This has been one of the most common questions on online poker forums for years. It is often asked by somebody who is fairly new to the game and has ran hot for some insignificant number of hands at the micros. Usually they have no clue about what playing this game professional actually entails on a day to day basis. They also often have a very poor understanding of the actual nature of variance.
I don't really consider myself to be an online professional poker player anymore even though most people still assume that I am. I am fine with this though after grinding for a living for 5+ years. I don't want to say that burn out was the deciding factor in scaling back my play because I do still love this game and play it regularly for a side income. However it does seem that years and years of grinding can take its toll on some people. I have seen this with several others as well so I know that it is not just me.
Whether I go back to playing full time for a living again one day or not is a question that I will decide in the future but I can certainly discuss some of the benefits and drawbacks of "going pro" as somebody who has done it for half a decade. A lot of people who play this game think that playing online poker professionally would be the best job in the world and they dream of making it there some day. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between.
There are a lot of great benefits to playing poker professionally on the internet such as the freedom to work from anywhere in the world and the ability to set your own hours. I value these two things greatly and they were primary motivating factors for getting involved in this game in the first place.
However, dealing with variance (read: soul crushing downswings) is also a part of being an online poker pro that people rarely talk about. These downswings will happen to everybody and nobody is going to explain to you how to handle them or want to listen to your sob stories. You have to be able to battle through them and many people simply are not capable of this.
Being a professional poker player also requires a strong independent work ethic that you won't really understand until you work for yourself. I will discuss all of this and more below.
Overall I do not regret my decision to play online poker professionally at all. In fact it has had an incredibly positive impact on my life. Here is a recent video where I talk about how I got my start in the game.
In this article I am going to discuss what I learned about making it as an online professional poker player over the long haul. This will hopefully help you make a more informed decision on whether it makes sense for you or not.
The Attributes of an Online Professional Poker Player
Before I even talk about actually being a winner in this game (this is something that is kind of important if you want to be a professional poker player) I want to discuss the personality traits that are important to have. I think there are several personality traits that pretty much all professional poker players have in common. So much so that if you don't fit this fairly narrow profile then I don't think that you should even consider playing this game professionally. I am going to list them roughly in order of importance (in my opinion).
1) Emotional Control
The ability to control your emotions and be patient in this game is absolutely critical to your success. Many people are driven by impulse instead. They revert from the game-plan very easily and for no good reason at all. An online professional poker player needs to have the discipline to make the right decision regardless of how he feels at the time. The ups and downs in this game are never-ending. The professional is able to keep a clear head under pressure and make the right decision the large majority of the time .
2) Logical Decision Making
Logical decision making as it relates to poker is the ability to just kind of see the right action in many cases in this game. I believe that poker is much more rooted in logic than mathematics at a core level. This doesn't mean that you need to have college level logic in order to beat this game. It just means that you should be able to understand why certain plays are better than others intuitively for the most part. This skill is vitally important as you move up the stakes and need to be able to develop effective counter-strategies versus good opponents on the fly.
3) Work Ethic
You can go back through this blog and you will find that this was the one that I struggled with the most. When I quit my last "real job" back in early 2007 to go pro I thought that playing poker for a living would be the easiest thing in the world. After all, I was making double or triple what I made at my job all day in just the few hours that I played each night at NL50 or NL100. However, once I quit and became my own boss the will to play each day was not always there.
It wasn't that I didn't enjoying playing the game and making money. It was just that I would often find something that was a little bit more interesting at the time such as the latest Call of Duty game or going out with friends. While being your own boss is one of the most freeing and compelling reasons to become an online professional poker player, it can present some challenges as well because you will have no one to answer to except yourself. You have to be able to discipline yourself to set certain work hours and stick to them no matter what.
Internet poker in particular is very much a solo venture. Most people who play for a living spend hours upon hours every single day by themselves in front of a computer screen. You need to be the type of person who is ok with being alone for long periods of time (live poker is a bit different of course). This can prove to be a difficult thing for a lot of people. You don't need to be a total hermit/recluse in order to be a successful online poker pro. However, if you are the type of person that constantly craves social interaction then online poker for a living is probably not for you.
While poker is absolutely a skill game in the long run there is a lot of luck in the short term. The person who is more willing to take calculated shots to chase a fish at a higher stake for instance is more likely to climb the limits faster and profit more. The same goes for moving up in general. Some people are way too conservative and it can really hold them back. Most really successful professional poker players have a small bit of degen in them and are not afraid of taking a shot when it makes sense.
Most professional poker players have above average intelligence. Everything that I have mentioned thus far kind of relies on this to a certain extent. People with higher intelligence will often have a wider perspective on things and thus an easier time controlling their emotions. They will also often be better at logical decision making, staying cool in stressful situations and being able to think independently.
It isn't 100% necessary to be strong in all of these areas in order to be an online professional poker player (#3 was a big struggle of mine and I am not very good at #5 either). However, in my experience most people who play this game for a living have strengths in most of them. It just makes more sense to already fit the profile rather than try to change who you are. After all, if playing poker for a living were easy then everybody would be doing it right?
Who Should NOT Go Pro?
Let's assume that you do in fact fit most of the categories above though. There are still some people who should stay away from this game at least at a professional level.
