Playing poker professionally – Should I go pro?

Playing poker professionally

One of the questions many amateur poker players (i.e. someone not playing poker as their principle source of income) has at some point is should they start playing poker professionally (i.e. playing full time, with poker becoming their main or principle source of income)?

Prerequisites to playing poker professionally

If you are an amateur player, and serious about making the giant leap to playing poker professionally, at UnfairPoker.com we really think you should ask yourself if you have a proper strategic understanding of the game so you can cope with changes to game conditions that are in your hands (that’s not even considering changes that might not be in your hands).

You really need to be honest about your win rate that has made you think you are good enough to go pro – are you just on an upswing due to positive variance that will inevitably regress to the mean? Think about if your current win rate can truly be scaled up when you increase the amount of hours you play.

Talking about potential win rates, if your idea of how much your win rate will be as a pro comes from other professionals you have spoken to that you think you can emulate, we would recommend you treat what you are told with a massive pinch of salt, unless you have good reason to really trust your sources. Many players will overstate their win rates when asked, for ego reasons (this is true especially in live poker, where win rates cannot easily be verified). We are certainly not saying everyone will be bending the truth – just be sure you trust the players who gave you that information. The problem is even worse if you are getting your information on the internet – people often make either unverified incorrect claims (or they are telling the truth, but the sample size they based the information on makes it useless), and then others not wanting to look like they are not as good, also claim to be making a similar or greater amount when they are not. Also, be wary of any type of coach who claims they make x bb/hour especially from live poker – again, they have an obvious reason for you to think they are a big winner – of course, some many be big winners (but again there may be a sample size issue), but others will not be. In summary, much of what you read about potential win rates (especially for live poker players) may be inflated.

You will also need a healthy starting bankroll, which if you will be relying on poker profit to pay for living expenses will need to be significantly higher in terms of buy-ins than if you were playing exactly the same game but you had another source of income such as a job. This is because will be increasing your risk of ruin to your bankroll by taking money out (you may be surprised this applies even if you are only taking out profits). You will need to be honest about how you will mentally cope during any potential prolonged downswing.

Questions to ask before committing to playing poker professionally

At UnfairPoker.com, we would recommend you properly consider the following factors if you are tempted to go pro. For most players thinking of going pro, we would recommend they don’t. Here are some important questions that you should ask yourself:

Are your currently on the right side of variance? Expect regression to the mean!

Players often think about playing poker professionally whilst they are on the right side of variance. They may be enjoying an upswing in their results, not due to the fact they have improved, but because variance is currently in their favor. The problem is in the long run results will naturally regress to the mean. This effect can be even more pronounced when players have been experiencing a downswing in results due to variance, immediately followed by an upswing also due to variance. Many players will see this, and think they have improved a lot as a player, when the entire swing one way and then the other from the mean was due to variance.

Do you understand the risk of ruin to your bankroll increases, even if only taking out profits?

As a professional player, if you are relying on profits from poker to pay your living costs, you really need to understand how this affects the risk of ruin to your entire bankroll. A topic not often understood is removing money from bankroll, even whilst keeping it at the starting level, increases the risk of ruin. If you had a starting bankroll of 35 buy-ins for the cash game you play, and even if you only took out money from your bankroll if you went over 35 buy-ins (e.g. to pay for food, lodgings, entertainment etc.), you are actually increasing your risk of ruin. The reason for this is that your risk of ruin is decreased by keeping the money in during upswings, to offset inevitable downswings if you play long enough. Downswings can go on for much longer than you might expect – they could hit at any time, even when it is most inconvenient. This risk of ruin increase when taking out profits is a major problem for professional players, who were once amateur. As an amateur player they had a bankroll, they didn’t need to draw upon to pay for life’s expenses, and thus were growing it with less risk of ruin (and the fact they were able to grow their bankroll has encouraged them to want to go pro) – however, as a professional player, if poker is their only or main source of income, they will have to constantly draw on their bankroll for life’s expenses, and every time the do this they increase their risk of ruin to their poker bankroll.

Can you mentally cope with downswings when you rely on poker for living expenses?

Then of course there is the mental aspect to consider – how will you cope with major successive hits to your bankroll during any downswing? As an amateur player with another source of income (i.e. a job) if you lost your whole poker bankroll, or went on a major downswing, it may not have mattered to your life as you could just stop playing and rely on your main income for life’s expenses, or decide to reload your bankroll once you have gone bust and start again. Even if you never had to reload, the understanding that you could, may have helped you psychologically. Compare that to if you have gone pro, and your starting bankroll was decent (but also all that you had), and if you start suffering continued losses to your bankroll (this can happen even if you are doing everything right, due to variance) – can you realistically say that you will be able to play your A game in the face of all this? If you lose all your bankroll you might not be able to reload without getting another job (which depending on your circumstances may not be easy, if you have been out of the job market for a while).

Are you ready for potential changes in game conditions?

Many players are naturally most keen to begin playing poker professionally when they are enjoying good results. However, these good results could be down to the current game conditions which may not last months, never mind years into the future. If you do not have a proper strategic understanding of poker as a whole, and instead have only learned tactics (through trial and error, or training material) that is helping you exploit the exact mistakes made by your current player pool – if the player pool improves (e.g. more weak players drop out, less weak players join, more strong players join) you could be in trouble. If the cardrooms you play in increase their rake structure, and you have no viable alternatives, you will be winning less or possibly even making a loss. That’s to say nothing of any possible potential regulatory changes (e.g. players who had been playing online for years in the USA, one day found out they could no longer do so at most sites).

Have you thought about issues of scale?

If you are an amateur player currently playing live poker, and you are considering playing poker professionally live, then you need to consider if your win rate can actually be replicated over the hours you intend to play as a live professional. All other things being equal just taking your current big blinds/hour win rate (even if it was obtained over a reasonable sample size, and not just over an unreasonable upswing period) and multiplying it by the number of hours you intend to play every month, is unlikely to give you an accurate prediction of how much you will make. Often you might already be playing the juiciest hours at your local cardroom (i.e. the hours where the weakest exploitable players are most likely playing, e.g. weekends, Friday nights etc.) – and as a live player adding in more hours in your locale on a weekday may result in you playing against much stronger players, and you will likely be winning less. Of course, there may be other locations you can go to, or perhaps you live in an area where there are great games at lots of times of the day. However, this is something to think about before you transition to playing poker professionally. If you have already decided to go pro, and nothing in this article has put you off, then why not try it for a few weeks as an experiment (just don’t get carried away with the results one way or the other, due to immense variance with the small sample size) and see what the game conditions are like in the actual hours you intend to play.

If you play online, issues of scale may be much less of an issue (or not even an issue at all) in terms of replicating your winrate (if it is from a reasonable sample size). We say may as another problem you may not be prepared for whether you play live or online, is that playing a smaller number of hours as an amateur, may well by different mentally for you than playing a much larger number of hours as a professional. If playing poker is all you do day in day out, will you get bored? Will this mean you don’t enjoy it (and is ‘job’ satisfaction important to you)? Will you be able to play your A game, over a large number of hours, as opposed to the smaller amount of time you do currently – if not how much will this decrease your winrate? Presumably, as an amateur you can take a break from playing poker whenever you get bored or don’t feel you are playing well (and you may have done so on many an occasion), however as a pro will you not be able to take many breaks even if you feel you are playing badly (especially if you are relying on profits for expenses) and if so how will this affect your win rate?