The Hard Truth About Being a Professional Poker Player

Matthew “mindcirkus” Wheat is a professional poker player and CardRunners poker coach.He successfully transitioned from NLHE to PLO and in 2010 made the final table of WSOP Event #55, the $10,000 PLO Championship. In short, he’s more than qualified to speak on the hard realities of being a professional poker player. Take it away Matthew!

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When most people think about professional poker players they picture someone sitting at 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.  

More Intelligence Than Getting a Ph.D

how to be a poker pro
Dr. Negreanu at work.

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 is that it takes more intelligence and acquisition of knowledge. Then you can maybe become a winner in high-stakes poker games. In the early days of online poker, a fortune could be made with very little poker experience and knowledge. But 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.

Anything Less Than $1,000 is Irrelevant

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 makes $500 for every hour (s)he works so when (s)he sees something that costs $1,000 (s)he knows that (s)he has to do two hours of work to earn enough to pay for it. For a professional poker player to average $500/hr (s)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.

poker pro lifestyle

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 Go Pro You Have to Change

If you’re going to play poker for a living you need to be constantly evaluating what type of game will provide the highest hourly win rate 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.

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Most Poker Players Never Reach Their Ceiling

how to be a poker pro
Few have the work ethic to make it.

Every person who plays poker has a “ceiling” - the level at which no matter how much work they put in it will be the highest level of stakes they are capable of beating. Most players never reach their ceiling because few players work as hard as they can to improve for long periods of time. Every couple of years there is a massive turnover in the regulars playing at a particular level of stakes. Most of the regulars in the 5/10 games running two years ago are now playing 2/4 or lower or have completely left the game.

There are some who have the ability and work ethic to continue winning at the same stakes they’ve been beating as the games got tougher (or even move up in stakes), but the majority of professional players reach their ceiling and then their income steadily declines as the games become more difficult to beat over time.

A very common mistake that players make is moving up in stakes whenever they run good for a short time and win several buy-ins. Most of the time they aren’t prepared to beat the tougher games at higher stakes, and they end up losing a significant amount of money in games that they have no business playing in.

All these things make the poker world like a food chain; all the money flows upwards towards the better players. The truth is that you should only move up in stakes if you consistently beat a level over a large sample, and also have an adequate bankroll to play in bigger games.

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Becoming a Poker Pro Takes Commitment

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It's important to have friends.

Becoming a professional poker player takes a serious commitment and you have to put all of your heart, mind, and soul into the game for long periods of time. Because of this, a lot of your self-worth becomes tied to your success at the tables. No matter how good you are you are going to have big losses and long periods of time when things are going badly. This can have a very negative effect on a person’s mentality, happiness, and ability to be productive and enjoy life outside of poker.

To be successful in the long run you need a healthy mix of other things in your life aside from poker. Things such as a good group of friends you can spend time with, hobbies you enjoy outside of poker, a fitness regimen, travel, or anything else that you can spend time doing that will have a positive impact on your life and take your mind off of poker.

Also, if you play poker for a significant amount of time, at some point you will be cheated, colluded against, or robbed. It happens much less these days than it has in the past but it still continues to happen in both live and online settings. It’s a reality that you have to come to terms with.

Cheating, Collusion, Robbery

how to be a poker pro
If it can happen to Greg at Bellagio ...

The most common of these occurrences is collusion and it’s usually very hard to detect. Fortunately it’s also the least detrimental and isn’t something that most players need to spend much time worrying about. There are a million other ways that a player can be cheated, far too many for me to mention in this article.

However, in the vast majority of games these days there is no cheating so it rarely has a devastating effect on a professional player’s career. The key is to make yourself aware of ways that you can be cheated and to constantly be aware of the things you see happening at the table. The rarest yet most serious of these three things is being robbed. I don’t know what the percentage is of players that get robbed at some point in their careers but it’s not very high.

Because of this most players have the attitude of: Well I’m careful so that will never happen to me. It doesn’t matter how careful you are, you are always going to be at risk. A few instances that I know of to illustrate this point:

  • In 2004, Greg Raymer was forced into a room at the Bellagio by two men holding a gun and they attempted to rob him of the casino chips he had in his possession. I think of the Bellagio as one of the safest places on earth for someone to possess casino chips or cash. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.
  • In 2009, a well known online player (and just plain genius in general), had his computer hacked by someone overseas and lost over $200,000 of his own money before he realized what had happened. He has absolutely no chance of ever recovering that money.
  • Several years ago at a casino in Tulsa, OK, a player was walking from the casino to the Inn on the other side of the parking lot when he was robbed, almost beaten to death, and finally left unconscious in an empty room with no clothes on.

Even though there's always going to be a risk of these types of things happening, they're rare. And they don’t come close to outweighing the benefits of becoming a successful professional poker player. If you love the game, and have the talent to succeed, then none of these things should discourage you from playing poker for a living. The bottom line is that even though there are some negative aspects, it can be a very rewarding and enjoyable career. Just keep in mind, “It’s a hard way to make an easy living.”

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Aleks Judentum
2015-12-20 18:38:33

in germany everybody can make “PHD” by just beeing industrious and getting money in the ass from his or her parents until he or she get’s there. to make a good living from poker you need to be passionate as hell.

2013-05-04 16:46:17

poker = phd = bullshit

2011-05-05 19:51:51

WTF?, me, Mike, Buffalo Bill = obv. losing players/haters.


i work harder and want it more than you.

Buffalo Bill
2011-04-19 18:58:22

“Another rarely discussed, yet very serious, downside to being a professional poker player is that it causes you to greatly devalue money”

The above statement is complete BS, poker players do not not value money – unless your a maniac bettor, the entire article is garbage -nuff said

2011-04-13 16:20:36

Yeah, this article is a bit ridiculous. There are far more business owners in this country than professional poker players, and most of them know full-well what it’s like to word extremely hard and lose much more than $10,000. More intelligence to win at high stakes poker than to get a Ph.D? That’s hilarious. There might be a handful of professional poker players who could earn a Ph.D; there are many Ph.Ds who could win at high stakes poker. Not the greatest article I’ve seen on here for sure.

2011-04-13 01:49:09

so far up his own azz

roy jones jr jr
2011-04-12 00:36:46

cool what game do you think is where the new fish are?

2011-04-12 00:18:46

ha yeah, bit of a random claim. knowing a few PhDs though, not too far fetched.

those guys are douchebags.

2011-04-11 22:00:03

“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” – I call bullshit on this point. He has no facts to back this claim up.

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