The Real Reason Only 1% Make it as a Professional Poker Player

Longevity in Poker: The True Measure of Success
I used to watch a lot of poker on TV. I will never forget a particular hand in the 2008 National Heads Up Poker Championship. A young and mostly unheard of kid "from the internet" named Tom Dwan sat down to play against a giant of the live game with an ego just as big in Phil Hellmuth.

Both players got all the money in early with Phil holding aces and Tom holding tens. Tom managed to nail his two outer on the turn and you just knew that the sh crap was going to hit the fan! 

Even though this is a completely standard cooler in heads up poker and two outers happen all the time, a big lecture was coming for sure. Things got a little heated as Phil patronizingly let Tom know how bad he thought his play was. Tom in turn challenged Phil to heads up for any stakes, any time.

Ironically, they actually played each other again the very next year in the exact same tournament. This time Phil knocked out Tom on a cooler however. In a complete reversal Phil had nothing but praises for his opponent this time calling him "the best under 30 player in the world" and "maybe the best all around player in the world."

The most interesting point in the original 2008 exchange for me though was when Phil famously said the following to Tom:

"We'll see if you're even around in 5 years."

Well, it has been 7 years now and Tom Dwan is still a pretty big deal in poker. However, this doesn't diminish what Phil said back then. What he was implying is absolutely true. That is:

Longevity is the true measure of success in poker. 

I have been around in this game myself now for over ten years. Even though most of my play has been at the micros I am a big fan of the game as well. I love to railtard me some high stakes action with the best of them!

Over the years I have seen countless names and faces come and go at my stakes and those above it, both online and live. You constantly hear about some guy who is ripping up the tournament scene or killing the cash games. But fast forward a few years down the road and nobody has heard of him.

So what happened?

Variance is a Beast

Longevity in Poker
The true nature of variance is something that eventually sinks it's teeth into most poker players. Most people vastly under-estimate it's impact even if they are well past the beginner's stage of complaining about a few bad beats. Eventually a downswing comes along that is too big for them to handle. They proceed to decimate their bankroll with tilt and sometimes even throw in the towel for good.

But even for the few who manage to come to terms with variance (relatively speaking) there is still a bigger obstacle yet. This is the will to truly survive in this game in the long term. There are huge changes that happen in this industry and within the game itself every single year that we have absolutely no control over.

Think of all the American professional online poker players who woke up one April morning a few years ago to find out that they could no longer play in their own country anymore. Think of all the people who had funds in limbo (their entire bankroll in some cases) under the disastrous and criminal former Full Tilt ownership group. Think of the massive changes that have taken place in the way that the online game is played even though it has only been in existence for slightly more than a decade. So many people have refused to evolve and they ended up getting left behind.

This is not even to mention personal life issues that can happen to anyone such as a divorce, death in the family or a major illness. Poker is a game that requires a high degree of focus and emotional control so events like these can affect a poker player's ability to do his/her job much more than the average person.

Built to Last

Poker test of time
There are so many ups and downs in the career of a professional or semi-professional poker player. And sometimes in the case of big changes in the industry or government meddling they don't have any control over it at all. This is why it takes an incredibly resilient person to survive in the long run in this game. Talent alone is simply not enough.

In my opinion what really separates the few who last for 5 years, 10 years or more is a deep passion and respect for the game.

I am not going to lie. I have almost quit poker several times myself. About 5 years into my poker career I had to ask myself many times what I am even doing in this game. Even though I have had more success than failure in my few shots at mid and high stakes I knew early on that the stress of playing at those limits day in and day out was not for me.

On the flip side, I could continue mass multi-tabling the micros for crazy win rates every day. However, no matter how good you are at these stakes there is only so much money that you can make. I had to ask myself if my time was perhaps better spent elsewhere. I had to ask myself if I still really wanted this.

A few things kept me in the game though.

1. Quitting Poker Meant Getting a "Real Job."

Yikes...who wants one of those?

One of the biggest reasons that I got into this game in the first place was the ability to be my own boss. With online poker I can work when I want and where I want. I was simply not willing to give this up. I would much rather sit around 24 tabling the micros all day for a pretty meager salary by Western standards than go work a 9-5 again for someone else.

You would have to rip the mouse from my cold dead hands...

2. I Found a New Purpose in This Game.

It was around this same time (4 or 5 years ago) that I first started writing this blog as an educational resource for a large audience. For years before it had simply been a personal journal of my ups and downs at the micros and a way to keep track of my goals. In fact for the first 3 years of this blog's existence I purposely never mentioned my screen name even once. I was not looking to be found. I was not looking for an audience.

But then as many people know, around this time a certain infamous website started publishing the results of all online poker players whether they liked it or not. Due to my exploits at the micros, which people could now plainly see, I gained a bit of a following (and even some haters too) almost overnight. I never asked for any of this of course but I figured that I may as well use it in a positive way.

