Thinking of dropping out of school to chase the dream of becoming a professional poker player? The poker world is chock-full of stories about those who’ve done just that and subsequently struck it big. However, like tournament poker, for every one person’s success, there are hundreds of others who failed, though you rarely hear about them.
As someone who dropped out of law school and subsequently abandoned a career in education to pursue poker (to be fair I do have a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin – Madison), I often wonder what my life would be like had I chosen a different path.
Fortunately, dropping out of school for poker worked for me, though in a unique fusion of player and writer. You see, I not only make a living working in the industry, I play on the side and even won a World Series of Poker gold bracelet in 2013.
Is Dropping Out Ever a Good Idea?
The question I want to explore in this piece is whether or not those thinking about dropping out of school nowadays to pursue poker should actually do it. There’s no denying poker is a different game than in the years following the poker boom.
For example, when I would go to Harrah’s New Orleans to play poker in 2007, it wasn’t a matter of whether or not I was going to win, but rather how much. Back in those days, each table had maybe one or two players who knew what they were doing, and the rest were just there to donate. That’s no longer the case as players nowadays are much more educated and you’d be lucky to find a single weak spot at the table.
Poker used to be a hard way to make an easy living, but that’s no longer the case. It’s just hard all around. I decided to poll the poker community, and the results were clear -- don’t leave school to pursue poker! That’s not to say you shouldn’t pursue your dream; on the contrary, the consensus was to give poker a shot, but to do it under the right circumstances. For most, that meant finishing school (so you have a degree to fall back on) and possibly while working a side job (it helps boost the bankroll).
When I asked the poker community their thoughts on the matter, I received dozens of responses. Below are some of the best – both for and against the pursuit of poker -- by some of the most recognised and respected names in the game.
Matt Vengrin (Poker Pro with $971,134 in Total Live Earnings)
I woke up one morning and asked myself if I was happy at college. The answer came back a resounding “no,” and I decided to drop out. I had about one semester left to get my BA in Psychology. I don’t regret it one bit. For the past 11 years I have been doing what I want when I want, and travelling the world. I have met so many cool people along the way, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
That being said, it is not an easy profession. It has its ups and downs.
One of the things I’ve learned in life is that whoever works the hardest will be the most successful. It’s really that simple. Everyone wants to be the best, but not everyone is willing to put the work in. The other piece of advice I will give is everyone gets knocked down, whoever is willing to lick their wounds and get back up will have tremendous success at whatever they decide to do.
If you are reading this and contemplating what to do with your life and if you should take a risk that other people say you shouldn’t, my advice is 'do it', but only do it if you are willing to bet on yourself and put the work in.
William Sturiano (Mid-stakes Poker Grinder)
You can play poker and go to school. Finish college, build a bankroll and have fun. When you play poker as your only means of income, it brings in an element of pressure to poker, as opposed to poker being an escape from the pressures of life.
I know "professional poker" seems glamorous, but the reality is you become a squirrel who has to leave his den, gather his nuts and try to evade all the predators that are trying to eat you.
Would I change the decision I made to walk from my career of 25 years? No, but I'm in my 50s and have no dependents.
Kyle “KPR16” Ray (Online Poker Legend)
My advice to people is, do not, under any circumstances, drop out of school for poker. I left as a senior in 2009 for a BA in Marketing. I consider myself one of the best case outcomes, and I regret it. I'm enjoying returning to school now, with a bit more maturity, but I still wish I had completed it while I was there the first time.
I would add that poker has taught me quite a bit, and I will always be grateful for that. Especially when it comes to investing, as I doubt there's a better training ground than poker when dealing with risk and uncertainty. But yeah, stay in school is still great advice.
Albert Destrade (Poker player & Survivor: South Pacific 2nd Runner-up)
One of the most interesting aspects of this quandary is posing the question of exactly how profitable and viable it is to even attend most colleges these days.
You need to factor the rising cost of education and weigh it against the workforce benefit of having a degree.
Scott Davies (2014 WSOP Asia-Pacific Main Event champion)
Please don't offer any words of encouragement to those dropping out of school to play poker. While a few undoubtedly will make it, the majority are delusional kids about to make a decision that could have catastrophic consequences for the rest of their life.
