The positive aspects poker can bring to your life and how to liver long and prosper from poker
The decision by David Benefield to give up online poker and go back into education has taken many in the poker world by surprise and caused a stir on online forums. But is it really such a shock that a player scaling the heights of poker success has looked around and thought: is there more to life than this? Benefield says that poker has provided the ‘luxury of choice’ to make a decision about his future – and it seems likely that he will continue in poker to some extent – even if it takes a backseat to his studies and future career. His reasons for quitting poker may be personal but his decision raises the question: is poker a long-term, fulfilling and healthy pursuit?
Let’s say there’s a career that lets you choose your hours and location; where your pay is directly related to your performance; where you have the chance to earn thousands upon thousands of pounds; where you have no nine-to-five grind and no boss. Sounds like the sort of thing any intelligent individual would jump at. To some this is the reality of poker and countless casual players take the plunge and turn pro every year chasing the dream. But not everyone gets to live out this idyllic poker fantasy.
Benefield, on explaining his return to education said: ‘I’ve spent too many days sitting around my house, focusing on my computer screen, waiting for big fish to come on and play. I don’t want to be there when I’m 40-years-old. There are better things to do with my time.’ So, is he right? How does a life in poker really affect your overall quality of life? We have consulted some of the top pros in the game to find out how to keep poker alive for you, how to ensure that it’s a fulfilling activity for years to come, how to avoid going broke and how not to burn out.
1. How To Break Free
The one benefit that poker can certainly offer is a freedom from the constraints of a ‘normal’ career. Annie Duke sees this as a big advantage poker has over the daily nine-to-five slog. ‘You get to organise your own time. So if I want to go on vacation for a week I can because I don’t have a boss. If you really want to do something that gives you your own time, where you don’t have to answer to other people and you’re really interested in the intellectual satisfaction poker can offer, I think it’s a great career.’
Neil Channing agrees: ‘I love the freedom that poker gives me. I can structure my life exactly as I want it, I’m free to play where, and when I want. If I wish to take a month off, to just play online, to go to a foreign tournament or to go to the Vic for ten hours every day I can. And when I go to play, I can play cash or tournaments at whatever stakes I choose, and I can pick my own hours. I don’t have to answer to anyone.’
But there is a reason that poker players talk about ‘grinding’. It is not all free time and easy money. To excel at poker and make a career of it players have to put in the hours. And that can mean long sessions in front of the computer or in a card room.
‘The idea that you can just take time off whenever you want and live the easy life is a misconception,’ says poker pro and InsidePoker writer Alex Scott. ‘You still have to put in the hours at the table, and treat the game like a job. If you don’t you either won’t win enough money to live on, or you won’t be able to withstand the swings that are inherent in the game.’
The danger that many players who turn pro face is that they are attracted to the freedom that a career in the game affords but then are faced with the commitments the game ultimately demands. By maintaining an understanding of what you are looking for from the game and setting yourself goals you can keep poker fresh and challenging. Success won’t come easy and to pursue it as a long-standing, profitable career takes a high level of commitment and hard work.
Still, the fact that poker is a pursuit where success and high performance can be richly rewarded is a huge plus. In many occupations if you outperform your peers the best you can hope for is a pat on the back from the boss and perhaps a bonus at the end of the year. In poker, success can see you doubling, tripling your income and beyond – the sky’s the limit. However, it’s not this simple – especially when we remember the luck factor inherent in a game. You can perform to the best of your abilities – do everything right – and your day and bankroll can be crushed by the turn of a card.
But working on and improving your game, knowing that success will be rewarded, can be a hugely fulfilling aspect of the game. But overall fulfilment perhaps depends on how you view the game and your reasons for playing. If it is purely for financial gain you may or may not be satisfied on a monetary level but the other stimulating aspects of the game may prove out of reach. Duke says to get fulfilment from poker you have to look beyond purely financial concerns.
‘For someone like me, I really take poker as an intellectual pursuit. Poker is the ultimate exercise in game theory – it’s what game theory was based on. As an intellectual pursuit it’s really amazing because it’s a very deep foray into that. The math is very deep, the economic theory is very deep. So if you’re doing it for that it is a very fulfilling pursuit.’
Inevitably, though, there is a danger that playing poker day-after-day can lead to a malaise that can affect both your results and enjoyment of the game. The trick is to keep the game interesting and your mind active. Work out what you want to achieve, set yourself goals and targets to hit and keep the game fresh by always looking for new strategies or ways to improve your game. Poker is constantly evolving and to excel over a long period of time our games have to adapt too.
‘Poker keeps your mind active throughout your career. You are always learning the game because it is so complex. Obviously if you are good at it then it offers some other very big advantages,’ adds Duke.