I quickly found out that I actually enjoyed writing about the game and teaching it to others. The nature of the stakes that I am mostly talking about here (NL2, NL5, NL10 etc.) means that a lot of the people who are reading what I say are pretty new to the game. 

Many of them in fact have never had any success in poker before at all. So it is incredibly satisfying to receive an email or a blog comment for instance where somebody tells you that something you said turned their results around.

I eventually went on to get involved as an instructor at a major poker training site, offer private coaching and even write two books on the game. All of this definitely re-invigorated my passion for poker because it allowed me to do something that I enjoy (teaching the game) and create another income source as well.

Pro Tip: One of the biggest keys to longevity in poker is not getting burnt out. When all you do is grind all day every day for years like I did then you are just asking for that to happen. This is why when I meet professional poker players these days I often suggest that they branch out more. If you have been around in this game for 5 or more years and had even mediocre success then chances are good that you know a thing or two (i.e., you know way more than 90% of people out there!). And therefore, the chances are also good that somebody out there would like to hear what you have to say and will even pay you for it as well.

3. I Moved to the Other Side of the World

the test of time in poker
With the whole being my own boss thing I have always understood the "play when I want" part but for the longest time I failed to grasp the "play where I want" part as well. So I finally made the decision to relocate in 2012.

Being from Canada I wanted to go somewhere that is warm, has a low cost of living and I wanted it to be exotic as well. In the poker forums it seemed that everybody was talking about Thailand all the time. And this country also got big check marks in all three of my categories. So a little over 3 years ago I booked a one way ticket from Vancouver to Bangkok.

I soon found out that there is a big huge world out there. I had existed only in a tiny little bubble up until that point. After crossing an ocean I landed in a completely foreign land that was shocking to the senses in every respect. I also landed in a country that is the number one destination on earth for migrant online poker players. Therefore I was quickly able to find plenty of people who "speak my language."

But perhaps most importantly of all for me as a micro stakes pro is that everything was suddenly half the price, a third the price or even less in some cases. I was able to drastically cut my expenses overnight and therefore live a much higher quality of life on the same amount of money. My only regret is that I hadn't thought of doing something like this sooner.

4. I Have a Deep Passion and Respect for the Game of Poker

But as I said before, the biggest reason why people stay in this game over the long haul is a deep passion and respect for the game of poker. This is what has always carried me through all of the ups and downs of my career. I was absolutely obsessed with the game for the first few years and I still am to a certain extent.

I love discussing hands, I love playing the game, I love writing about the game, heck I even still watch poker on TV from time to time! If you truly love what you do then it will always be a pleasure to work at it each day.

The Real Reason Only 1% Make it as a Professional Poker Player (Conclusion)

Phil Hellmuth was right.

As easy as it is to poke fun at the TV poker pros for their antics (and lack of skill in some cases) many of these guys have indeed withstood the test of time. And this is very much a skill in and of itself. Perhaps the hardest one of all to master.

Being a professional poker player is literally one of the hardest jobs that you can pick to do. Many have tried and very few have truly succeeded in the long run.

But what I do know for sure is that if you don't have a true passion for poker then there is no point in even trying. This game will run you through the ringer, chew you up, spit you out and then do it all over again. You have to be almost sick in the head to some degree to keep going through some of the insane crap that long term variance will throw your way.

And of course this is not even to mention the state of the industry itself, the ever-changing nature of the games and governments trying to mandate what we can and cannot do in the privacy of our own homes.

But if at the end of the day you truly have a deep passion and love for this game and this is really what you want to do, then my advice is to go for it. And don't hold back.

Because maybe just maybe...we'll see you around in 5 years! :)

Lastly, for my entire poker strategy for crushing small and mid stakes games, make sure you grab a copy of my free poker cheat sheet.

Let me know in the comments below what you think about longevity in poker. How long have you been around in this game? Do you think it is a good measure of success?

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poker phil hellmuth


  1. This post reminded me of some poker players I started following on Twitter who quit the game all of the sudden due to a number of reasons. You truly need a deep love for this game (or self punishment some times) to be around for a long time. Nice to see you're uploading more videos every week to your Youtube channel. Thanks for all the work!

    1. Thanks for always reading Jorge!

  2. Somebody asked Doyle after poker broke wide open "who do you think the best new players are?" he said "ask me in 20 years". I read an an article/interview with Chip Reese where he said that the guys who are successful are the ones that can survive, either break even or have small losses inbetween the good periods. Sounds like me and online poker in a nutshell. I break even/have small losses 95% of the time, then have a little good patch where I increase my bankroll a little. But I can tell you I am hyper-competitive when playing and oh my god does it piss me off when I lose if I get it in in a good spot and get bad beat. It's very hard because my mind sees it as "that was MY pot" and not only am I losing my buy-in, but I'm losing the profit I should have had as well, when it SHOULD have been mine.

