The Myth of the Professional Poker Player: What Playing Poker for a Living Is Really Like

RoundersIt sounds like the perfect job.

Poker has no set hours, no boss, and it’s the ultimate meritocracy where you are rewarded solely based on your skill.

But there is an old poker axiom that sheds some light on what it really means to be a poker pro: “Poker is a hard way to make an easy living,” and this has always been the case, save for a short period of time in the mid-2000’s –the period that everyone seems to base their expectations on unfortunately.

More recently, there has been a surge of blog posts and articles discussing the hardships and hard work it takes to become a professional poker player, and how difficult the life of a poker player really is. There have also been a few dissenters, players who have done very well for themselves who feel the doom and gloom is unwarranted and little more than fear mongering.

In my opinion, both of these takes have a bit of truth to them, depending on what your definition of success is, and what road you intend to travel as a poker player.

So how hard is it to make a living playing poker? And are people entering the game with false expectations because of the recent Poker Boom and the money that was won by so many during that period? I’ll discuss both of these points in this article.

Irrational expectations: Trying to be one of the greats

You can want to be the next Phil Ivey, Phil Galfond, or Daniel Cates but starting your poker career with the intention of getting to this level will more often than not lead to utter disaster. It’s a nice long-term goal, but too many players get ahead of themselves.

To be the best of the best, you’ll have to not only outwork your peers, but you’ll also need to have the natural skills for greatness. Saying you want to be the next Phil Ivey when you haven’t even proved you can consistently beat a $2/$5 NLHE game is like saying you want to be Tom Brady or Calvin Johnson when you’re in 8th grade.

Let’s wait to see what your natural skills are, and if you can be dominant in college before we start talking about being an NFL Hall of Famer, and the same goes for poker; let’s see if you can cut it as a mid-stakes pro before we start talking about Bobby’s Room.

Realistic expectations: A decent living

When you decide to become a poker pro you need to set reasonable short-term expectations based on your current win rate and skill set. For most people this means grinding low and mid stakes games trying to earn $50k to $100k a year.

This is nothing to scoff at, and it won’t be a cakewalk to even get to this level. But this where we need to be before we start talking about playing the WSOP Main Event or heading over to the high-stakes section of the poker room.

Now that we have reasonable expectations, let’s take a look at what it’s going to take to attain even that level of poker success.

Hard work, stress, and discipline

So what is it going to take to become some thankless poker player grinding out 10 hour days to earn a decent living? It’s going to take hard work, discipline, and a hell of a lot of stress.

The life of a poker pro making $50k-$100k a year is a nice life if you’re in your early 20’s, but when you hit 30 and you want to be more than just a poker player, the level of intensive work and single-minded focus is almost impossible to sustain.

Furthermore, you can’t have a bad year when you have a mortgage to pay and kids to feed.

For a 20-something, with a monthly nut that consists of rent and a car payment, $50k to $100k a year is a pretty good salary, and probably far more than your contemporaries. Additionally, a bad month or two is no big deal, because you have so few responsibilities.

But when you’re 35, with a wife and a kid, maybe a mortgage, and all kinds of bills, your poker profits can still be considered a good income, but you’ll also be envious of people with similar incomes in 9-5 jobs. You’ll envy their nights and weekends off; their paid vacations; their retirement plans and health insurance; and their consistent, stable income.

I don’t care what Greg Shahade says, the life of your average poker player is extremely stressful. There are success stories like Shahade, but these are the exception and not the norm, and it would seem like Shahade was already fairly successful/accomplished before finding poker. To be fair he ends his blog post with:

“PS – I realize I am probably the exception here and that most people are not built to be emotionally carefree while also being a pro poker player, but I want to make it clear that the exception exists.”

The life of a no-name cash-game pro

For the vast majority of low and mid-stakes poker players life will consist of poker and little else. Head into any card-room and talk to some of the long-time players in the $20/$40 limit games, or in the $2/$5 and $5/$10 NLHE games, and you’re more likely to be talking to a Joey Knish type than some jet-setting world traveler.

Experienced poker pros that never made it to the “big time” are for the most part a disillusioned bunch, usually cynical, and rarely smiling, with a trail of ruined relationships in their wake. Poker can pay the bills, but its s much of a desk job as working in any office building.

The life of so-called tournament poker pros

From 2004 through about 2007 you could make some good coin as a tournament pro, but those days are long gone.

I’m of the opinion that live tournaments are all but impossible to beat due to the rake and expenses, something I detailed in this article at

Furthermore, take away backing and see what happens to all of these tournament pros. I guarantee most of them are out of the game within a year.

What happens is these people make a decent score or two and decide they can play poker for a living. Then they hit the expected dry spell and instead of moving on, or switching to cash games, they take on backers and try to skate by until their next big score.

Unfortunately, what usually happens is they fall deeper into makeup and are essentially conscripts with no way out. They have enough to live on, but the money they should be making for themselves is instead going to a backer because tournament poker is extremely tough to beat and has too much variance.


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