Should I Try Professional Poker? A Checklist for Amateurs

Will Reynolds
Know what it means to grind.

A question any serious poker player asks themselves at one time or another is, “Why am I working my crappy job when I make money from poker?”

Deciding to play poker for a living is a big decision.

What kinds of things should you think about? Is it even a valid option for you?

First and foremost, before you even think about becoming a professional poker player, you’d better be a winning poker player over a significant sample size.

Note: A significant sample - not a three-week heater or a couple of winning months. You need a very large sample size to know whether you’re a winning player and what your win rate is.

Think 200,000 hands online minimum or at least a year’s worth of serious live play.

Should I Go Pro in Poker?

Poker is a swingy, variance-filled game. You can win for months without actually being a winning player.

Conversely you can be an awesome player yet still lose for a month or more. It’s just part of the game.

These swings are inevitable. You might think that you can handle downswings well, but when poker is your only source of income downswings can take an especially hard mental toll.

should i go pro poker
Is this really what you want?

You need to have the bankroll to be able to pay your bills even when you’re losing money at poker.

This isn’t the kind of decision you make instantly.

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They Call it a Grind for a Reason

Think about it. The game is fun and can be an excellent source of income. But sometimes poker is best left as a side income.

They call it a grind for a reason. Be honest with yourself. You need to have the results first before anything.

Make it a serious part-time job first. If after a year or two you’re making more from your poker job than your “real” job, then start thinking about going pro.

Don’t ever leave a good job to play poker for a living. Remember that if you ever stop playing for a living you’ll have to explain that massive gap in your resume.

It might be fun for a few years but is it really what you want long term? Poker will always be there. You can always play seriously on the side.

Poker: A Hard Way to Make an Easy Living

“A hard way to make an easy living” might be the best quote ever made on playing poker for a living. Professional poker has its advantages, for sure. You make your own hours. You have free time. You’re your own boss.

is poker a real job
Don't leave a good job to play poker.

But playing poker for a living has its downsides, too. Most prominently, sometimes you go to “work” and lose a whole shit ton of money.

To succeed as a poker player you have to have an excellent work ethic. You’re not going to get fired for coming in late and you’re not going to get fired for leaving early.

You play when you want. But you have to treat it as a job and take it seriously.

Make daily hand goals, or hours-played goals, or tournament-volume goals for the day, week, month and stick to them.

You can take time off if something fun is happening but you have to make up that time somewhere. If you can’t put in the volume you’re never going to have success.

With all that said, people do play poker for a living and it’s completely possible that you’re ready to do it. But make sure you take the time, weigh all the options, and really think the decision out.

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poker pro advice
To succeed in poker you have work hard.

What Size Bankroll Do I Need to Go Pro?

If you're going to make the leap to professional poker player this is the main question and it depends on a variety of factors.

What games are you going to play? Tournaments? Cash? What stakes? What’s your monthly nut?

Your monthly nut is your total monthly expenses. That’s the roof over your head, food, car payments, electricity, water, spending money.

It’s everything. How much do you need to live comfortably every month? Calculate this and then add 15 to 20% and you get a good idea of how much you’re going to need to make every month.

Now compare that to your win rate. You want to live comfortably; scraping by while playing for a living is not anyone’s idea of fun.

If you’re playing cash games you’ll want at least 100 buy-ins for your stake level. That’s the minimum.

You want to be comfortably rolled. You don’t want to go on a 25BI downer and have to dip into your reserve fund to keep playing.

This is your playing bankroll. Don’t touch it for anything but poker.

Be Prepared for Anything in Poker

On top of your playing roll you need to have at least three months living expenses saved up just in case.

Who knows what can happen? You could get in a car accident. You could get sick. You could go on a really sick downswing.

So be prepared. This is your reserve fund and you shouldn't touch it for anything.

If you’re playing poker full time then have this reserve fund at all times. This isn’t money you’ve saved that you can go spend on shoes or a vacation. This is the reserve fund in case of emergencies.

If you end up making more money than your monthly nut and you have your reserve squirrelled away, then sure. Spend it. But the reserve fund and your bankroll are not for spending; they are the tools of your trade and must be treated as such.

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Poker is Now Your Business

Poker is now your business so treat it as such.

Playing poker allows for a ton of freedom but you have to remember this is your job. You can’t half ass it. You have to put in your volume and you have to be nitty about bankroll management and your reserve management.

If you spend money as quick as you make it you’re never going to have enough for when that inevitable downswing comes.

You really can’t be too careful. If you plan correctly and are a good enough player, playing poker can be an awesome and very lucrative job. But it’s just that -- a job. And if you don’t treat it like a job you’re doomed to fail before you even start.

poker pro career
If poker's your business, act like it.

Should I Play Online or Live Poker?