    I think this is how the human brain is wired. You do "X" amount of work, you get "Y" amount of reward. That's how it is in most activities. Haha not in poker. It's you do "X" amount of work and then the biggest idiot at the table gets the pot. ESPECIALLY at the micros, where some people have disposable income and are playing the game just like it's play money. Only difference is they don't care if they lose, I am trying as hard as I can to win. Definitely agree your brain has to either come pre-wired to not care about results or become that way.

    But hey I've been at it since 2005 off and on and I'm still here. I just wish I could get my live game success to transfer into online.

    Now a question. I know you've probably written about this, but do you think I should have a 50 buyin bankroll for every online table I play? if not how many buyins per table should I have? Great writing as always.

    1. Great quotes there Adam by Doyle and Chip. I have always felt the same as you. I am just trying to keep my head above water 90% of the time. The periods when everything is going well and I am adding to my bankroll are few and far between.

      I don't think you really need 50 buyins for each limit online unless you are a professional or adding to your bankroll is impossible. This is especially the case at the lowest stakes where really big downswings should not happen. It is up to the individual though. Some people are more risk adverse and just like to have a bigger number.

  3. I followed a few streams on around 7 months ago with guys doing a bankroll challenge while trying to teach the game. Not one of them has logged on in forever and the challenges were never completed. Looks like they couldn't make it. You should look in to streaming on Twitch Nathan. You get Ad revenue and receive donations from people watching and subscribing. Also it is a great way for us to learn while watching you play. Leatherass and Daniel Negreanu started streaming on there, but they play way too high of stakes for me. Watching you stream would be perfect. I was able to move up to 10nl for the first time because of your first book and watching you on dragthebar.

    1. Hey Brad,

      A few people have asked me about this now. It is definitely something that I will look into more. I have checked out Nano's stream a few times and it looked really cool. A potential issue for me though might be that I live in Asia. This is a large part of the reason that I no longer coach. The timezone thing sucks :( Glad my book and videos helped! Continued success to you :)

  4. It was a great idea to create the blog and keep playing. You write very well, congratulations! It's always a pleasure to read your posts :)

    1. Thank you very much Leonardo, glad you enjoy my blog!

  5. Great article. I've bookmarked it so I will come back to it during my next downswing.

    I can really relate to the following point: "Most people vastly under-estimate [variance's] impact even if they are well past the beginner's stage of complaining about a few bad beats. Eventually a downswing comes along that is too big for them to handle. They proceed to decimate their bankroll with tilt and sometimes even throw in the towel for good"

    I've been in a downswing for a while now (I call it that and there's evidence: last 50k hands are according to Poker Tracker way unlucky for straights, flushes and sets). Fear of tilt and losing has turned me into a super nit. But this article has encouraged me to pick myself back up and get back to the tables...


    1. Glad I could help in any way Gerard. Poker is one tough game. Nobody is there to hold your hand or tell you how to deal with downswings like this. And even worse most people don't want to hear about your bad beat stories either! It sounds like you have the right attitude for success though. Thanks for reading and I hope things turn around for you soon. All the best!

    2. Your articles (and of course the CTM book) definitely help.

      I'm pretty sure that despite playing fewer hands because of my downswing 'nitness' I'm probably winning more and losing less because of better play. That came about after I took some some time off the tables and got back into the theory/analysis side of poker, which in and of itself gave me added interest in the game. As mentioned, one of the key sources of info was your CTM book. It really helped in terms of table selection, reading other player types helped by the HUD, which I had never used before but I was sold on and now really get value all due to your book, and extracting the fish's cash, which even in a downswing is a thoroughly effective tactic that your book goes into depth on.

      Once I start getting 'lucky' again, I reckon I'll be ways more effective than I was before. Until then, thanks again for the motivation and info as it really helps!


  6. Playing online for 9 years and aggression is the way to go, you have taught well Blackrain79!
    Variance will rear its ugly head more often than not but a passion and a relentless pursuit for perfection is vital.

    1. Thanks Mi Br and congrats on your success and longevity!

  7. Started my online poker journey late 2010 with a buddy.

    Began making actual profit and went full time grinding mid 2014.

    Earning a stable living at 50NL in 2015. Yep, still here.

    As always, thanks for the good read Nathan. Keep it up!

    1. Great job sandr1x! Good to hear about success stories like yours. Thank you for reading :)

  8. I know you are right when I see the same regulars that I have 10-12k hands with them and looking that they are married to a certain stake suddenly stopping playing. And no, they didn't move up in stakes.

    Still in the game since 2009. I wish I was playing higher stakes.