What is it really like to be a poker professional? We decided to find out: “I also found out I was soon to be a dad for the first time, so if I was going to do this for a living I’d have to treat this as a proper job”

Ali Masterman reveals what it’s really like to ride the highs and lows as a poker pro…

I discovered poker by accident some nine or ten years ago. A pal of mine had been to the States, become hooked and returned insisting we start our own home game that weekend. Never one to turn down a punt, our home game was born and my wild ride with poker had begun.

At the time I was following the same path as most middle-class kids, bumbling through four years of lectures, late nights and leg-overs at university in Bristol. After I graduated I found myself burdened with debt, armed only with my second-class English Literature degree and the hope that I would go on to bigger and better things. Fortunately it only took a few months to snag a job in London living the dream as a junior tape librarian for ESPN. My tape-zapping career was blissfully short-lived, however, as I soon wangled my way into the marketing team.

Living in London is as expensive as hell, and my job wasn’t far off the minimum wage, so to supplement my income I played poker online as much as possible. I can recall a few decent wins at the time. It was nothing life-changing, but it was enough to help with the rent and a few beers on the weekend.

Is this real life?

My poker hobby turned into a full-time occupation a few years later, when I joined Virgin Games to run their online poker room. Poker quickly became my life. It was a great job which allowed me to combine my passion with my work. I got to travel around the tournament circuit to most of the EPTs as well as Vegas every summer for the WSOP.

Once I saw the kind of money these guys were making I hoped that one day I’d get a slice myself. My big break came in 2006 when I won a satellite to the Aussie Millions in Melbourne. I didn’t really have any expectations, as I was so inexperienced. I was there to have a laugh and try to win a few quid. Amazingly I hit big in my first tournament, the $1,500 side event.

I played well and ran amazingly good for two straight days and managed to win the whole thing. Looking back it really was the most surreal experience. I went to Oz pretty much skint, plodding along in my job and in life. I returned elated with a hundred grand in the bank, and a new optimism that this could be the start of something amazing.

It didn’t take me long to make my next move. I figured I would never get a chance to do something like this again and I had no commitments so decided that I would give it a shot at playing poker full-time. My bosses were very understanding and supportive of my decision and so were my family. I’d heard stories about my grandfather and uncle and their fondness for cards and gambling so it wasn’t a surprise to my folks that one of us had inherited the gambler’s gene.

Going for broke

My initial plan was to spend the bulk of my time playing online cash games, as well as trying to satellite into some big events. I was playing mainly $1,000NL ($5/$10) on a couple of European sites as well as a fair bit on PokerStars.

The games were a lot more straightforward back then. I don¹t think I even analysed my play much, and certainly didn’t use any HUDs or pay much attention to PokerTracker stats. The first few months were a breeze and I really thought I’d cracked it. Life was good, I was making more than I could ever have dreamed of, sitting in my pants clicking buttons. Meanwhile my friends were out doing proper jobs, coming back whining about how they weren’t getting a pay rise or how they were crapping themselves about a presentation they had to give. Poor sods, I thought to myself.

I, on the other hand, was living it up. I had become mates with a bunch of
English poker players through my time at Virgin. And that year I travelled to India for the APC, EPT Monte Carlo and Vegas with the likes of Dave Shallow, Dave Pomroy and Ben Grundy.

To call them professionals at the time would have been generous. Professional piss artists would have been more precise. While we weren’t very successful in the live tournaments, all of us were making a solid amount online, and that meant the trips could be treated as holidays with the chance of a big score. Having fun, rather than poker, was paramount in all our minds.

Looking back on my first year as a professional I certainly didn’t pay anywhere near enough attention to my bankroll and had a pretty lazy attitude and no routine whatsoever. I would roll out of my bed and fire up a few tables, not game-selecting or preparing at all.

For the first six months I won at a fair clip, but was spending money at an even more ridiculous rate. I travelled around New Zealand, Australia and Fiji for a few months and arrived in Las Vegas for the WSOP that June. My intentions were to play as many bracelet events as possible, while mixing in a bit of live and online cash on the side in the hope of going back home with a reinforced bankroll.

Living la vida loca

Things went well for the first week and I made day two in my first WSOP event at the Rio with a decent stack. However things turned sour when my pocket Queens failed to hold against the chip leader’s pocket sixes all-in preflop and I was out. It was a crushing blow for me and my WSOP nosedived into a debauched summer of excess. I played five tournaments over six weeks and spent more time in the craps pit than anywhere else.

