Whether it's catching a glimpse of the most recent WSOP coverage on ESPN or stumbling across some other kind of poker action on YouTube or Twitch, most of us fall in love with poker because it looks cool, fun and exciting.
If it's not the eye-watering sums of money being tossed across the table of some luxurious casino or the swag that comes with building enormous tournament chip castles under the glitz and glamour of television lights, it's the prospect and challenge of being tested in all-out mental warfare, crushing souls and emerging as the best.
We're both seduced by the prospect of seeing the world while playing a game for a living and teased by the complete personal and financial freedom that would come with it.
...And why not? What's not to like? No boss, no alarm clock, no dead-end 9-5. No mandatory weekends or stodgy canteen lunches. No nefarious rules, claustrophobic cubicles or mawkish, B-O ridden colleagues to deal with. Just a free rein, some fish to fry, and some chips to stack.
Follow along as 888poker goes behind the life of a High Roller and charts the inspirational career of 888poker ambassador, Dominik Nitsche:
Falling in Love with The Dream
We begin to fantasise: How hard can it be? We recall beating our 3 best friends that time we played drunk at Ryan's house after a wild night in town; we hardly knew what we were doing then – We're a natural! Imagine if we applied ourselves...
So, you open up the cashier, make your first deposit and aim for the stars. Next stop Las Vegas and the WSOP final table...
Well not quite...
In reality, despite it being a fantasy like this that spurs us on when we first start playing, most of us realise how unrealistic this is pretty damn quickly. It kind of works like a new relationship. It's exciting and passionate at first, but as you grow to know the person (or game in this case) the lust dies a little, and you begin to fall in love with the little nuances that constitute the real beauty of the game.
You realise that happiness and success depend on you being in it for the long term, and so if you're planning on becoming a poker pro with a 'quick fix' mentality, you're most almost certainly doomed. The truth is that, unfortunately, for the vast majority of us, a quick fix is just not quite so simple (or satisfying).
Dreams kick start the journey, but success depends on staying grounded and being committed for the long-term.
That's not to say that the poker dream is dead though - Far from it. Tales abound - like John Hesp's tearing up the 2018 WSOP Main Event, or of whirlwind online stories of a random guy (probably German since they all seem to be wizards somehow!) turning a $5 satellite buy into a $300k payday. But the truth is that the more you learn about poker, the more you realise how rare this kind of spin-up is. Becoming any kind of poker pro is an Everest in itself.
It takes a tremendous amount of determination, study and experience to make the cut, and this just can't be rushed.
If you're thinking about hitting the tables full time, it's important to leave any delusions of grandeur at the door. Replace impatient pipe-dreams with carefully calculated, long-term action plans. The dream of making it to the top still exists, but more as an ongoing goal rather than anything else. Instead of a focus on the result, you must have a clear grasp of where you are now, a strong understanding of what you need to improve, and a clear vision of how you will do so.
Only with this wherewithal are you even close to being ready to play full time. You might be good enough now, but if you don't know how to improve, you will fall behind eventually.
Let's go into a bit more detail about playing poker full time.
Chose A Format That Works for You
Have you ever seen a clown spinning plates? It looks hectic right? Well, that's because it is! The more we try to juggle, the less we can focus on each specific activity individually, and the worse we perform overall. The increase in scenario types and relevant concept knowledge makes thinking critically far more difficult and increases the overall time that it takes to perfect each area (since you have to divide your time).
If you're wanting to play poker full time, the first thing you must decide is what format you'd like to play. Not only does each variant offer a different experience, but they also require tailored skill sets, bankrolls and schedules.
I give a full, detailed breakdown of what it's like to grind each format here, which I'd suggest you take a look at, but here's a quick recap for now:
As far as online poker careers go, cash games typically offer a slower more stable way to make a living. You can expect less severe swings than you would in MTTs and enjoy a far more flexible schedule too. You can hop in and out of games as you see fit (usually centring around how good they are). It's kind of like filling a bucket from a medium range with a water pistol – It's slow and steady, but you'll get there eventually.
More importantly, cash games are typically the most competitive poker format, and they have the biggest increase in ability linked to stake. The deeper stacks also increase the number of possible post flop scenarios, and I think most would agree that online cash games are the most difficult format to master. Heads-up cash games are especially tough since there's nowhere to hide and ranges are at their widest.
Multi-Table Tournaments (MTTs)
These are the most volatile form of poker. Since so much of your MTT success is tied to your deepest runs, the variance is more brutal than in any other kind of poker. Fortunately, though, the prospect of a huge score (along with misleadingly seductive “poker tournament career earning” stats) mean that MTTs attract a lot of recreational players. Therefore, the fields are often softer than in any other format. They can also be pretty rough mentally too since you will lose a high percentage of your sessions chasing that a big score. Not only will you need the biggest bankroll to grind these games but getting anywhere close to controlling variance requires a large sample.