1) Focused on the Money
This is the #1 way that I know if somebody has what it takes or not. If the first thing they talk about is how much money they can expect to make then they will almost certainly fail. The most obvious reason why is because there is no precise answer to the question of how much money you are going to make! Games are always changing, everyone's skill set is different, some people are better at multi-tabling or table selection than others etc. Furthermore, there is massive variance in this game.
Trying to figure out your "hourly" is just silly. You should want to play this game professionally because you have a passion for it. That's it. If you are simply chasing the dollar, don't waste your time. Go be a doctor or a lawyer or get some other career where there is an average salary that is highly predictable. This isn't the way that it works in poker.
2) Married with Kids
I am going to be honest. I don't know anybody who is married, has kids, and plays online poker for a living. I am not saying that it is impossible. I know that there are people out there who do it. And I do know people who are married but without the kids who make it work. However, for fairly obvious reasons the large majority of people who play this game for a living are not in this situation. In fact the vast, overwhelming majority of online poker pros who I have met are single or just do some casual dating on the side.
3) In School
I always tell people to finish their schooling before taking a shot at going pro in this game. The reason why is because even though everybody always thinks that they are different most people who choose to play online poker professionally will end up failing. This is just the cold hard reality. If you have a college degree to fall back on however, then your life will be much easier should poker not work out for you.
I was very lucky in this regard because I had just finished graduating from university around the time that online poker blew up (~2004). A lot of people have chosen to drop out of university/college since then because they felt that online poker was a better option for them. This was a bad decision for a lot of them. Poker will always be there when you are done with school. Believe me, it isn't going anywhere. Finish your degree first and then try out being an online professional if it is something that you have a passion for.
Professional Poker Players are Long Term Winners
You need to be a winning poker player.
Duh right? However, this is a point that is lost on many people in their dreams of what life will be like as a professional poker player. The large majority of people who play this game will lose in the long run. Furthermore, it can take a very long time to overcome variance and say for certain that you are a winning player. In fact it can take upwards of 100k hands in order to say anything conclusive about your results. This can represent months of play for some low volume online poker players and could take a year or more for a live player to attain.
In addition to this, you should know that once you go pro you will begin to feel differently about the game. This isn't something that you will fully understand until you take the leap for yourself. I have played this game both full time and part time for long periods of time. When you have a regular paycheck coming in there is a lot less pressure placed on you. When you play professionally though your results will always be a little bit more important to you even if you have a large amount of savings. You can't pay the rent with poker losses.
People have often said that you should have at least 6 months living expenses saved up before you consider going pro in poker. I would say that at least one year is a better idea. And what this actually means in practice is that you take what you currently spend in a single month for all expenses (and add about 10% for emergency situations) and times this by 12. You should have this amount in a liquid account before you even consider going pro.
In addition to this you should have a bankroll that is suitable for the stakes that you currently play at. As an online professional poker player this should be on the conservative side as well. While as little as 20 buyins is fine for many recreational players, as a pro you should have more like 50 buyins for the limit you are playing. This ensures that there is little to no chance that you ever bust your bankroll and have to dip into your life funds.
These two sets of money are never to be mixed. Your bankroll is for poker and the money that you have in the bank is for your bills and living expenses.
Final Assessment and Trial Run
I hope that this article has given you a bit to think about in terms of who should consider "going pro" and what it is like. It is not all roses and sunshine like many people make it out to be. Let me tell you from first hand experience that playing poker for a living is absolutely work in every sense of the word. It can also be extremely stressful at times. In fact I think that playing online poker for a living is more demanding than almost any other job out there. It requires your constant attention to detail and the ability to make quick, high quality decisions under sometimes very difficult circumstances.
But there are also several great benefits to becoming an online professional poker player. These include the ability to control when and where you work. For many people like myself this is worth the world. I have zero interest in ever working for somebody else again and the freedom that this game has given me has been life changing.
If becoming an online professional poker player is something that interests you, then you should do a trial run starting at the micros for upwards of a year before taking the leap. This means playing for a few hours every single night after work. If you find that you are having success after this period of time, you have a deep passion for the game and the right situation in life, then give yourself 6 months to a year to just go for it. If it doesn't work out no biggie. Consider it your gap year and move on with life.
Perception of Others and Resume Gaps
There are a few other smaller things to mention that are part of being a professional poker player such as the perception of family and friends and resume gaps. I feel that both of these are fairly minor in importance overall though. You will be the center of attention at parties when people find out what you do. Usually this will entail a bunch of
You need to realize that as a professional poker player you will still appear like an alien to most members of the general public even in 2014. The ignorance surrounding this game is still vast and it will take a long time to change. When the questions come just play along and even make jokes about it. Never get into long drawn out debates about the nature of the game. My policy now when people try to convince me that poker is a game of luck is to simply agree with them and move on.
As for the resume gap thing, well I think that most long term successful poker players won't have to worry about this anyways. If they have the rare ability to survive in this game over the long term then they are probably capable of starting up plenty of other successful ventures on their own as well.
Those who don't make it playing poker professionally (or those who did but simply decided that it is not for them anymore) should not worry too much about the resume gap in my opinion. I would just be totally honest and put professional poker player on my resume. Somebody in a management role who is too close-minded to at least understand this on some level in 2014 is probably not somebody who I would have any interest in working for anyways.
Let me know your thoughts below about the whole "going pro" thing. Have you ever considered it? If you have made the leap what has your experience been like so far?
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