Can you make a living at tournament poker?

Jerry's In the Money
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

In the tournament poker world circa 2007, the amounts of money bandied about are enough to make your head spin like a CD.

In 2006, Jerry Yang went from being a devout civil servant and social worker to poker champion but "only" earned roughly $8 million for his efforts.

Remarkably, online poker wunderkind Annette "Annette_15" Obrestad has parlayed two tournament finishes at the WSOP Europe and the European Poker Tour into $2.5 million over the last couple of months.

The World Poker Tour championship tournaments routinely pay off the winner with million-dollar-plus grandeur. Preliminary events of both the World Series of Poker and the WPT can grant significant purses to their winners, and even winnings at tournaments with less prestige can be a boon to the salary of the everyday Joe or Jane.

Looking at mind-numbing figures like these, many players have daydreamed about becoming the next big thing. But in asking yourself, "Can I make a living at tournament poker?" you have to confront the hard cold realities of the poker tournament lifestyle - to which even the pros are not immune.

When Phil Hellmuth said, "Poker's a hard way to make an easy living," he wasn't kidding. Tournament buy-ins alone can be the first hurdle. Looking solely at this year's World Series, if you were to buy-in for every event on the schedule (admittedly impossible considering the schedule in 2007), it would run you roughly $200,000 just for that. Beyond that, you'd also incur travel, food, lodging and miscellaneous expenses for the seven-week run of the schedule.

Now extrapolate from those few months to an entire year of play. It could conceivably cost a top professional poker player in excess of $1 million a year to bounce around the world playing on the top circuits in existence. The tally becomes even more daunting when you dissect reported player earnings from tournament successes.

Daniel Negreanu is considered one of the best tournament players around, but his numbers demonstrate the conundrum of being a professional. After being crowned Player of the Year in 2004 and earning over $4 million, Negreanu "only" made slightly over $500,000 in 2005.

Former World Champions Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and Phil Hellmuth have similar results: after winning almost $2 million in 2005, Ferguson has barely made $600,000 in the two years since. Hellmuth didn't even make it to the $100,000 mark in 2004, although he has earned over $3 million in the interim.

The most remarkable downswings might be attributed to Howard Lederer and "The Flying Dutchman," Marcel Luske. Luske, who is known for traveling around the world to any and every tournament and who is widely considered one of the finest players in Europe, made almost a million dollars in 2006; 2007, however, has seen the amiable Dutchman pull in only about $150,000 to date.

Howard Lederer
Things aren't what they used to be.

Lederer, who admittedly doesn't play as much as he used to, went from more than $900,000 in 2004 to a paltry $7,153 in 2006. (He has rebounded this year somewhat, earning about $250,000 with a majority of it coming from NBC's Poker After Dark.)

When you look at these results, don't forget that these are reported earnings only. Not taken into account is the fact that, in some cases, there may have been deals made at the final table, potentially significantly reducing the players' take-home earnings. Also not factored in is the buy-in necessary to accumulate those winnings, which can skew the total even further when it comes to re-buy events (what profit do you have when you spend $10k in a re-buy tournament but only earn $7,000, for example?).

Staking deals are another item on the debit side of the ledger that's rarely considered by amateurs. Sometimes players win events but have so many pieces of themselves "sold" that they make only a small percentage of what they actually won. How would it feel to win a million-dollar prize but to only actually earn about 15% of that? Additionally, all of this doesn't even take into account the taxes due on the winnings.

Sponsorships have enabled some in the profession to offset such losses. Whether the sponsors are online poker sites, publications, energy drinks or what have you, these deals will normally cover players' buy-ins and, in some cases, travel expenses. However, it's only an elite (perhaps 1% of players out there, maybe even fewer) who can snare perks like this.

It is commonly suggested that you should double your buy-in to be successful in tournament poker. That return on investment is incredibly difficult to achieve in today's poker world. While we would like to win every event we enter, the truth is that up to 90% of contestants will get nothing for their time.

What's more, none of these calculations even begin to figure in cash game play, which can be a further drain on the bankroll for some players.

The pitfalls of trying to reach the big bucks in poker have been pointed out from time to time. In his excellent tome Professional Poker, Mark Blade argues that poker should be treated like a business. He also describes the travails that many professional wannabes will encounter along the way. An interesting poker documentary, Poker Bustouts, starkly chronicles some of these stories.

While online play is an option (no extra expenditures involved there), the tournament poker world is definitely a minefield, beset with obstacles at every turn of the card. Still, there will always be those who decide to take the plunge and who meet with success. Most, however, will struggle mightily and fail.

So the next time you consider the question, be sure to analyze every aspect of your life (both poker and otherwise), look at those professionals you see on television and their records and ask yourself honestly if you could wade through those troublesome waters to eventual success.

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