2. How To Stay Healthy
The health implications from a life in poker are wide and often mirror those from more run-of–the-mill ‘desk’ careers. However, one thing is clear, sitting at a live poker table or in front of a computer screen for long periods can adversely affect your health – as can the late nights and bad diets that are often associated with poker. Some poker pros may like to class poker as a sport – but if this is the case then it is a sport where invariably the physiques on show are more Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor than Usain Bolt.
Added to the physical health implications are the stresses that can result from playing poker. And that pressure increases when you are competing for money that has a major impact on your day-to-day life. If you are playing at levels where the money really matters to your standard of life then every big win or loss can have an adverse effect on not just your bank balance but blood pressure and mental health too.
And is it possible to be a successful poker player and feel good about how you make your money? And what of the dangers of addiction that come from gambling for increasingly high-stakes. With all these considerations, how can you maintain a healthy body and mind while playing poker?
The aforementioned freedoms that poker players enjoy mean that players can choose to treat their bodies right. The onus is firmly on the individual to keep fit and healthy. Duke sees poker as being similar to many non- physically demanding jobs and says that the fittest and sharpest tend to excel. ‘The majority of the very top players take really good care of their bodies outside of the poker table. There’s lots of working out going on. And they tend to be healthy eaters, which is funny, because there’s also this large section of players that don’t do anything and are completely out of shape. But the really successful players – and I think this is true in any job – are not only taking care of their minds but also of their bodies.’
So, by fitting some exercise into your poker schedule you will not only be benefiting your health but improving your sharpness at the table. If this schedule has led you to keep strange hours – with late nights down the casino or online – it is important to eat a healthy, balanced diet and maintain a good sleep schedule to properly recharge your batteries. If you’re running on empty at the poker table then your bank balance may well follow suit.
Michael Greco says that following a schedule and looking after your health can have a positive effect on your game, particularly at large tournaments when you are required to be focused and committed day after day. ‘I follow a set routine. If I’m playing at say 1pm I get up at 10am and go to the gym for an hour and then have protein food that keeps me buzzing and not lethargic and then I can start playing poker. That set me in good stead at the WSOP this year.’
And the stress implications are within your own grasp too. For Duke, emotional control of your poker is all important. ‘I think a lot of bad bankroll management has a lot to do with lack of emotional control. Emotional control of your game reduces the amount of tilt that you have and so increases the amount of time you’re playing good poker as opposed to tilty poker. I think there are a lot of people who are very talented who inevitably go broke because they don’t have the whole emotional aspect of the game under control.’
One simple way you can control your stress levels and re-energise your game when going through a slump is to take a break. Chasing lost money when you are playing badly, on tilt or just not getting the luck can lead to you digging a bigger hole for yourself. Switch off the computer, take yourself away from the poker environment for a while and take your thoughts elsewhere before returning fresh and energised. ‘It’s important to take breaks from time to time in order to keep the hunger to play and to come back to the game fresh. If these can be timed to coincide with losing runs where tilt may be creeping in then so much the better,’ says Channing.
In order to be a consistently winning poker player you also need to have a psychological grip on the game. There is no room for a conscience at the poker table – you need to be prepared to bust your opponents whether they are an obnoxious loudmouth or little old man who looks like he may be gambling his pension. If you are unable to show that level of ruthlessness at the table then poker is unlikely to be a winning pursuit for you over time. Indeed to be a long-term success you should be actively looking to exploit the weak and take their money from them.
Poker pro and InsidePoker regular, Alex Martin says: ‘I think playing poker for a living requires a quite specific skill-set. You have to be both very tough mentally and self motivated.’
It is also important to be conscious of the dangers of poker addiction and recognise the warning signs. If you are having trouble separating the money you are gambling and the money you need to survive on a day-to-day basis you may have a gambling problem. Likewise, if you are borrowing large amounts of money simply to gamble, and poker is having an adverse effect on your personal/family life you may want to reassess your relationship with the game and gambling in general. Resources like www.gambleaware.co.uk can help you recognise and address gambling addiction.
But, poker can be a very healthy pursuit in keeping the brain sharp and active. It stimulates the brain. Every hand involves a combination of calculation, plausible reasoning, intuition and psychological understanding. All this keeps our minds fit and healthy. ‘There are good mental health results from playing poker,’ says Duke. ‘Playing keeps your cognitive abilities sharper for much longer. So we know that at least on the brain side of things there’s an upside to being a poker player.’
