For exactly one year of my life, I was a professional poker player. That is, poker was my sole source of income (not to mention my main source of annoyance and frustration, with a heaping side of anxiety). During that year, I realized that the way the profession is portrayed in all the poker shows on TV is a steaming crock pot of bullshit. Even the James Bond movies steered me wrong. Where are the tuxedos?
Although I have friends who've played professionally for years now -- and love it -- that life is nothing like you probably think. For instance ...
Poker pros like to call themselves sharks, actively hunting for minnows in the poker seas. Sounds like an exciting, adrenaline-charged life, right? Not quite. A better metaphor for a poker player would be an anglerfish:
With a math degree:
As a pro, you're not constantly attacking the weak players hand after hand after hand. If you are, you're guaranteed to go broke. Instead, you sit and wait. And wait. And wait and wait and wait some more. And finally, when you get a decent hand, you strike and win your nicely sized pot.
Then you go back to waiting.
"Why does that guy keep trying to bite me?"
It's a long, grinding game of patience and attrition. And that's because it's all about tediously waiting for the percentages to line up in your favor -- successful poker players only play about 20 percent of the hands they're dealt. That's right -- 80 percent of the time, they're spectators. And, they know exactly what percentage of hands they're playing, because this is the type of minutiae they keep track of. People think that poker is all about reading facial expressions, but it's actually all about math. In fact, many poker pros -- especially the online players -- are outright stats junkies, entering the details of every single session into analysis programs to calculate their overall win rate and help them fix any holes in their games. Here's what a typical pro's post-game analysis might look like.
Did any of that make sense to you? If you want to be a high-stakes poker pro, it'd better. Because it's what all the other pros are doing.
Sample quote: "(NUMBERS)."
When my professional player friends get into serious conversations about their play, all you ever seem to hear are statistical terms: expected value, preflop raise percentage, call percentage, fold percentage and so forth. If your eyes glaze over whenever you hear a baseball fanatic talk about a player's on-base percentage against left-handed pitchers in home games on even-numbered months when the barometric pressure drops below 650 mm Hg, then don't ever ask a poker pro about his playing stats. It's much, much worse.
"When the moon is waxing I three-bet predraw, then knock everyone out with a baseball bat."
If I'm making it sound like getting good at poker requires years of tedious study, well ...
If you're fascinated by high-stakes poker players, odds are it's from watching them on TV in those huge multimillion-dollar tournaments (or, you know, Casino Royale). That's what everyone daydreams himself doing, but the first thing to understand is that those guys on TV are the Kobe Bryants and Tom Bradys of the poker world. And Kobe has decades of slow, dedicated, boring practice behind him, as well as millions of sit-ups and bench presses and endless miles around the track.
It's a pretty terrible life.
It's easy to forget that aspect of poker, because the whole point of gambling is that supposedly anybody can hit a lucky streak at any time and win big. That's what draws crowds of tourists to Vegas every year. Hell, maybe you're secretly a genius at it, like Rain Man at the blackjack table. And in fact, rank amateurs have made it all the way to the final table of the World Series of Poker, cashing in a nice million-dollar paycheck (like the ridiculously-named Chris Moneymaker).
Chris Moneymaker, seconds before destroying his opponent, Will Pushhisluck.
What you don't see behind those dramatic, high-stakes games are the endless months and years of practice poring over those numbers and honing your strategy. You're not playing against machines; you're playing against humans, who are always getting better. And you're playing with your own money.
Basically, picture this:
Except you're the horse. And you get shot if you finish in last place. That's pretty much what being a poker pro feels like.
My friend Matt has played poker professionally for eight years now. For most of this period, he earned his living playing online (and would still be doing so if the government hadn't recently indicted the owners of three of the largest online poker sites). As part of his daily routine, Matt scours online poker forums, discussing strategy with other serious players, pros and amateurs alike. He has a small group of trusted friends he Skypes with, spending hours every day reviewing and analyzing the hands they've played -- a daunting task, given that they each play over 100,000 hands every month.
That's not a typo. These people are deadly serious.
They record themselves playing and share these sessions with each other so that they can critique each other's skills. This is the type of single-minded, obsessive dedication required just to get good enough at poker to do it for a living, let alone actually excel at it. And then ...
Even the superstars don't make a living stroking their egos and taking on the other superstars. They make their living beating up on the wannabe pros dumb enough to take them on. Look at it this way: If Kobe's only source of income came from betting his own money in a game of HORSE, do you think he'd take on LeBron? Remember, this isn't about winning a trophy and a ring -- in poker, if you don't win, you don't get paid. Period.
Some would argue this would actually improve basketball.
So if you want to make money, you simply have to seek out players you know you can consistently beat. Otherwise, the Peter Principle will destroy you. That's the theory that everyone in a field gets promoted to his own level of incompetence. So in poker, let's say you're able to win at a certain betting limit. So, you move up to the next higher limit, where the players will be that much better. And you keep doing this until you get to a limit where you're now the sucker at the table. And then you go broke.
"Hey everyone! This guy's playing Clue!"
Matt, my aforementioned friend, has a brother, Jake, who decided to go pro a few years after he did. In his first eight months, Jake made nearly $20,000 playing low-stakes games. He was then confident enough that he jumped up to five times the limits he'd been playing at before, a move somewhat akin to a miniature golfer deciding to take on the PGA. After an initial winning run of another $20,000, Jake got hammered with an $80,000 downswing and ended up having to drop down to even lower stakes than he'd previously been playing.
Needless to say, he barely got away with his pants unwedgied.
This is a well-known phenomenon among aspiring pros. No, the way to make money at poker is to check your ego and play only at the limits you know you can beat. And when you feel ready to move up, you have to make sure you've built up a strong enough bankroll -- and properly fortified your balls -- to withstand a substantial losing streak.