss made was July at $705.17…but that was with 137 hour and 49 minutes of my life being used up. Most of what I play is PL with the occasional tournament and lately a lot of SnGs (40 this month with only a $4 profit on them.)

  11. Michele Lewis

    If they make a Sklansky musical then they should have Shronk from Pokernews do the singing.

  12. Eric

    Ed, what site do you play on? 🙂

    It takes my computer freaking forever to get Poker Tracker loaded up, and that doesn’t count my play at sites that PT doesn’t work with, or my live totals, but i’ll just say that I’ve been playing poker since 2004, I’ve put a total of $400 of my own money in, and I’ve cashed out enough to live on for the last two years. 🙂

  13. Ed

    Bodog has been my home since I dropped $30-35 into it early July 2006. Have not put another dime in since. Mainly play to hone the online reading skills but I have acquired many online friends who I enjoy sitting at the table with and shooting the shit as we play “Break The Donk”.

    PT works with Bodog as of early this year using another app called DogWatch to save the hand histories. Not sure if the new Bodog client breaks any of it though because I have not downloaded it since it is not mandatory to update.

  14. Curtom

    Go to school and graduate. Forget about playing professional poker. It’s a really bad idea even for the most intelligent of us. However, if you play for entertainment and happen to do well then it’s fine. The fact of the matter is that only a very SMALL percentage of so called “professional” players make a good living at it. Making a living means you are NOT borrowing money and do not OWE money to people and have investments or endorsements that help fund your bankroll. Sorry, don’t mean to offend anyone but it is what it is. Only 1% or fewer meet the criteria I just set forth. The others are broke and/or borrowing money which means they are not professionals. Remember, in almost any other business you can borrow money once or twice and still be considered a professional. After that you will no longer be able to borrow and will carry the tag of loser. The same rules apply in poker. Watch “Poker Bustouts” to get a better picture of what goes on on the tour. When you watch the WPT and WSOP they are only showing you the bright side which is an extremely small percentage.

    Take it for what it’s worth.


  15. DanM

    I love Poker Bustouts!

    I see so many of those guys all over town — and almost never playing, just hanging out. I did see Cowboy in a 2/4 limit game at Gold Coast the other day. He looked to have about $80 in his stack.

  16. Ed

    glad this post was brought back up. i need to change my last comment. Dogwatch no longer works with Bodog. It broke when Bodog did their last big patch and the DogWatch guy disappeared and I don’t think he has been heard from since. So all of us suckers who spent $20 on it must find something else that works with PT. I heard there was something but not sure how good it works.

  17. Tom Schneider

    Curtom, you are exactly right. The only slight modification I would make is that far fewer than 1% meet the criteria. How many people in the U.S. have made $100,000 or more three years in a row playing poker? I think less than 200. How many lawyers, Dr’s. or accountants have done that. At least 20,000 or more in each category.

  18. DanM

    I make more money per hour than Ed does. ($3.88 beyotches!)

  19. Ed

    think i am at $1.05 for this month. Lots of red from botched SnGs…then I placed 7th in a $2,500 guaranteed tournament on Sat paying me $80!! and double up at a $25 PL table…then I win a $10 SnG last night taking me from like $80 in the hole to +$51 for the month. God this rollercoaster is making me sick.

  20. DanM

    You are clearly so almost ready to make it as a semi-pro.

  21. Ed

    Too stressful. Once I can lucksack my way to a WSOP main event win like Jamie Gold did then I can relax and have fun with it.