3. How To Retain A Social Life
Harnessing the social aspect of poker is an important part of making poker work for you. Poker can be a very social pursuit but it can also lead to behaviour that could be construed as anti-social. Long hours spent multi-tabling in your bedroom or spent playing in a darkened casino may not appear to be the most social of pursuits. And even in live tournaments some players don’t appear the most sociable of animals with many hidden behind shades, plugged into iPods and unwilling to communicate for fear of giving anything away.
Added to this, the games place in society can have an influence on how much satisfaction and happiness you feel from being a poker player. Enjoying your job and feeling a sense of pride in what you choose to do on a day-to-day basis is an important part of happiness and contentment. Poker isn’t often held up as an honourable career to follow. And the many young players who have breezed through college playing poker could easily turn their intellectual abilities to more socially acceptable careers.
Poker has struggled to shake off a long-standing stigma and sections of society still regard poker with suspicion – as strictly a gambling game with shady associations. This is particularly the case in the US where the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) and the associated restrictions reveal the struggle poker has had to become legitimised and accepted.
Poker as an occupation may be more precarious than many other jobs, with no safety net if you perform badly or are going through a bad streak. However, poker pros in the UK benefit from their winnings being exempt from income tax. While this can be viewed as essentially a pay rise of 40% it does not help the view that poker players are just out for themselves and contribute nothing to society.
So, how can you achieve social satisfaction from poker? Can you be proud of being a poker player and can it be a sociable pursuit?
It’s open to question whether grinding online over eight-plus hours a day in your bedroom and only communicating with the outside world through a poker chatbox is sociable but the rise in online gaming and communication has seen gamers conversing with each other across the globe. Poker has a huge part to play in this phenomenon. Poker can bring together players from across the world at the same table and live poker tournaments and events are filled with friendships and acquaintances that were borne from online poker sites.
And walk into any card room in the UK and you will find long-standing friendships that were formed over the poker table while pub poker leagues have sprouted all over the country revealing the camaraderie that can come from poker. It can be very beneficial to your game to befriend fellow poker players to discuss hands and talk through strategy. You only have to look at the success the HitSquad in the UK or Team Israel in the US to see how beneficial to your game it can be to have peers to talk poker with and spur each other on. ‘Being a poker pro is quite an insular thing. There aren’t really many fellow pros, and people are often reluctant to open up and share experiences,’ says Channing. ‘Making good friends in poker and discussing things outside of the game is a healthy pursuit that will help the ongoing sanity and longevity of any pro.’
4. How To Be Happy
The pride you feel about the way you choose to earn your crust and the prestige the outside world assigns your job can have an impact on your personal job satisfaction. So is it possible to be proud to call yourself a poker pro?
Annie Duke perhaps knows more than most about the stigma attached to poker. American audiences have recently witnessed comedian Joan Rivers besmirching Duke on The Apprentice for being a poker player as she railed: ‘Your people give money with blood on it. I met your people in Las Vegas. None of them have last names. You’re a poker player. A poker player! That’s beyond white trash. Poker players are trash, darling, trash.’
While acknowledging that Rivers may have been expressing a view still held by some sectors of society, Duke says that perceptions are changing. ‘I think Joan was probably expressing a bias that a lot of people have. Essentially, what she was saying is that poker is somehow associated with the mafia. That the gaming world is somehow still in that world of vice – prostitution, drugs, gaming, right? I don’t think a lot of younger people have that bias. In the end, I think that those who play poker really know we’re just a bunch of geeks. We’re not gun-slinging, cigar chomping mafia people. We’re the math geeks that all got beat up in high school.’
Duke points to charity events like Ante up for Africa as showing the positive contribution to society that poker is capable of. ‘Poker events are ideal as fundraising vehicles – because people have fun,’ she says. ‘It’s in the eight figures, the money raised through poker events each year. I think that poker players are more willing to part with their money for philanthropic enterprises because of the way we treat money. We’re very used to dealing with cash and used to it leaving our hands and knowing it will come back to us.’
The responsibility lies with the individual whether to use their poker winnings to contribute to philanthropic activities or give a percentage of their winnings to charity. Organising or participating in charity poker events – or using your spare time to promote or help good causes – can help remove the stigma that you are simply a ruthless gambler and can give you personal satisfaction that you are making a positive contribution to society.
As for the tax implications, it is again down to the individual to make a contribution where they see fit. ‘I’m perfectly happy with the gambling connotation being attached to poker as I’d hate to be paying tax,’ says Alex Martin. ‘Every job has its perks and negatives. I will try to make up the shortfall in individual input into society in my later years, when hopefully I’ll have the money to make some significant changes.’
