Hard Realities about Playing Poker Professionally - Part 1

Matthew Wheat
Matthew Wheat deep in the 2010 $10k PLO Championship at the WSOP.

This week CardRunners coach Matthew "mindcirkus" Wheat fills us in on the hard realities of being a professional poker player.

Matthew "mindcirkus" Wheat is a professional poker player. He successfully transitioned from NLHE to PLO, and in 2010 made the final table of WSOP Event #55, the $10,000 PLO Championship. 

Take it away Matthew:

When most people think about professional poker players they picture someone sitting around a casino making tons of cash playing a recreational card game.

The reality can best be described using the famous quote that a lot of us in the business use to describe our jobs: “It’s a hard way to make an easy living.”

One way I like to put this in perspective is by asking people, “Do you know what it’s like to go and work hard all day and lose $10,000? It happens to me all the time.”

The feeling of putting in hard work and losing a significant amount of money is impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it. I would compare the stress level of playing high stakes poker for a living to being an air traffic controller with an anxiety disorder.  

Another issue that professional poker players have to deal with is the fact that they generally don’t get much respect for their profession from the general public. Most parents are horrified when their child tells them they are quitting their job and/or school to become a professional poker player.

The truth, however, is that whatever you might think about the morality of taking money from weaker players at the poker table, no one can question the amount of hard work and intelligence that it takes to become an elite poker player.

The general consensus among people familiar with both high stakes poker and higher education is that it takes more intelligence and acquisition of knowledge to become a winner in high stakes poker games than it does to get your average Ph.D. 

Wheat's office.

In the early days of online poker, a fortune could be made with very little poker experience and knowledge. These days it takes an incredible amount of hard work and natural ability to make a living playing any form of poker.

For those who do have what it takes, and who put in the time and effort needed to become a successful player, the reward is a job with practically unlimited freedom.

Another rarely discussed, yet very serious, downside to being a professional poker player is that it causes you to greatly devalue money. If you compare a lawyer who makes $500/hr with a poker player who makes $500/hr, the poker player will never have anywhere near as much value for the money as the lawyer does.

The reason is simple; the lawyer is making $500 for every hour he works so when he sees something that costs $1000 he knows that he has to do two hours of work to earn enough to pay for that item.

For a professional poker player to average $500/hr, he has to be playing fairly high stakes games in which you are winning and losing sums between $10,000 and $100,000 on an hourly basis. When money comes and goes from your hands that quickly for long periods of time it basically becomes impossible to be frugal with your money.

Most players I know will tell you that anything that costs less than $1,000 is completely irrelevant and that they don’t even give a second thought to purchasing it. This is because purchases less than that amount have no emotional impact on them; it feels like it’s free.

As players mature over the years and learn from their mistakes with handling money they often become better in this regard, but it’s always going to be a challenge and problem to some extent.

If you’re going to be playing poker for a living, you need to be constantly evaluating what type of game will provide the highest hourly winrate for your unique set of abilities and experience. One serious mistake that I see among professionals is that they find a game they can win at and then only play that type of game month after month and year after year.

The poker landscape changes constantly and games that used to be easy money are practically unbeatable for significant amounts of money these days. For instance, back in 2007-2008 I was 20 tabling full ring 1/2 NLHE online. Along with the other best regulars in those games I could average $15,000 a month of profit with an amount of poker skill and knowledge that is relatively low by today’s standards. 

Had I continued to play these games on a daily basis my income would have steadily declined as the games got astronomically more difficult over the past few years.

I realized this was happening in early 2009 and put all my effort into learning 6max pot-limit Omaha. It cost me quite a bit of income the first few months during the transition, but within a year I was making money that far exceeded anything I had ever made playing NL.

These days the 6max PLO games are becoming extremely difficult to beat, just like the NL games. Even though I’m still one of the best players in the games and making very good money playing in them, I’m also putting effort into learning other games so that I’ll be prepared to play in whatever games are most profitable in the future.

Click here to read the Hard Realities of Professional Poker Part 2 from Matthew “mindcirkus” Wheat.

Learn more Pot Limit Omaha from mindcirkus at CardRunners, your best source for online poker training.

Read More PokerListings/Cardrunners Strategy Articles:

Best Poker Sites - Editor`s Pick

Latest Blogs »