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