The secret to making poker work for you seems to come from an understanding of what the game can bring you and the pitfalls and dangers it can present. Keeping an emotional control on your game, maintaining a healthy mind and body and exercising a proper poker/life balance should ensure that poker remains fresh and alive for you. Poker is ultimately what you make it…
Michael Greco On Playing Poker For A Living
Michael Greco has made the successful transition from actor to successful poker pro. He tells us how poker fits into his life, living the poker lifestyle and surviving variance…
‘It’s very difficult to maintain poker as a career because it’s very up and down. I wouldn’t want to just rely on poker as my first and foremost career. I’m lucky that I have another career and that I’ve done very well in poker over the last 3 or 4 years. If anyone has to rely on poker to pay the mortgage or put food on the table, I think it’s very difficult. It’s all about your bankroll. To be a successful poker player is about consistency. To consistently grind out results.
It’s become such a harder game to win now. Obviously the most attractive thing is winning the money – and the glory that goes along with that. But I like the lifestyle – it’s a mainly a night time thing and I’ve always been a night time person because of acting. I’m very fortunate because I’m sponsored. I love travelling and I’m very lucky that I get the opportunity to fly over the world to play in tournaments. But at the same time there is the pressure of having to get a result for my sponsors. There’s a big health factor associated with poker because a lot of players stay indoors, get up late and play poker online. It can be a very unhealthy lifestyle. I try to keep fit. People underestimate the importance of being physically and mentally fit.’
Vicky Coren Q&A
The PokerStars pro and recent author of poker memoir For Richer, For Poorer: A Love Affair With Poker on what poker means to her
Would you recommend life as a poker pro?
That really depends. If I thought the person would be good at it – if they had an enquiring mind, a daring spirit, a philosophical attitude and a patient temper then yes. They could make lots of money and new friends while having fun and stimulating their brains. If they had a nervous, emotional, addictive or temperamental frame of mind then I’d warn them to stay away.
Is poker a fulfilling activity?
Of course! I have never found any other activity that so quickly consumes the mind, where it’s so easy to shut out everything else. Poker gives you so much to think about. Each new deal is a fresh adventure. Every hand has potential. Every bet is a riddle to be solved. The whole game is a totally fulfilling journey.
Is playing poker something you can be proud of?
If you get better at it all the time, honing your strategy, turning a profit, then yes. If you make the same mistakes all the time, then no.
How does playing poker for a living compare with your other jobs?
It’s a lot more fun. I find writing and poker equally stimulating and creative, but writing can be hard work. Poker never feels like work. Making a living from something you enjoy is an incredible blessing.
Do you feel there is a stigma attached to poker?
Not any more. There is still a stigma to ‘gambling’ and rightly so – it’s a dumb thing to do, which doesn’t mean I don’t do it. But people have learned the difference, these days, between poker and roulette or fruit machines. They know it’s a game of skill.
Do you ever find yourself having to justify being a poker player?
No, but sometimes, if I win a lot of money in a cash game from someone who isn’t in control – who is on tilt, or drunk, or playing for amounts that make them scared. I struggle with guilt in those situations. A proper professional is supposed to milk those situations, but I hate it. Women, eh?
Annie Duke On Surviving A Downswing
It comes down to really understanding bankroll management. When you sit down in a game you shouldn’t be risking more than 2.5-5% of your total bankroll, in a particular session.
- If you’re on a downswing you’ll have to be questioning how well you are playing. That 2.5-5% limit has to do with how much better you think you are than the game. You can get up toward 5% of your bankroll when you think you are much better than the game and you want to be down toward 2.5% when you’re not sure how much better than the game you are.
- Obviously, if you are on a downswing you should be swinging toward that 2.5% of your bankroll per session. You also shouldn’t ever risk so much in a game that you wouldn’t be able to reasonably make it back in one session.
- What that usually means is that in a no-limit game you wouldn’t want to risk anymore than 100-200 big blinds. In a limit game you wouldn’t want to risk anymore than 30-50 big bets. This stops you coming back the next day chasing a loss. You’re now not risking as much in a situation where you’re not sure if it’s because of poor play or just bad luck. When things are going poorly we don’t judge well whether it’s the Gods or whether it’s us. So you just take that decision out of your own hands by gearing down your bankroll.
- You don’t want to be in a situation where you lose an amount in one game that’s going to take you all month to recover from – you’re not going to come out of a downswing when you feel like you’ve got to recover these huge amounts. You want to set really strict loss limits because this limits the amount of time you’re playing poorly.
- One of the best ways to survive a downswing is to fluidly move down in limits, when things are going badly. An advantage of this is that you’ll probably now be better than the game and get some confidence back.
- Sometimes you’re not in the right emotional space or people are perceiving you poorly, which can be really bad. You might be playing fine but you now have a very bad image, so taking time off is good.
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