Do you really want to play poker full time?

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2008) in Bluff magazine.

I hear you’re considering quitting your job or dropping out of school and playing poker full time. Fine. Players approach me frequently to share that dream. “Will you train me?” “I can’t really pay your fees right now, but I’ll give you 20 percent of everything I win forever. And I’m honest, so you won’t have to worry about getting a straight count.” “If you’ll just stake me, you’ll never regret it.” The appeal of playing poker for a living is powerful. The romanticized vision of what it’s like being a pro is compelling. The satisfaction of making your own hours and always having pockets full of cash is irresistible.

Plus, when you play poker professionally, you’re a free spirit. You have no obligations to anyone, except yourself. You answer only to yourself. You depend only on yourself. You’re a renegade, a bigger-than-life cowboy of the felt. Sure. But for most people it doesn’t turn out that way. I’m not here to harm your hopes or damage your dreams. But, before you quit work or leave college, here’s a word of caution.


How it really is

Let me tell you how it really is for most players. You’ve heard about going to bed when you want and sleeping until noon. Okay, you’ll sleep until noon, all right — but as often as not it will because you’re escaping from a huge loss and you just don’t want to wake up and face reality.

Over the years, you’ll lose your perspective about money. You won’t be able to separate the cash that comes and goes in great tides during the course of a single poker session from the reality of your everyday budget. You’ll carry around wads of cash when your bankroll is bulging and feel exhilarated by the knowledge that you can buy three of everything you see in the electronics store — and all you’ll need to do is win again that night and not even notice the expense. You’ll head straight for the poker tables after your new acquisitions, expecting to repair the damage. Sometimes that won’t happen. The magic is missing, and you gouge deep wounds in your money reserves. You play until it seems hopeless. And then you slink from the table, and you sleep off the hurt. Long sleep, deep dreams. Except the hurt is still there when you awaken.


Maybe this stuff doesn’t apply to everyone, but be advised that it applies to most players. Sometimes, it applied to me, so I’m speaking from experience. And I know it applied to the majority of aspiring pros I befriended during my poker career. It even applied to most of the greatest, top-name players I’ve known.

You’ll decide to play tournaments, and the first times you enter you’ll imagine yourself winning. But you probably won’t. I won the first two tournaments I ever played, but I now realize the enormousness of that fluke. After five years and over a hundred tournaments, you’ll realize that no matter how well you play, you’re probably going to lose your tournament buy-in today. And tomorrow. It sucks so bad, but you’ll get used to it. And then one day you’ll be in the money or even win first-place and you’ll be inspired. If you’re really good, over the years you’ll make a profit playing tournaments, but you’ll feel futility doing it, with only one in 10 players making any money for a given event — and everyone else leaving poorer.

Racks of chips

And at the regular games, you’ll see players who can’t possibly have a winning expectation cashing out racks of chips. And you’ll wonder about the fairness of random events. And sometimes you’ll wish that there were a video of what happened to you tonight, just so you could prove you really do have the worst luck in the history of the world. Then there will be times that the cards connect hand after hand, and for those brief periods you’ll believe there is justice in the poker universe.

You’ll be cheated sometimes. And at other times, you’ll worry about being cheated, even though it isn’t happening. And that very concern will keep you from playing your best game.

You absolutely won’t keep a big enough bankroll to ensure survival in the games you play. So, you’ll sometimes find yourself broke and begging, even though you’re actually winning overall. You’ll regret not having kept more of your winnings tied securely to your bankroll. And you’ll return to the tables playing more cautiously for smaller stakes. And you’ll feel mildly embarrassed. But you won’t show it.

On the nights when everything goes downhill, friends and family will ask you why you didn’t quit when you were $500 ahead toward the beginning. And this scrutiny will annoy you. You’ll reflect that when you win $10,000, these same people never ask why you didn’t quit early when you were $500 ahead.

Money in waves

And mostly, you won’t have the luxury and security of a regular paycheck. Assuming you’re good enough and disciplined enough, money will come in waves. For months, you might be paying out, with nothing coming in, or worse. You’ll never, ever be able to budget your life based on predictable income.

Girlfriends and boyfriends will leave you. Bankers will shun you. Relatives will demand to know why you’re not doing something more productive with your life. And you’ll only feel truly comfortable among a tiny circle of people who understand.