I'd tell anyone thinking of doing this to finish school; poker will always be there.
Mike “MeleaB” Brooks (Online Poker Player)
Six years ago, it would have been worth considering if you had a flair for the game (good number sense/innate problem solver.) Today, with those same skills, it is a definite no. Back in 2010, with those traits and hard work, $200k+ per year would be quite feasible, and actually relatively easy for some. Plus, there was little indication to believe there would be an end to that type of favourable lifestyle.
Those players today, even allowing for an average increase in ability would make close to 25% of that salary, with good reason to believe things could get worse.
There is now virtually no good reason at all -- from what I can see -- to drop out of school, or quit a decent job. If someone does happen to possess the potential to belong in the now elite group of players who earn a healthy salary, then they should play part-time until that belief is reinforced by long-term results and their studies are complete.
Tom Schneider (2007 WSOP Player of the Year)
Life is about options. Playing poker only narrows your world too much. Making $50,000 without working too hard seems awesome until 20 years from now when your friends are making $200,000 or more.
Poker is a battle against yourself and all of the things your brain tells you when things aren't going so well. There are less than 1000 people in the world that have made a consistent decent living over 10 years or more. Keep all your options open to maximise your income.
Alex “Assassinato” Fitzgerald (Online Poker Player, Coach, and Author)
Poker has been the greatest and best journey I could have ever hoped for. I have learned discipline and resourcefulness from the game. I've seen the world. I've met people from all creeds and professions. I've opened my mind. That being said, I very much wish I got a formal education and learned discipline and study with other people my age.
Growing up in casinos, airports, and grind holes is not conducive to maturity and happiness. I am the exception, not the rule. Don't quit your day job. Be an apprentice, go to trade school, go to university, whatever, just learn.
Get a real skill. Poker will always be around.
Jason Brin (2015 World Poker Tour Choctaw Champ)
Poker professional careers are non-existent. Without either sponsorship, a backing deal, family with deep pockets, or without that once-in-a-lifetime cash, they are non-existent. Professional careers are ones that build wealth, ones that you can walk away from and live off your past sweat.
Stay in school.
Nothing better than blanking a tourney and not giving a shit. The poker world is shifting to semi-pros whose main source of income is not from poker.
John Reading (2015 WSOP Bracelet Winner)
Ask yourself, “Do I see myself doing this in 10 or 20 years regardless of circumstance?” Will that person have the passion and willpower to fight to be the best, at every aspect of the game, through all the hardships that inevitably come during the growing experience?Personally, I love the game, but it is beyond stressful, so I find myself going back and forth between playing full-time versus part-time each year.
There are many degrees/self-education areas people can advance themselves, which in turn also benefit your poker game. If you want your life to be poker and nothing else, then drop out and go for it, but if you want to make a name/impact on other aspects of this world then look at it as a lucrative hobby and enjoy the best of both worlds.
Jake Balsiger (2012 WSOP Main Event 3rd-place Finisher)
Ten years ago I wouldn't be fully opposed to people dropping out. I think there is real value to trying to make a dream really work. Even if it fails, there is still a lot of life left to be lived. In the present day environment, though, where we grow closer and closer to AI every day, I think it would be a huge mistake.
Online will no longer be possible, and even live games will likely be crippled. While people won't be allowed to use the software at the table, semi-memorising decent hand ranges and when/how much to c-bet is, I believe, all it would take for the hourly of professionals to plummet and make it no longer a viable career.
Josh Brikis (Former Poker Pro with more than $1.5 million in Tournament Earnings)
This is one of those -- even if you are lucky enough to succeed for a short period of time -- it's still 100% the wrong decision.
Jesse Sylvia (2012 WSOP MaiR Event runner-up & WPT Borgata Poker Open Champ)
Just write "DONT DO IT" in the largest sized font you're allowed.
The Numbers Don't Lie!
It wasn’t a huge sample size, but out of the 45 players that responded to my poll, 78% (35) believed dropping out of school to pursue poker professionally was not a wise idea. Meanwhile, 15% (7) supported such a decision, while 7% (3) were indifferent.
In conclusion, if you’re thinking about sacrificing your education for poker, you may want to think twice. If it’s still something you want to pursue, set realistic goals, keep your expectations grounded, and make sure to have a plan.