6 Reasons Professional Poker Is Way Harder Than It Looks
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 ...
Forget Luck and High-Stakes Bluffing -- It's All About Math
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 ...
It Requires Years of Tedious Study
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 ...
Just When You Start to Get Good, You Lose Everything
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.
You Stop Giving a Shit About Your Money
I used to keep track of my finances like an accountant with OCD. Well, all that got drop-kicked after I started playing poker. Remember how anal retentive poker players are about their play stats? The big irony is that they're anal about their play, but nonchalant with their money. Kind of like the morbidly obese dieter who's anal about his Diet Coke, but nonchalant with his bacon.
"Can I get a shot of rum with my nonalcoholic beer?"
You see, in poker, there's something called variance. Variance is the stats nerd's way of saying that, in order to generate an average profit of, say, $100 an hour, you have to tolerate swings of thousands and sometimes even tens of thousands of dollars. Let's say you start a session with $10,000 and end up with $11,000 five hours later. Hey, you just had a great day, averaging $200 per hour in profit over five hours. But, during those five hours, you may at some point have been down to $1,000 and at another point been up to $20,000. That's variance.
Sure, he missed one step, but he went down the other 20 like a champion.
My buddy Matt once got into a 50-hour-long heads-up (one-on-one) match with another pro. Well, the other guy took Matt for over $70,000, at which point Matt decided to take a break from poker for a few months. When I commiserated and pointed out that taking a break was probably a good idea after such a big loss, Matt replied that it wasn't about the money. He didn't give a shit that he lost $70K. What he cared about was that he got outplayed for 50 hours straight. And that's why he was taking a break. Because, due to variance, what matters in the long run is how well you play, not how much you win or lose in any given session.
The same could not be said for strip poker.
And since becoming numb to losses is part of the game, that extends beyond the poker table. Matt recently went to dinner with a bunch of poker friends. They decided to play credit card roulette for the $2,000 dinner tab -- everyone tossed their credit cards into a pile, and the server picked one at random to charge. Matt's card got picked, and the only reaction it elicited from him was an annoyed chuckle. And it wasn't because $2,000 meant nothing to him. It's just what poker does to you. You get desensitized to losing huge gobs of money due to random chance.
When flirting with fate, it's best to assume the position first.
And in fact ...
You Become Immune to Bad Luck
Don't get me wrong: despite the downside, Matt and Jake love their job. They love it because it's technical and analytical, and because it's a unique lifestyle and because they enjoy the ups and downs.
And because this guy is just asking to be shaken down.
Poker teaches you humility, emotional control and, most of all, patience. You realize that life in general is one big game of chance that you can kind of sort of control, but often is subject to just plain dumb luck, and that life is about how you react to that luck. To use an obnoxiously tired metaphor that's actually appropriate here, you learn that life will deal you a shitty hand every now and then (sometimes one after another for months on end). But when it does, you just have to toss the cards aside and wait for the next hand to come your way. The game goes on.
That's why gamblers tend to be a philosophical bunch.
When your car breaks down and you need a $700 emergency repair ... oh well, shit happens. When your credit card gets hacked and thousands get charged on it ... whatever, it's just a minor annoyance. When your girlfriend dumps you ... fuck it, you'll meet someone else. They've felt all of these ups and downs before, at the table. Poker takes the kind of dramatic ups and downs you'd normally experience over the course of a decade working in an office and plays them out in one night.
One day, you're hitting up Vegas nightclubs and plowing through four $500 bottles of Grey Goose at a VIP table. The next day, you're wondering if skipping breakfast will leave you enough money for dinner. That's life, and you learn to accept it.
Not that it's for everyone, either. One thing you don't pick up on when watching the glamorous pros is the fact that ...
There Is Guilt
Sometimes when you have a shitty job, bonding with your coworkers is what gets you through the day. Well, in poker, you have no coworkers, because everyone else is the enemy. That's the thing about poker: it's not like a business, where a customer gives you money and in return you give the customer a car or a TV or a hamburger. Poker is a zero-sum game, which means that every dollar you win was lost to you by another person. So, if you're pulling in $100K a year, that means that people collectively lost $100K to you over that year.
"Hey honey! I lost half our house deposit but ended up with another guy's pension!"
This has led to professional poker players being compared to drug dealers, because sometimes your best source of income is the degenerate gambler who's so addicted to poker that he's willing to risk his entire life savings. As a poker pro, though, your job isn't to be the addict's conscience and cut him off. Your job is to feed his habit and give him the gambling high that he craves.
"This is awesome!"
I still remember the moment I realized I could never be a poker pro long-term: I was playing at the Orleans in Las Vegas. Everyone at the table was friendly, and I was having a great time just chatting up my tablemates. Two seats to my right was a retired-looking old man who didn't say much, but always smiled whether he won or lost. After a few hours of play, he was down to his last $40 or so, which he committed to a hand I was in. I won that hand, and as the dealer pushed the pile of chips toward me, I looked up to see the old man slowly push his seat back and stand up. He even managed a sort of goodbye nod toward me, but his body language gave away his dejection as he plodded away from the table.
Now, I don't know if he was playing with retirement money or extra spending cash. I don't know if my busting him out meant that he would be short on money for the rest of the month. And, as I noted above, it wasn't my business to care. If someone is going to risk his money against me, I have a right to win it -- the players know the rules when they sit down.
There's no mercy in this game.
Still, as I watched him walk away, this feeling of uneasiness crept over me. I had done what I was supposed to do -- win money -- so why did I feel so guilty? Right then and there, I knew I didn't want to play professionally for much longer.
Dennis would like to thank "Matt" and "Jake" for their stories (they know who they are). Check out more of Dennis' personal stories here.
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