What about me? Didn’t I make a living playing poker? Well, yes, for a long time, and I could do it again today, if necessary. But even with everything I know, it was a roller-coaster ride. It was a recipe requiring the ingredients of great joy and stunning victories, peppered with hard luck and crushing defeats. It was a life of chaos and exhilaration that only calmed when I decided I could make even more money sharing my research and selling books.

Now that’s the truth. So, if you still want to play poker full time, okay. Good luck on your great poker adventure. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


15 thoughts on “Do you really want to play poker full time?”

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  1. I don’t want to play pro, sound’s like a salesman with a draw. I want to work in the industry.

  2. And, you feel different even playing “scared” sometimes especially after a few losses (speaking for myself). I’ll make more bad folds, I know that. I would if I could take .5% of my bankroll to the table each time and make a living though! Then I wouldn’t play scared. It just feels different playing knowing I won’t have a paycheck in my bank account every Wednesday at noon.

  3. It is getting tougher and tougher all the time .I’M guessing maybe 2 % will make it until they become a senior citizen .Way less will be rich . The boom years are over for the lucky few .

  4. Thanks for this reentry. Never responded to, but read most your comments. It explains much of what I try showing others, including parents, about the true grind. I've dealt and played for about 9 years and finally getting exceptence for the true skill and dedication required.

  5. Think Multiple income streams . Not one of the successfull long term poker players I know. And I know many of the greats, survive soley on their poker wins. they get dollars from many sources . be those writing or speaking gigs residual income from dividend earning equities, otpions and stock sales, coaching, real estate, or even as I do working long hours in the construction induistry when the jobs are on.
    when I speak to up and coming pro players I often tell them not to fall in love with the idea of being a poker professional fall in love with being a player for life. because when you do you are not defined buy the phrase . you have the unique ability to make poker work for you in any way you choose. SO if you take some time off from the game to explore a very lucritive venture you do with out sacrificing some ideal or presonal goal of poker professionalism. And if that venture plays out you simply start working the games once more.

  6. I took 1 Year off from work to play full time, and this is so true.

    I never intended to play “forever” as a vocation; my “plan” was to take some plus cash and enjoy a temporary early retirement.

    I had $35,000 as a Bank Roll, and another $35,000 to live on (sufficient to pay my expenses for the year, regardless of win/loss at the tables). I was well funded for my typical games in the Chicago Area: $2/$5 NLHE, with the occasional stab at the fat $5/$10 games. Plus, the nice action $1/$2 NLHE games on the weekend tended to give me a decent fall back position to play amongst a veritable FLOOD of weekend warrior types just dying to spew their BI. Things went GREAT…

    First 8 weeks I was running near to $100 per hour to the good. I only had losing sessions 6 times, playing 5 to 6 days per week, and never dropped more than $300 in any single night. Poker was EASY!

    The next 6 weeks though, nothing fell my way. My semi bluff raises got called and then never got there, my sets ran into every possible suck out straight imaginable, every flush I made ran into a bigger one. End result: for 6 straight weeks (again, 5 to 6 nights per week) I averaged around a $50 per hour LOSS. Poker SUCKS!

    The thing about those highs and lows though is, those were the BEST PART of my year…yes, the lows too.

    Fact is, winning was obviously joyous. I loved the cash, the feel of being “successful” at an endeavor which required both brains and “guts”, and there was a certain cachet amongst my poker buds to being a “professional”.

    The losing was not THAT bad either to be honest. I was well funded, and never felt any “panic” about my depleting BR (it was at least still more than I had started with), and I was disciplined enough not to over-spend (well, not TOO badly at least!) when things were running good. I was mainly puzzled by the turn of fortune, but having played long enough, I knew that was likely to happen at some point. I viewed it largely as something I had to work through.

    The thing I was not prepared for though, were the next 4 or 5 months…

    During that period, it seemed every time I sat down, it was a dead 50/50 proposition whether I would leave up or down. I felt like every winning session would be followed immediately by a losing one, and my log book shows that for the middle of my year, I made only about $1 to $2 per hour. Talk about a GRIND!

