How to be a Professional Poker Player
Many envy the life a professional poker player. Who wouldn't want to set their own hours, play a game they love for a living, and travel around the world to various tournaments? Add a nice income to boot, and you have yourself a dream job. So how does a professional become a professional?
Professional poker players do not graduate from Professional Poker Player School, and there is also no guild that bestows the "pro" status on players. It is entirely a label that one adopts for himself. Even some people who lose money at poker consider themselves professionals. Generally, one decides to make poker-playing his occupation for at least one of two reasons:
On the one hand, they may feel that they can make more money at poker than they could at any other occupation they could acquire. Generally, these players have logged in over 500 hours of poker and have clocked their hourly rate to be significantly higher than any other job they could get.
On the other hand, they may simply enjoy the poker lifestyle so much that they will sacrifice income for freedom. Also, the extent of a professional's career varies. Most poker professionals view their poker playing as a temporary job. They may be between jobs or expect to enter a higher paying occupation in the future. Only a relative few view poker playing as a career for life.
A solid professional is fundamentally a businessman. He or she understands how to play poker to maximize his or her income. The incomes of pros are entirely diverse and depend on the skill, bankroll, guts, and luck of the player. The amount of hours that pros play also vary. The only thing they have in common is that poker is their primary source of income. Raw poker skills are only a fraction of what is necessary to make significant money playing poker. One must know what game he or she excels at most in terms of hourly rate. A true, solid poker professional plays the poker game that gives him the highest hourly rate. Generally, the factors that affects one's hourly rate include:
1. One's skill compared to others' skill
2. Number of hands per hour/tables the person can play
3. The rake or time charge
4. The variance involved
Taken together, a person with less cardplaying skill can easily make more money than a very skilled player if the less-skilled person is smarter about all of the other factors. Since pros are interested in making money, they must play against people who essentially are intersted in losing money. This means playing in soft, loose games. Also, because a poker player wants to exert his or her edge as much as possible, the number of hands one plays is a critical factor. Of course, it depends on the type of game the pro chooses.
If a pro is a Limit Hold'em player, then his or her medium of playing is of great importance. Playing on the internet at 3 tables at once will easily yield five times as many hands per hour compared to a person playing in a brick-and-mortar casino. If the two are playing the same limit against comparable competition, the internet pro can easily make five times as much as the brick-and-mortar player. While the brick-and-mortar player can focus more on his one game, the internet pro has the advantage of a lower rake and the ability to play many more hands per hour. At Limit Poker, hand volume is much more important than player reads.
For No-Limit Poker, reads are more important. Thus, a player might not be able to play two or three games at once. Again, it depends on the player, but his or her choice of medium will greatly affect his or her hourly rate.
Tournament professionals exist, too. However, they are fairly rare compared to the number of cash game pros. This is because tournaments have a high level of variance and tend to have stronger competition than cash games. It is also much harder to calculate one's hourly rate at a tournament because tournament income is so volatile. While there are certainly famous, successful tournament players, many who choose this route end up failing. Compared to cash game players, tournament players are notorious for being in debt and dependent on others' staking them.
There are four major turnoffs to being a professional poker player. First, it is not a very social activity. If you are an internet pro, you are essentially playing at home, with little human interaction. You do not enjoy the chat by the water cooler and other social perks associated with a regular job. Secondly, poker becomes very monotonous very quickly. Sure, a pro can play a variety of games. But since a poker professional is primarily interested in making money, he will probably want to mainly play the one game that provides his highest hourly rate. Needless to say, this can become very boring, very fast. Thirdly, many take issue that the poker player does not really contribute anything to society. This has become less and less of an issue, as professional poker players are often considered 'entertainers.'
Finally, and most importantly to many, poker can have a highly variable income. Based on my own data, my standard deviation per hour is 6 times my hourly rate. This basically means that if I made $100 an hour, there is about a 68% chance that in any one hour I'd make between -$500 and $700. The rest of the time I would have an ever larger swing. This is not appealing to many, who couldn't handle the stress of such fluctations of income. The poker professional must not be phased by these fluctuations at all. Generally, poker players with large bankrolls tend to fare better and play with less fear. While their poker winnings are what puts food on the table, any one day, week, or month means relatively little to their overall bankroll.
What a true professional worries about is not the luck of the cards but the changes in the poker market. Professionals need to play against poor players. One makes money because one has better relative skill than others. If a pro is playing against a bunch of pros, then he or she will make little to no money. A poker professional's income is much more dependent on the skill of others than himself. After all, he has probably perfected his skills as much as he possibly can. The only thing that can affect his relative skill is the skill level of the opposition. If no new, poor players enter the poker world, the professional will probably have to look for a new job.
For the above reasons, most solid poker players do not become professionals. Many of those with the skills and bankroll necessary to play poker can make just as much (if not more) money at another job. They also may simply love another job so much that they would rather do that line of work than poker, even if they made more money at poker. It is probably a good thing for poker professionals that being a full-time poker player is not too appealing of a job. If many people became pros, then the competition would be too tough to make much money at poker!
Poker is often better as a secondary job. 'Semi-professionals' enjoy poker as a side income and hobby without relying on it as a stable source of income. They also avoid the anti-social, monotonous nature of professional poker playing. Some semi-pros make a very significant income from playing cards, even more than many professionals! After all, none of the last three winners of the World Series of Poker were professionals at the time. Poker as a lucrative hobby instead of a profession is the route that most winning players take.