Karl Mahrenholz: Is life as a poker pro still sustainable?

As PokerEncore.com’s Karl Mahrenholz goes up the aisle, he talks to a host of top British pros about whether life as a poker pro is sustainable forever

By the time you read this I will be a married man. After having purchased our house a couple of years ago, I’ve now ticked two of life’s major milestones off. It’s got me thinking about poker. The game has treated me well. I’ve travelled to great places and I’ve lived a life that I could only have dreamed of. 

Poker has a lot of positives; freedom of movement, freedom of time and as much flexibility as you could ever imagine. As a young guy (or girl) it gives you everything you could want. However, there are a lot of things it can hardly ever give, such as a reliable source of income, access to credit and a healthy retirement, to name a few. These all sound incredibly boring when you’re young, but as your life develops your responsibilities and priorities change.

Baby steps

I’ve spent the last few weeks catching up with some good poker friends and everybody is thinking about their future. Several of my peers are one step ahead of me and now have an extra young mouth to feed. Jake Cody, Sam Macdonald, Laurence Houghton and Jon Spinks have all just celebrated their first child recently. 

Jon’s view is that while poker is becoming increasingly difficult, it is still very possible to make a consistent living from the game. ‘There’s no denying it requires working harder in terms of both longer hours and making sure you play your A-game a far greater percentage of the time,’ he told me. The fact that it’s not widely considered as a ‘job’ means most players still fail to treat it as such. They’re destined to fail even before they start. Jon recognises himself as one of these people but having a baby has changed all that. ‘I have to make poker succeed for my family so, if anything, having a baby has made me more dedicated than ever before.’

Sit-and-go grinder James Atkin has been supporting his family through poker for a few years now. He still sees plenty of upsides. ‘Because I work from home I get to spend a bunch of time with my wife and kids that your average working dad doesn’t get.’ Comparing himself to his brother who undertakes the daily commute, James has no plans on giving up the life of a poker pro.

November Niner Sam Holden announced his decision to leave full-time poker playing earlier this year. After a short but very successful poker career he is now heading back to education. From the outside it can be difficult to see why somebody so successful would want out, but Holden is ultimately looking for stimulation at work: ‘I think a job working for a charity or pressure group that I fully support would suit me well. Something to be passionate about that I hope can make a difference.’

Life on a yo-yo

Julian Thew is the epitome of a family man who always draws admiration from his fellow pros. After 15 years in a ‘regular’ job he’s been supporting four children solely through poker for years.

‘I didn’t worry about longevity in poker when I was working my way up through the ranks,’ Julian told me. ‘More recently though, I’d be lying if I said I haven’t had more than one or two sleepless nights as I ponder the future and my ability to muster a sustainable living.’

This is from someone who has been more successful than most players can dream of, with $3m in live tournament winnings and a slew of sponsorship deals. According to Julian though, even this isn’t enough. ‘Behind all the smoke and mirrors lurks a simple truth; you can’t retire on a few tournament wins, no matter how big the stage.’ Facing another decade ahead where he will need to generate an income, Julian now finds himself in a position he shares with many others. ‘The problem I face is that I’m nowhere near as competitive or as hungry as I once was.’

One of the biggest benefits of playing poker is spending your time doing something you love. When you stop loving it you need to question your life plan.

In contrast, I recently met a young UK pro named Rocco Marotta. He is a high-stakes heads-up sit-and-go player. It was apparent from the moment I met him that he loves what he is doing. Marotta said, ‘It doesn’t feel like work and so I just do it as much as I can.’ He’s going for Supernova Elite this year, which shows his dedication.

It’s a jungle

A few things are clear. Poker is getting tougher and, like it always has been, it’s the survival of the fittest. The requirements for surviving are going up but there is still a good living to be had if you’re prepared to do the work. Being successful requires working long hours, studying when you’re not working and being very disciplined.

If poker doesn’t meet your long term goals, remember the average person changes jobs 10-15 times. Poker can be a great springboard into things you would never have been able to achieve or might not even have considered. For that, above all else, all ‘professional’ poker players should still feel very fortunate.

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