As a result, you'll need to be prepared to tuck-in for some long, sometimes 15+ hour, sessions too, since leaving a tournament early forfeits your buy-in. Due to the swings, I describe MTTs as the most masochist way to play poker. They can be brutal, both mentally and financially, but as someone that grinded MTTs for a long time, believe me when I say, the highs of taking down a tournament are undoubtedly the best you can have at a poker table.
Sit & Go’s (SnGs):
These are somewhere in the middle of the two: Like cash games, SnGs require a lot of patience, preciseness, and study, but they also allow the same kind of freedom too. Just like in MTTs, the swings can be worse than in cash games (depending on the type of SnGs you play), but this is significantly offset by an increase in rakeback/bonuses, which can be pretty substantial over a month.
Don't try to be a master of all formats, off the bat. Before you even consider playing poker full time, you should choose one game to focus on as this will make it far easier to reach and maintain professional levels (and to improve thereafter). As entrepreneur, Gary Vaynerchuk so fantastically preached in a Joe Rogan podcast in 2017:
“Figure out what puts you on fire and [...], if you're lucky enough to be good at what you like, become tunnel f*****g visioned.”
Become a master - That's the key to success.
Set Yourself Up Financially
Since there's no guarantee of a stable or reliable income as a poker player, it's vital that you have enough money set aside to cover your living expenses for an extended period before going pro. The amount you need will largely depend on the format of poker you're looking to play, but personally, I'd aim to have enough money to cover you for at least a year initially (and this shouldn't include your playing bankroll either).
This number might seem excessive, but overcompensating will minimise any potential stress. It will enable you to have a chunk spare to use as a contingency budget in the event your car implodes, your boiler goes on strike, or you develop a major Krispy Cream addiction and wasting thousands of dol... Oh, wait, I'm still in denial about that one…forget I said anything!
Anyway, there's no hard and fast rule about how much you need to have in the kitty. And, to be honest, if you don't have a lot of responsibilities or are merely taking a shot (knowing you can return back to an old job if things don't work out), then you can be far more aggressive – something like 6-months-worth of expenses might be enough, for example. The underlying goal is to ensure that you can play poker freely with a clear focus on making the right decision, rather than allowing your financial stress to impact your game.
Generally speaking, people perform poorer under pressure. Don't believe me, just ask my high school prom date... Just kidding – I didn't have one! Joking aside though, the added pressures caused by having festering financial worries can really hinder your ability to think straight. As a poker player, whose decisions are only as good as how well they can read situations and interpret and process the information, this can be toxic for both your health, your game, and ultimately, your bottom line.
Believe me, as someone that grew up in a pretty poor, single-parent family, I've seen the stress that financial troubles can cause. Compound this with a direct correlation between your decisions and your bank balance, and it's only natural for the quality of both your poker game and state of mind to deteriorate if you're under-rolled.
To some degree, performing at your best requires a weird level of financial numbness – an ability to completely disassociate yourself from your results and focus only on your decisions. Ironically, this is something that you can really acquire with a decent financial cushion and/or (mainly and) enough experience.
I'll say it again, make sure you have enough money in the kitty (or a contingency plan if you don't) before you quit your day job! Poker longevity all about bankroll management.
“But what about all my winnings, Dan? Why do I need such a massive cushion? If I'm going pro, surely, I'll be winning mad p's yo'!”
Well, yeah, that may well be true - and I really hope that's the case – but annoyingly, downswings are as inevitable as Fedor or Bonomo winning the next high roller event. As you might expect better players tend to have shorter losing streaks (financially) since their higher win-rates allow them far more wiggle room. But even so, it's not uncommon for anyone's downswings to last several months – especially an MTT grinder’s! A three-month downswing with still require three month's worth of living expenses, and if you only have a six-month budget set aside, there's probably going to a couple bricks in your underwear by month four.
Since you're probably going to be thinking about going pro well before you're annihilating the games, your win-rates are likely to be lower than those of a more seasoned pro. As you might expect, this will amplify the damage of being below EV.
To understand what I mean, consider what running 4bb/100 below EV would mean for a strong pro with a 5bbs/100 win-rate, and then how much more severe the same DS would be for someone with EV earnings of 3bbs/100. One has some money to pay the bills, the other doesn't!
As an inexperienced pro, the truth is that you're probably pretty likely to make some naive mistakes and perhaps even tilt a little too. It really does take a while to get used to the lifestyle, and your cushion is designed to allow you to weather that storm. It also enables investment in your new poker business, should you want to hire a coach, buy a new laptop, or even fund taking some time away from tables to hit the lab and improve your game if things don't get off to a great start.
