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Playing Poker for a Living

 Authored by Poker Pro Andrew Morrill. Learn more about Andrew.

Playing poker for a living is what most recreational players can only dream about.  Playing poker professionally is like any other job, to do it for a living you need to be better than most at it. Playing poker is about playing in the best games you can find, even if they do not mesh with your schedule. We will be looking at several important topics should you decide to play poker for a living. 

Playing Poker for a Living

My Life in Poker

My life in poker is nothing short of doing everything the wrong way. 

If there was a mistake or a bad idea to be made I have done it. I have busted more bankrolls than I care to remember. I have played in games where I didn't even know what the rules were. I have played in games over and over that you simply can't profit from (i.e. $2/$4 limit holdem in a casino).

My first real money non-home game was at Foxwoods Casino in 2005. I sat down at a $2/$4 limit holdem game which was the smallest game they have. I remember having an Ace high flush with just the A♦ in my hand, and thinking my flush might not be good because the other player may have two diamonds in his hand. I knew better of course, but I lost all common sense my first game.

As soon as I came home from Foxwoods, I got addicted to online poker. I would get paid on Fridays, deposit Friday night, and bust my $50 deposit before Sunday night. I started reading and learning about poker and how the game works, it was very overwhelming. I found some sites that would offer programs that would tell you when to bet, raise, or fold. Thinking this would be the best $150 I would ever spend; I bought a program and was ready to make my millions.  Not only did I bust another $50 deposit, I was out $150 for this terrible program.

In November of 2007 I won a $33 tournament on line for $3,000 and I started playing at the local card rooms in New Hampshire.  Due to the laws in New Hampshire regarding gambling, our card room had games called "minis". 

These were timed single table tournaments where your chips were worth a certain dollar amount. At the end of the two "periods" (a 30-minute rebuy and a 30-minute freeze-out where the blinds doubled) you would cash in your chips for however much they were worth.

I had moved to Pittsburgh in 2008 and a casino was opened in 2009. Being primarily an online player, Black Friday forced me into the live casino games once again.  I had gone from an online fixed limit Omaha 8 grinder to a live No Limit Holdem player. The transition was rough and with a small part time job on the side I was playing at the casino on the weekends. Eventually I got back into playing poker full time as a No Limit cash game player which I continue to do today.

Below are my thoughts and tips on playing poker for a living.  Take them at face value, and remember:  No one else can make your decisions for you.  

Playing Tournament Poker for a Living

Playing tournaments as your main source of income can be a slippery slope, some would even say impossible. The best tournament players in the world can go months without a cash finish. While it was possible to be a tournament professional online, the UIEGA has made that very difficult for players in America.  Most players will not have a bankroll to play live tournaments and off-set the cost of travelling to events.

The Professional Poker Player

Telling people you are a professional poker player can be an interesting experience for better or worse.  People will inevitably have questions, sometimes lots of questions.

Depending on your level of social grace you may choose to avoid this topic or embrace it. In my experience people have fallen into two main categories: They will want you to teach them how to play and profit from poker in no less than 100 words, or they will see you no differently than someone who is addicted to slots.

Making Money in Poker

It has been said time and time again, "Poker: A hard way to make an easy living". During your poker career you may be earning $500 a week, it could come $2,000 in one week and you break even for the rest of the month. You could lose $1,000 the first week, break even for two weeks, and make $3,000 the last week.  It also isn't guaranteed that you'll come out ahead at the end of each month either.

Making money in poker requires working as hard off the table as you do on the tables.  To make money at poker you have to be actively seeking out opportunities and games where your win rate will be the highest.  Sometimes you will be playing a game you otherwise wouldn't for any number of reasons. We will discuss those reasons in a few moments. 

How Hard is Professional Poker?

Poker is a game that you get exactly what you put into it long-term, that's to say - it's not easy.  If you play poker with reckless abandon, you will get results that will reflect that. 

If you play poker very tight, only taking the best opportunities, booking small wins, your results will reflect that too.

The hardest parts of poker are psychological. It can be maddening to see someone hit hand after hand.  It can be hard to go back to the tables the next night after losing multiple buy-ins the night before.  Mental toughness is one of the biggest assets a poker player can have.

Top 5 Tips: Playing Poker for a Living 

#1 Bankroll Management

Without a bankroll, you are not playing poker. Proper management requires a great deal of self-discipline.  Building a bankroll can be as easy or as hard as you want it to be.  If you start playing $0.01/$0.02 no limit games online a 40 buy-in bankroll of $80 would be a good start. Once you start building up you can advance to higher stakes.  Take your time with building your bankroll, it won't happen overnight.