Needless to say my bankroll was in tatters. I had committed the cardinal
sin of playing table games and been completely irresponsible with my money.
I had treated my first six months as a pro as a holiday and pissed away a huge chunk of my winnings needlessly. I remember being so angry with myself, thinking I’d failed in what I’d set out to do.

Winning the first major event that I had entered and my subsequent decline was a brutal lesson for me. It certainly crossed my mind just to chalk it up to experience and go and get a normal job again. However, being a glutton for punishment I decided I couldn’t let this beat me and set about making a recovery. 

For the next year I dropped down in stakes and played mainly sit-and-gos and MTTs online. I was disciplined with my bankroll and was making a decent living, but had a long way to go in recouping what I’d spunked in Vegas. I also found out I was soon to be a dad for the first time, so if I was going to do this for a living I’d have to treat this as a proper job. Poker went well for me in the months leading up to my son¹s birth.

I switched the majority of my play to PokerStars, multi-tabling mid-stakes cash games and picking up the odd result in online tournaments. I gained Supernova Elite status on PokerStars, the highest possible level of VIP status, and things were going extremely well.

Babe in arms

After my first son Freddie was born in July 2008 I took a break from poker. Instead of stacking chips at the poker table I was covered in poo and vomit at the changing table. It was a challenging time but I felt lucky to be on hand to help out. Being my own boss was a huge bonus at this stage, as I had the luxury of focusing completely on this fatherhood lark. Poker has afforded me a great living for the past four years, and one of the best things it has given me is time to spend with my family.

After Freddie¹s birth I made my return to the tables, attempting to play a 9-to-5 schedule so I could still be on hand for baby duties. But poker chewed me up and spat me out. I went on my worst ever downswing at the worst time possible, losing seemingly every all-in and tilting massively. It was as if the poker gods had decided to test me in my time of need, crushing my confidence and sending my stress levels off the Richter scale.

It was a harsh reminder that poker owed me nothing, and one of the hardest times I’ve ever had psychologically. At the time poker was evolving so it was only natural to doubt my ability. The games had become tougher thanks to the UIGEA and there was a sudden decrease in casual players from the US.

Fortunately most downswings don¹t last forever and I was able to claw my way out of a spiral just by sticking at it. It can be a very lonely place being stuck on a 50,000-hand losing stretch, and it¹s something only full-time poker players can relate to. This is what people don¹t seem to realise before they decide to play poker for a living. There will be incredibly tough times.

I can¹t count how many times I’ve had near misses in huge tournaments, losing a vital coinflip on the final few tables at 5.30 on a Monday morning to scupper my chances of a life-changing win. But this is what we as poker players have to embrace, this is the game, and being able to deal with losing is one of the key qualities a poker player needs.

Fatherhood definitely changed the way I think about poker. My second boy George was born in January of this year and I made the decision to explore other ways of making money without having to rely solely on playing cards.

I’ve set up a baby clothes business and am working on some more poker-related businesses. Having a family to look after means that I¹ve had to cut out as much risk as possible, and try hard to provide a steady income. I’ve had to drop down in stakes and try to iron out variance by putting in more hours at the tables.

Balancing act

A lot of the young online guys these days will sit and play 24-hour sessions without batting an eyelid, their only break being to pee into a bottle under their desk. These marathon grinds are all in the quest of making money. However there will always be money to be made, and there will always be a game to jump into.

I lost sight of this and burnt myself out by playing far too much when I wasn’t in the right frame of mind. My advice to those of you thinking about giving up your day jobs would be to make sure you have another focus in your life apart from poker. Don¹t immerse yourself in it so much that the rest of life passes you by. My results have improved considerably now that I don¹t spend every waking hour at the poker tables.

The game is a great leveller. What makes us all enjoy poker so much is that anyone can play. Anyone can improve and compete with the best if they apply themselves and, given the right mindset, poker can provide a very comfortable living. It¹s taught me a lot about myself, made me great friends and taken me to places I would never have had the chance to visit otherwise.
But it¹s also put me through some cruel times.

When people find out what I do for a living they normally assume my life is all casinos, jet-setting and glamour. Sadly it isn¹t. However, I have no regrets about packing in my job. Even after four years, making final tables and winning big pots still gets my heart racing. And I¹m sure most people don¹t get that kind of job satisfaction every day.

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