Tournament Poker Edge … Making the Leap – Becoming a Professional Poker Player

If you’re reading this magazine, chances are you’re pretty into your poker. You’ve probably been playing for a while, taking an interest in the game, and learning as much about it as possible. Maybe you play pretty regularly, and maybe you’ve had some success — some good tournament results or a solid win rate in low-stakes cash games. This might stir you to think of playing the game professionally one day, a dream held by many a bored office-worker worldwide.

Matthew HuntBut is that really such a dream? Why not reality? There are thousands of individuals worldwide who make their living playing poker, so why not you? Well, there are a number of reasons why you might do well as a professional poker player. Almost everyone has some of the characteristics necessary, and almost anyone who’s interested in poker probably has the short-term motivation to try. However, there are also a number of realities you’ll need to prepare for, and since poker players are reluctant to encourage good players to play more often, advice isn’t always readily available. I’d like to offer a few insights based on personal experience that might prove useful to anyone considering “making the leap” and turning professional.

Understand the day-to-day realities

As a professional poker player, you’re going to spend a lot of time playing poker. Much more than you do right now. You might assume that most poker players work a three-day or four-day week, or that they take a month off here and there to go do whatever they want. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of professional poker players put in long hours, and those who don’t, don’t remain professional poker players for long.

Being a poker pro means either spending a lot of time at home at your computer (if you play online), or in a casino (if you play live). Think about what those two choices entail. Replace all of your current working hours with time spent at home at your computer, with only very short breaks, or with time spent at a casino table alongside both the regulars and the recreational players alike. Does it still sound appealing? If so, great. If not, perhaps a part-time poker schedule fits you best.

Be financially responsible

This is incredibly important. What’s the reason so many poker players go broke? It’s not because they suck at poker (well … it’s not always because of that). It’s because they don’t know how to manage their money, and they have unrealistic expectations about the money they’re going to make in the future. They don’t save for a rainy day, and they make irresponsible decisions with how to use the money they have at any given time.

Being a financially responsible poker player means managing your bankroll appropriately, but it also entails not spending beyond your means, understanding your tax commitments, having more than six months’ expenses saved up before you “make the leap,” and never, ever mixing your real-life bankroll with your poker bankroll. The minute you do that, you’re giving yourself permission to eventually go broke, because your brain will always be able to justify it. Keep your discipline, and remember that a dollar in your bank account is worth a lot more than a dollar of “expected value.”

Work on your mental game

Turning pro will test your mental game to its absolute limits. You will experience downswings twice as big as the biggest downswing you’ve ever thought was possible. You’ll tilt, you’ll lose motivation, and you’ll have to really explore why it is you’re playing poker. Is it for the money? That’s fine, but do you have a goal amount in mind after which you’ll quit? If not, you’re going to get caught in an endless cycle of unfulfillment. Is it for the glory? Well, it’s worth recognizing that even if you do achieve a lot within the game, there will always be a lot of people in the game who refuse to believe you are anything other than the worst player they’ve ever seen — unless you’re Phil Ivey (bonus tip: you are not Phil Ivey).

Are you playing poker because you want a job that gives you flexibility in your lifestyle? That’s great, but you should recognize that that flexibility depends on you making a lot of money. If you’re a mediocre poker player, you’re still going to be grinding a 50-hour week like the rest of us. Ultimately, the only reason to play poker for a living is the same reason for doing anything else — because you love doing it. If you really love sitting down to play poker and that activity is continually motivating for you, then you should do it as much as you can. But once you hit your first big downswing, the game will test you, and you may find out that what you loved was winning, and not merely playing.

Stay ahead of the curve

It’s often said that poker is a game that can change overnight. Indeed, back in 2003, it did. Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP Main Event, and the poker boom began. But the change didn’t stop there. Ever since then, the advent of online poker has brought all kinds of new phenomena — forums, training sites, coaching services, HUD software, new analytical tools, and much more. The game is now in a process of constant evolution. Every time a revolutionary new training video is released, its principles are adopted rapidly and a new style of play emerges. A counter-theory presents a way to exploit this new strategy, and so the collective mind-set shifts again.

This was evident from 2007-2010, when so many of the best online tournament regulars played an unbelievably aggressive style involving lots of three-bet, five-bet, and even seven-bet bluffing. As a response, many of the tighter regulars began to learn how to reap the benefits of this over time, and eventually a regression to the mean occurred, with many of today’s top tournament regulars now playing a style that might be termed “adaptive aggression,” making it hard to know exactly who is “tight” and who is “loose.” It will be your job — literally — as a professional poker player to watch training videos and televised footage, follow forums, and take part in strategy discussions to help prevent yourself from falling into an outdated strategy.

Finally, enjoy yourself!

The Holy Grail of poker is to always make the best decisions. That’s what we’re all striving for. For some of you, playing poker professionally may be the best possible decision right now. It might make you the most money, or simply be better than all your other options. Whatever your reason for “making the leap,” it’s important to factor in one crucial thing — enjoyment. As I mentioned before, it’s one thing to say you love poker, and it’s another thing to still enjoy it when you’re in a $10K, $100K, or $1 million downswing.

What I’m getting at is that sometimes we have to expand our decision-making framework, from simply making the best poker decisions, to making the best life decisions. Sometimes it’s easy to think that the best decision at any given time is to play poker, because it has the highest expected value. Of course, if we always abided by this mantra, we’d be playing poker 24/7. So remember that whatever stage of your poker career you’re at, balance is important. If you’re not enjoying poker and you want to go do something else for a while, go do it! You can rest assured that poker will be ready and waiting for you when you get back.

Matthew Hunt (@theginger45) is a professional poker player and a coach at Tournament Poker Edge (www.tournamentpokeredge.com)

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August 2014