    The thing that got me was that since my living roll was starting to get thin, and my play results were not anything I could count on strongly to replace my expenses, I HAD to play! There is very little I can equate in a “normal” work-a-day life to the feeling of knowing you HAVE to go to your “job”, and that you have a solid chance of being forced to work “over time” just to leave with the same amount with which you started your day! The toll on my psyche was tremendous, FAR greater than the period of loss I knew would end (eventually).

    I started to dread going to the poker room, and played less and less. I tried MTTs to “mix things up”, and maybe make a nice little score from one of the daily $100 to $150 events, but Mike is so right about the futility MTT play tends to bring…I learned THAT particular lesson after taking just 1 cash from 9 events (a 4th in a 50 person game, for a relatively SMALL return on my time investment).

    The biggest thing I learned from my experience was that poker is something I LOVE to do, but when I am forced to do it by circumstance, it can get to be awfully boring, frustrating, annoying, tiring, and all the other “-ing’s” you’d never really expect from a game you really love to play. I was good enough to clear right around $15,000 (after my expenses directly related to poker) for my year, but by the end of my time I was down to playing MAYBE 15 hours per week. That simply is not enough time to make a living at the levels I was playing, but then after my 12 months, I really didn’t CARE; I WANTED to go back to work!

    So here I am 2 years later, back to being a Regular Working Joe. I still play on the weekends, and make some nice plus money (usually), and that is perfectly fine. Poker is not “boring” in the least now, and it is usually only frustrating for about 5 minutes. I got out of my year with zero bills, and about $50,000 of the $70,000 I started with, so I count myself very fortunate for having had my experience…but I doubt seriously I would EVER repeat it!

    Good luck to all those who do…

  7. It is GOD’S will if you win or lose.90%of world series of poker winners are now broke.They won the tournament but lost their winnings at cash games.You are so right about bankroll.I never risk more than 5% and if I lose I drop down till I win again.Hope you are a good swimmer Mike because on the POKER CRUISE in September if you win all the money they might throw you overboard.Take care OziMikeCaro.

  8. I have not had to punch a time clock in years. I owe that to poker and side ventures. I am the free spirit you spoke of but I do have a boss myself and playing for a living is WORK, hard work.
    I don’t won’t to discourage any of my poker freinds but you can’t live just for today. You got to think long term.

    1. Hi, Jason —

      Excellent thoughts. I agree.

      Thanks for making your first comment at the new Poker1.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  9. In other words…there’s no money in poker, huh? Ah…that’s disappointing but good to hear it from someone who’s actually been there and done that. I think there’d be a market for a resource (maybe a book or something that really expounds on this blog post) that truly outlines what it means to play poker for a living and tells it like it really is. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Hi, Pokers —

      Thanks for making your first comment.

      There is absolutely, positively money to be made in poker. Many thousands of players do that and make their livings playing.

      But it’s often a rough road between stretches of six-lane highways — and all the cautions in the entry above apply.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  10. You may want to also add that many of these Pros make a good amount of money from sponsorship rather than just playing. When you make it to that level playing is the icing on the cake.

    Also, pros — and I know Johnny Chan did this — invested their money into businesses that produce revenue streams so that poker is a backup rather than the sole source of income. In Chan’s case it’s restaurants.

    If I were to turn pro, that’s what I’d need. An independent revenue stream that always supplies me cash independently from my playing: restaurant, real estate, etc. The more passive the income the better.

    1. Hi, ph –

      Excellent thoughts.

      Remember that most businesses, too, tend to be sporadic in their profits. Until your business ventures are well established, you’ll have the potential of going broke, while having great swings in month-to-month profit. So, in that sense, it’s a lot like poker.

      You’re exactly right, though, that having established businesses or solid investments allow you to just use poker for backup. Thanks for an excellent comment.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. Thanks Mike. Three more comments. First I should also add that it takes a lot of money to create these revenue streams if you want them to be significant and afford one a “nice” lifestyle. Second, I also believe that Dan Harrington has a real estate business, sklansky has 2+2, you have MCU, — didn’t Slim own a cattle ranch? — and I’m sure there are plenty others. Third, if a young pro gets lucky enough to win some serious money, this pro should strongly consider in investing in solid investments (like US treasury instruments or index funds) with some kind of reliable ROI. Just my $.02.

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