Coping with Downswings
Downswings (DS) can be really tough mentally too. I've been playing professionally for years now, and in the midst of a downswing, it's easy to doubt your abilities. At some point in our careers, I think all pros have thought to themselves something along the lines of: “what if I can't win any more?”, “what if I've forgotten how to play” or, “has everything I've achieved so been a fluke?” To deal with them, you need to understand down-swinging a little better.
When most of us think about a DS we think about a graph looking something like this:
This graphs the ChipEV 0f all my hands from the last week or two (spare a thought please!) As you can see, I have a positive EV line (orange) of around +$50,000 chips with net winnings (green line) of about $5,000. Since my EV line looks good and follows the same trend it usually does, it seems as though this is just typical run bad and that there was nothing I could do here. I simply have to count the Sklanksy bucks and remind myself that although I'm losing money, I'm playing well. If I stick to the plan, things will turn around eventually – These are the best kinds of downswings.
But let's say we have a graph that looks like this:
This is actually the same graph as above, but with a huge chunk of value hands filtered out. However, let's assume it's a legitimate payer graph for demo purposes.
Once you've wiped the vomit from your chin, you'll notice this graph looks way different to the first. Yes, this player is also running bad, but the simple truth is that when you have an orange line looks like this, the most likely cause is that you are playing as poorly as you're running! Interestingly, this is the kind of graph is what I'd expect to see from someone who had issues with tilt.
As a pro, this is the kind of graph that crushes your soul. Like a photo of an ugly ex-partner or an embarrassing childhood holiday, it's just so easy to see it, facepalm, and ask yourself serious questions about what you were thinking. You're not just losing, you're getting crushed! This image is the kind of graph that has the potential to mess with your head. You might start believing that you've forgotten how to play, or paranoid that your opponents have made some super rapid adjustments and you can no longer compete.
Importantly though, even with a graph like this, it's entirely possible that our Hero was playing well. Sure, it's not the most plausible explanation, but if we have an extended period of being on the wrong side of coolers, are unable to extract value with our monsters (because we got no action), or if we ran particularly bad in terms of hand distribution, a graph like this could easily be the result. This kind of scenario is another, less acknowledged form of a downswing, and believe me, it's the most brutal. It's important not to let a downswing like this cause you to doubt your abilities entirely because this might result in some rash over-adjustments.
It's important to realise that sometimes poker is just going to bend you over, and these kinds of downswings are a great example of that. If you don't manage these situations well, they can be a devastating confidence killer and can cause you to re-evaluate everything from your bet-sizing to your future as a pro. It's so easy to stress out, start making drastic changes to your strategy, or begin doubting your instincts altogether, all of which can easily weaken your overall game.
The easiest way to approach these kinds of downswings is to realise that sometimes it's not you, it's just poker.
How to Fix Things
Although these graphs seem to be indicative of a winning and losing player at face value, that might not necessarily be the case. As a professional, it's vital we review our game to discover the real cause of the downswing.
I know that during a downswing the last thing you're going to want to do is trawl through hands and either replay how bad you've run or chastise yourself for playing poorly. It's entirely natural to want to bury your head in the sand, or just try to just draw a line under everything and forget about the downswing altogether. Trust me, though, going all Bridget Jones with a few romcoms and an unhealthily large tub of mint chocolate chip really isn't going to get you anywhere.
As you might expect, the trick to overcoming downswings is to dig into your database and spend some time reviewing your hands (ideally with a friend to avoid bias and get some new ideas). If you're playing terribly, you might decide it's best to take a break to get your head straight and/or decide to hit the lab and make a plan to improve. If you discover you're playing poorly, and you plan to keep grinding, then you need to fix things pronto!
Fortunately, though, down-swinging is not necessarily just all doom and gloom: One benefit of losing is that, if you're actually getting crushed, you're likely to have a concentrated sample of sub-par play. This data makes leaks easier to find, allowing you to start plugging and improving right away. As much as it won't feel like it at the time, downswings caused by playing bad can actually be a blessing in disguise in the long run, since they make it easier to discover (and fix) what you're doing wrong!
In any case, upon reviewing your hands, you might realise that you've been playing pretty well and have just been running terribly (which should help you regain some lost confidence). If this is the case, then dust yourself off and get back to work. Yes, it's rough, and probably the last thing you want to do, but realise, there's a reason they call it 'grinding' - It's work, not pleasure.
Whatever your orange line looks like though, remember, in the short term, results can often be meaningless (which is why you should review your play during your upswings too!), the key is to understand why your graph looks like it does and react accordingly and this is done away from the tables.
