Being a poker pro looks like the greatest job in the world. But is the reality all it’s cracked up to be?
It’s easy to see the appeal of being a professional poker player: get up when you want, never have to deal with an incompetent boss again, and make tax-free mega-bucks from the comfort of your own home. That’s the dream, and more and more players are buying into it, as they jack in their day jobs and set out to ‘go pro’.
However, many are finding that the reality does not match the fantasy. The stress of downswings and breakeven stretches – and even the difficulty of getting a mortgage – are just some of the problems that make poker anything but an easy living.
So, do you still think you have what it takes? PokerPlayer speaks to Team PKR pro James Sudworth and WSOP bracelet winner Mike Ellis to get their thoughts on the life of a pro…
The Online Pro
If you want to play poker for a living, the easiest way to do it is to play online. The games may be tougher than live, but nothing beats the convenience of working from home with very little in the way of expenses. Online play also offers better game selection, lets you take advantage of software like Hold’em Manager and – most importantly – allows you to multi-table, which can vastly increase your hourly rate.
James Sudworth has earned over $800,000 from online cash games in the six years since he turned pro, but it hasn’t been easy. Sudworth has gone broke twice and is currently playing lower stakes after a terrible first half of 2010. He’s perfectly positioned to give an insight into what it takes to make it as an online grinder…
The Big Decision
After a big tourney win or a few months of winning in the cash games online, it’s easy to get carried away and think you’re good enough to go pro. But how do you really know if you’re ready?
Sudworth says that it’s all about experience and circumstances…
‘If you’re playing cash games you need to have a database of your hand histories and a minimum of one million tracked hands to say that you are a consistent winner. That way you will know what sort of money you can consistently make, whether it is 5BB/100 (five big blinds per 100 hands) or 10BB/100. To even consider turning poker pro you need to be able to earn two or three times as much as you can in a normal job. You really have to have a bonus if you are going to play poker professionally because it is very, very stressful and it’s such a big change in lifestyle.
‘You could easily make $50k a year from playing $1/$2 cash games online though. It’s possible to play really, really tight and win enough to get your mortgage going and pay for your kids’ education, but to win some proper money and have a really good life, you need to be able to gamble. It helps if you don’t have any responsibilities.
‘If you think you’re good enough to turn pro then you need to be able to sit at a table and laugh to yourself because you know exactly what the other player has got and what they are going to do before they do it. It’s not good enough just to be able to play ABC poker.’
So you’ve handed in your notice and are preparing for the life of a pro. But before you get started, what do you need to do? Team PKR’s lead pro says you must pay attention to your new office, your health and begin to plan your working hours…
‘If you’re going to be a poker pro, you must exercise more. You need energy for when you play, and if you’re healthy your brain will be working better. It helps my mental health, too, so I can keep playing well even on a downswing and not just start to gamble.
‘It depends on the player but most people choose to play poker because you don’t have to work from nine till five and can play whenever you want. Just play when you feel like it. I play either when I see a good game running or when I feel like playing. Once you start life as a pro it’s fantastic fun, but after six months or a year it does get pretty boring and sometimes you’ll dread going downstairs to play poker. But you have to do it because of the money.
‘The single most important thing for anyone playing from home is to have a reliable internet connection. Wireless signals are not reliable. I think in the past I have lost $30,000 worth of pots by being disconnected at the wrong times. You must get a PC and a wired connection. Also, get the best broadband you can. Don’t scrimp to get £15-a-month broadband when you can pay £40 and get the very best. It may seem much more but it will pay for itself.’
So Is It Worth It?
Playing poker for a living can be hugely rewarding, but it’s not the right job for everybody. James Sudworth recalls some of the highs and lows of his career so far…
‘I have made close to $800k profit in my career but most of that has gone on my lifestyle. I used to be a real baller, blowing $5k on a night out and partying with celebrities. I even spent $110,000 on hotels alone in 2008. Poker used to be so easy and I could guarantee $2k profit every day through just three or four hours of play. The standard of play has gone up, though, and you can’t possibly earn as much as you could two and a half years ago. The game has allowed me to do things I wouldn’t have been able to, such as living in Brazil and Las Vegas.
‘However, I don’t enjoy the game of poker at the moment as it can also be so stressful. I have been busto twice. It absolutely sucks because it means you have failed. People said to you that you couldn’t beat the game and suddenly you can’t. When you are losing it’s really hard to focus on your play and not your results. Just because you may have lost five hands in a row doing a particular move doesn’t mean that it’s the wrong play – you always have to think about your EV over the long run. I would be happy now just to grind out $10k to $20k per month. I’ve grown up since the days when I used to take big shots and live the life of a bachelor – it’s just too stressful.
‘There’s no way I can get a mortgage either. In the current financial climate you want to have
a job that’s secure. Poker could go wrong if you have misjudged how good you are. And if you have to look for a job it won’t look great to employers if you tell them you’ve been gambling online for the last two years.’
The Live Pro
Mike Ellis gave up a lucrative job trading in the City to become a live pro four years ago. Since then he has gone on to win over $1.4m from tournaments – including a WSOP bracelet this summer – and make a steady living in mid and high-stakes cash games around London. It’s rare for players to give up their jobs and play exclusively live, but the appeal of weaker players, travel and enhanced social interaction means that it should never be discounted as an option. Here are Ellis’s top tips on making a living in today’s live games…
‘Play cash games. It’s very unlikely that you can make a living playing tournaments. The lowest stakes you could play really are £2/£5. It’s probably not a luxurious living playing those stakes, but people do it. The level where most of the pros play is £5/£10 – a good player can make £10k-£20k a month, which compares well to most jobs.’
‘Be selective with the games you play. When I first turned pro I played every night and realised I was overplaying. If there is a good game, go and find it, but don’t be at the casino for the sake of it. It doesn’t help if you want to be the best player in the world and take on anybody. Don’t be proud – just go wherever you can make the most money.’
‘The expenses incurred playing something like the European Poker Tour are horrendous. It’s a time investment, too. The four days or so you play in an EPT – and probably don’t cash – are four days wasted that you could have been earning in the cash games. Plus, you will likely be down around £8,000.’
‘Take it month by month. I have a daily tolerance of how much I am willing to lose. I never want to lose more in one day than I could possibly win the next day. A month is a long time in poker and the downswings tend to even out.’
‘The best thing about being a pro is definitely the flexibility and freedom that you have. You
also get paid for your full value, unlike in a company where they may only pay you 5% of your actual worth – and you get it tax-free!’
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