#2 Make sure the game is beatable

I played $2/$4 limit holdem for quite a while and never made a significant win rate at it. I would constantly come home questioning my abilities.  I started noticing other people having the same problems and the answer was always the same thing, "The rake is too much". Rake can turn a good game bad. Always check on the rake schedules for any game you will play. If you play at a casino, ask the floor man about a reduced rake if the game becomes shorthanded or other such rake discounts.

#3 Always find promotions

Any way you can off-set your losing sessions is a huge advantage.  Online sites will offer deposit bonuses, point offers, or rakeback or some kind. Live casinos will offer things as well such as free drawings, free play, and some casinos will even allow you to use your comp dollars to enter tournaments.  Always sign up for any "player's club" or other membership programs, even if you are only there for a couple days.

#4 Understanding why your opponents are there

When I go play at my local casino, I always like to look at what promotions look good and how they work. This will let me know if I should play and how I should play. 

For example, a large bad beat jackpot will fill the room; however most of the players will buy-in short and just post blinds.  You won't win much in those games. At the other extreme, if there is a high hand jackpot, players will be playing anything just to make a huge hand. These could be great games and big pots.

#5 Your best game vs. The best game

If you become good at several games, you will increase your opportunity to make money.  On a scale of 1-10 your Holdem game may be an 8 vs the average player's 6. However in Omaha you might be a 7 and the average player in a particular game is a 3 or 4.  Learning a new game before everyone else can catch up can mean you will get some easy money.

Growing a Bankroll

Most new players don't have very realistic goals when it comes to growing a bankroll. This will be a timeline of what you can expect when playing poker in cash games. Since bonuses and rakeback change from site to site, we will leave that out of the equation. For the cash games we will assume our player can play 20 hours a week, has a win rate of 4 Big Blinds per table, per hour. This player also plays 4 tables at once.

Week 0

Our player has made his first deposit of $40 and decides he will play $0.01/$0.02 No-Limit holdem. With the win rate we established he will win $0.32 an hour. He will move up to $0.02/$0.05 No-Limit cash games once he builds up to $100.  He will have to play about 188 hours, or about 9 weeks.

Week 9

Having $100 our player begins playing $0.02/$0.05 No-Limit Holdem.  His next goal is $0.05/$0.10 No-Limit holdem which he will need $200. He maintains his win rate of 4 big blinds per hour, per table. He will win .80 an hour and it will take him 125 hours to reach this goal, or about 7 weeks.

Week 16

Our player has turned his $40 deposit into $200 and will not try $0.05/$0.10 No-Limit.  While playing this level he sees his win rate drop from 4 big blinds to 3 big blinds per table, per hour.  He would like to have a minimum of $500 to move to $0.10/$0.25 No-Limit. While his win rate has dropped he will still make more money at this level, about $1.20 an hour. He will spend 250 hours at this level, or about 13 weeks.

Week 29

Feeling great about the six months of hard work he has put in, he can now play $0.10/$0.25 with his bankroll of $500.  Playing four tables on Americas Cardroom with a three big blind win rate he will make $3 an hour, with the goal of growing the bankroll to $1,000. This will take about 167 hours, or about 9 weeks.

Week 38

Our player has now built his roll into $1,000 and begins playing $0.25/$0.50 No limit.  Still maintaining his 3 big blind win rate with four tables running he will make $6 per hour, grinding to $2,000.  He will spend another 167 hours or 9 weeks at this level.

Week 47

Our player has $2,000 and takes his first shot at $0.50/$1.00 No Limit.  While playing this level our player has noticed some problems. First there are not as many good games running, so he will only be able to play two tables at once. The games have also gotten tougher and he can only win 2 big blinds per hour, per table. He will only make $4 an hour, $2 less than he was making at the level.

There are two things to take away from this timeline.  First it could take close to a year to grow a bankroll from $40 to $2,000, showing how important seeking bonuses and rakeback can be.  Second, you will most likely reach a level that you will make less money at than the previous. Always keep track of your win rates at each level to see where you are making the most money.

Poker Software

For those who are playing online there is lots of poker software available to help with your game.  The most popular versions of software come with a "HUD" or Heads-Up Display. This software tracks player performance in several statistical categories such as profit, how often then are playing hands and how often they raise. This is a very important part to playing poker for a living online, but is beyond the scope of this page.

Win/Loss recording

Keeping track of all your winning and losing sessions is crucial to see how you are doing as a player. A graph from a databasing site like  PokerTracker can tell you at a glance if someone is an outstanding player like Ben Grundy:

ben grundy plo graph

Or someone who had a good night and then came back to reality:big swing poker graph

 Start your career playing poker for a living at Americas Cardroom.