An ability to handle swings well is an absolute necessity for any budding pro. In fact, I 'd argue that that finding effective ways to deal with a DS pragmatically is one of the most underrated skills you can develop as a poker player. I reckon that for every poker pro, there are probably at least 10 others who have the ability and talent to take his place but lack the necessary discipline. Methodically approaching your downswings can help alleviate tilt and allow you to plug leaks properly, both of which help you make more significant strides towards reaching your poker potential.
TIP: If you struggle with tilt, a great way to tackle it is to start each poker session with 3 loose poker chips – These represent your 'lives'. If you make a mistake, you lose a life. Lose all 3, and you take a break. Since 3 errors is not normally enough to make someone lose their head, this should enable you to control your tilt before it gets out of hand. (There are so many ways you can fashion your own poker career rules, but credit to my boi ZOMGHangover for this gem!).
What About Staking?
One of the most challenging things to come to terms with when you start professionally playing poker is the loss of a steady, stable salary. There are plenty of benefits of course, but one of the ridiculous things about being a grinder is the fact that you can work for extended periods and actually lose money! Of course, any realistic pro will have a +EV game, but the truth is that EV doesn't pay the bills! Additionally, as we discussed earlier, a poker player will probably perform sub standardly if they have one eye on the financial impact of their decisions (especially when down-swinging), and this can compound the problem.
A great way to disassociate yourself from the financial consequences of your results is to consider being staked. As a staked player you will basically play poker with someone else's BR. Since your losses go into 'make-up', this negates any direct potential risks to the player's immediate personal finances, which allows them to concentrate on making the best decisions at the tables.
Knowing that you played well no longer becomes a mere comfort blanket during a string of bad results, it becomes all that actually matters. For a new pro, who may struggle to disassociate their BR and personal finances, this is a really healthy option for mental and financial well-being too, because it minimises the immediate financial trauma of losing.
It gives a clear distinction between your bankroll and life roll and allows you to benefit from the improved results that come as a consequence of being able to make better, unclouded decisions during hands. Sure, you'll have to win the make-up back before they can take any money from the stake, but at least being staked means a big losing session won't eat into your living expenses.
If your game is strong enough for you to be considering going pro, getting staked should be relatively straightforward. Most backers are actively seeking players via poker forums, social media posts or banner adverts. So, assuming you can show a strong set of results to demonstrate your abilities and prove you're a long-term winning poker player (which shouldn't be a problem at this stage of your career), you'll probably get snapped up.
It's worth noting too that (depending on the format and coaching that comes with the deal), some stables will be more competitive than others. The best stables can often request a sizeable sample of results and may ask for permission to ghost a session and watch you play. This set-up is relatively normal (as is a formal recruitment process and an official staking contract).
The downside of being staked, of course, is that you will lose a percentage of your profits. This number is generally around the 50% mark, but remember, if you can show you're worth it, the exact amount may be negotiable. As you might expect, the better you are/get, the larger percentage a backer will be prepared to offer.
The truth is that staking is not just about the money either. Many players (me, included) see how a profit share can be a worthwhile price to pay if it enables you to do some or all of the following:
- Develop an emotional insensitivity to results and learn to focus on your decisions (and maximise your EV).
- Play the stake that enables you to earn the highest hourly (if it's out of your BR).
- Enable you to handle downswings better (if you struggle with tilt).
- Clearly separate your BR and life roll (some players struggle with this).
- Work with stable coaches to help you improve.
- Will facilitate you moving up in stakes.
- Settle or reassure concerns of family about playing poker with joint money (if you share your living expenses with a partner for example)
- Benefit from a larger community of people whose opinions are reliable.
- Utilise expensive third-party software or subscriptions.
- Enjoy the benefits of an understanding and qualified support network.
Balancing Work, Life and Relationships
The final thing I want to look at is the social life of a poker player. One of the most underestimated aspects of playing poker as a full-time professional is the solitude that comes with it (especially online). Sure, you might be sat at a table with a group of individuals, but for the most part, you're the only guy at the table that sincerely cares about you. Long sessions, especially losing ones, can be soul-crushing and this can take its toll on your overall happiness and mood.
The irregular schedules of a lot of the games can make it difficult to balance your relationships too, and so it's vital you strive for a healthy work-life balance. I look at how you can manage your relationships in more detail here, but the trick really is to surround yourself with a good support network.
As suggested already, this is something you can get through staking, but if you do decide to go alone, try to surround yourself with other professional poker players (better than you if possible!) That way you can easily share hands and bounce ideas and theories off each other. This partnership will increase the effectiveness of your study time and ensure you remain both sharp and up to date with the latest population trends.
Remember, a competitive obsession is required to succeed, but it shouldn't be at the expense of a healthy work-life balance. Be professional on and off the tables, strive to be the best player you can be. If you do, you'll quickly realise that being a poker pro is one of the most liberating and exciting careers in the world.