One of the decisions you'll have to make if you decide to go pro is whether you’re going to play predominantly online or live. They both have their pros and their cons.

But even if you think your decision is already made, you should weigh your options closely.

The Pros of Playing Poker Online

Online poker has some great advantages over playing live. Looking past the obvious, that you get to play in your own home and eat your own food, when you play online there’s always a game going. You can also:

  • Table select over dozens of tables across dozens of sites.
  • Pick and choose the best games and really make your own hours.
  • Jump up and down in stakes almost instantly. 

If the games at your current stakes are bad or you’re dealing with a downswing you can drop down in stakes in seconds and still play.

Not only do you already get more hands per hour on a single table you can play as many tables as you're comfortable with.

Why play one $5/$10 game live when you can play eight $2/$4 games online? The difference in hands per hour is astounding and you realize the long term advantages of solid play online much faster.

For those who don’t know (I hope if you’re thinking of playing for a living you do know) rakeback is a percentage of total rake paid back to your account and it varies from 20%-30%.

It can make up a huge amount of your monthly profit and can’t be ignored. Sites like PokerStars don’t offer rakeback but the PokerStars Rewards Program can offer something comparable with bonuses.

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Playing Online: The Cons

The pros are pretty good for online play but it’s not without its faults. And in fact some of online poker's cons are actually linked to the pros.

how to be a poker pro
As Phil says, you have to have balance.

Even playing from home, when you start out it’s amazing but after a while you realize you haven’t left your house in weeks.

  • It’s extremely hard to meet new people and maintain a life when you never leave the house.

If you have an established group of friends and a relationship it’s much easier to balance poker and life. But if you’re in a new city or have never been the type of person to have a lot of friends, it’s going to be extremely difficult to meet any new people.

  • It’s also very important to have balance in your life as professional poker player.

Phil Galfond always talks about this. if you only have poker in your life, your only measurement in life is a game of poker that’s filled with variance.

If poker’s all you have, it’s all you measure your worth in and you feel the ups and the downs much more than if you have other things going on in your life. Playing online and not leaving the house makes this difficult.

  • Online poker games have become harder over the years and the level of play is much, much tougher than it used to be.

This is the main drawback. If you can beat $1/$2 online over a huge sample you can probably beat $10/$20 live at most casinos.

It’s just the nature of the game. Players that play online are that much more serious. They study the game, they play the game, and they play the game to win.

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Playing Live: The Pros

Live play is not without some inherent advantages as well. Live poker for many people is a sociable activity. People enjoy going out for the day or night to the casino, playing poker and shooting the shit.

These people know how to play the game and probably beat their friends in home games, but they’re not poker stars by any definition. In short:

  • The social aspect of live poker will always make the games softer than online counterparts at the same stake level.

There are a higher percentage of players that play poker for fun at the casino. It’s unavoidable. Whereas online games are extremely aggressive, live games tend to play much more passive and straight forward.

poker pro tips
With a good group it doesn't feel like work.

They’re just much easier to play for a profit. The social atmosphere that draws the weaker players also benefits you in another way:

  • With a good group of regulars, it seems like you’re not going in to work at all.

You get to play poker, chat about sports and hear hilarious stories in a "clubhouse" atmosphere.

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Playing Live: The Cons

Live poker has some very apparent disadvantages. First and foremost:

  • You’re getting far less hands per hour than you would online even just one tabling.

The game is slower, there’s a dealer who can make mistakes and people are talking and not always paying attention to the action.

It all eats up hands per hour, which is inextricably linked to your hourly wage. Waiting around for a game is time you have to spend at the casino as well. It’s all technically your hourly wage.

how to be pro poker
Not always best vibe at casino.

You aren’t making anything waiting for a game or you’re making less if you’re playing a smaller game waiting for a bigger game to start up.

This happens regularly in a casino poker room. Add to that:

  • You’re spending so much time in an unhealthy environment.

Casinos are loud places, the air conditioning is always pumping, the chairs are terrible and your healthy eating options are severely limited.

It’s easy to get into a routine of getting up grinding, eating horrible food, having horrible posture and leading an extremely unhealthy life when you play live at a casino.

It’s All Really On You

The decision ultimately comes down to you, where you’re comfortable and where you play your most profitable poker. Both online and live have their pros and cons. You have to decide what’s important to you and what’s best for you to meet your goals.

Having a balanced life is the most important factor when you play poker for a living.

It’s easy to get caught up in the grind and have everything else fall to the wayside. You have to be able to balance that with staying healthy, maintaining relationships and making yourself happy.

Whichever option allows you to do that best is the option best for you.

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Will Poker Meet Your Life Goals?

When you decide to make the jump to playing poker full time, you have to realize that you’re making a huge, huge decision. Not only will you be putting your entire life into the hands of a variance-filled game, you’ll also be creating a large gap in your resume.

Is that really what you want? Do you want to be locked in to playing poker for the rest of your life?

You need to take some time and really figure out what will make you happy in life. Is it money? Is it stability? Do you want a family?

There’s more to life than money. Playing poker for a couple years might seem fun, but is it what you want to do when you’re 35? 40? 50? It’s hard to know what you’ll want in the future.

poker careers
Don't drop out lightly.

It’s easy to get hooked on the “easy” money poker provides but a decision to play poker for a living should not be taken lightly and you might end up actually hurting your long term goals.

Education is Ultimate Back-Up

If you’re going to college or university and are thinking of dropping out to play poker full time, don’t.

The answer is don’t no matter what. Education is the ultimate back-up plan.

Play poker on the side and finish school, even if that means taking fewer classes to play poker. If you decide poker isn’t right for you after a few years, you’ll always have your education to fall back on.

You have a plan B -- and something other than a massive gap in your resume.

How to Deal with the Resume Gap

When you’re playing poker for a living, you’re earning money and getting by but you’re really not furthering yourself. Chances are, unless you’re the .05% who can advance in stakes to the nosebleeds, you’re going to plateau.

You’re going to find a level that you beat and you just might not be able to make that next step.

play poker professional
Thinking about employable skills.

It’s inevitable. Not everyone can beat the nosebleeds, and not everyone can even beat $5/$10.

Those years you spend grinding the stake level you can beat, making your living, the rest of your employable skills are diminishing and your resume gap grows.

If after a few years you realize that how much you’re making isn’t enough, or your decide to get a job for other reasons, you’re going to have to explain this large gap in your resume.

Poker Teaches You Skills, But Will An Employer See That?

There’s no denying that poker teaches you some very valuable life skills. It teaches you skills like money management, risk vs reward, fast decision making and dealing with stress.

However, it’s entirely likely -- even probable -- that an employer won’t see it the same way. More likely you’ll probably have to get an entry-level job making far less than you currently make in poker.

If you had just kept with your job or gotten a job instead of playing poker, you probably would have risen in the ranks of your current company and built employable job skills.

Poker Income Has a Ceiling

What most poker players don’t talk about is how their income has a ceiling. Poker players depend on fish, and good games, and out playing their opponents.

poker career advice
Your ceiling not durrrr's ceiling.

When they hit that stake level they can’t beat, they’re stuck on the stake below it. There’s really not much room for growth.

Yes, you can spend time and study and get better, but your opponent is always doing the same thing.

Some stake jumps are just impossible and you will be stuck at that ceiling.

A good job, a good education and a serious work ethic gives you a much higher ceiling. You can always be promoted and you can get a new, better job.

Playing poker isn’t just something you do because you can make money at it.

The decision is far reaching and in the future you might not like the fact that you’re stuck playing $1/$2 online with little-to-no better options.

What's Your Plan B?

It’s always a good idea to have a Plan B. Poker is great and it allows you much more free time than a regular job. Use it.

Use your time to learn a skill. Learn to build websites, learn to write or volunteer somewhere.

how to play professional poker
Really think about it.

Use your time to start a business. But do something that you can use should you ever re-enter the work force.

In short: Have a back-up plan.

Too many poker players just play poker and do nothing else. After a few years they don’t enjoy poker anymore and want to do something else but their options are limited.

Don’t limit yourself. And keep working towards goals that are not poker related. That way if you do decide poker isn’t for you, you’re not starting back at square one.

Take Your Time and THINK About It

The one bit of advice that everyone should listen to when thinking about going pro:

  • Take your time and THINK about it.

Think about your goals, your wants and your needs in life. Set yourself up for success and work hard towards it.

Poker can be a great sole source of income or a great second source of income. Don’t limit yourself and make a rash decision that might affect the rest of your life.

Your number one goal in life is happiness and you need to find out what makes you happy. Just know that what makes you happy now might not be what makes you happy in the future

Only you can truly answer these questions. Think it through and you’ll know if you’re really ready to go pro.

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Jonny Cho 2015-07-26 10:39:41

I agree with all except the part that says you need a bankroll of 100 buy ins to play comfortably in live cash games. Thats not true. If youre an average to good player you only need 30 buy ins. If youre a top notch pro you only need 20 buy ins to grind it up. But very very few are top notch players. Maybe 1 out of 1000.

steven kite 2015-06-09 04:29:35

Wow!! Thanks for this advise. I was thinking recently about playing poker full time but as I've read through this its clear that there a lot more at stake than I thought. I'm going to just stick to playing it as an extra income. Thanks again.

Tony 2013-06-05 14:29:26

no need to comment... it is all truth.... awesome page, no bullshit... Unfortunately not so easy to follow all the rules :)

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