At the end of 2008, just after my 10-year high school reunion, I decided that I was going to make the move from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. I had lived in LA for 4.5 years. And while I hoped to one day move back to the coast, the allure of the Vegas Strip was strong. I had visited plenty during that 4.5 year-stretch--maybe 20 times?
Every trip, when it came time to zip up my suitcase and depart the desert to go home, I was a little bummed. I didn’t want to leave the playground.
So, I decided to move, so that I wouldn’t have to leave anymore.
Making the Leap from Online the Live
I had built a poker bankroll playing online. I wasn’t a wizard by any stretch, but games were, of course, easier back then. This situation was particularly true online, where I was able to start in the micros and grind all the way up to $10/$20NL following a 20-buy-in bankroll management strategy. I would read forums occasionally, but mostly it was just volume that got the results.
Each time I went to Vegas, I would try and spend as much time as I could at the live poker tables. I enjoyed them at least as much as the online felts. The beauty of Vegas poker is in the massive game selection packed mainly into one long Boulevard’s worth of mega-casino resort after the next. Get tired of one grandiose motif replicating some city on some continent, take a short walk next door to another. And I haven’t even mentioned the free booze yet--that’s on every “continent”.
So just like that, I was a live poker player. No certificate needed.
I decided that rather than play stakes equal to what I was playing online, I would prove myself worthy before moving up in the live games. I’d start at $1/$2 and $1/$3 and wait until I had a certain amount of money in my pocket/sock drawer/bank account to climb the ladder. Similar to the success that I found while building a bankroll online, I wanted it to be methodical. That, I don’t think, wasn’t unreasonable…
But there was a big difference - many differences, actually.
Oh, the Joys of Professional Poker
When I was living in LA and getting into online poker, I started playing while I was still working a job. Initially, I would play in my off hours and on weekends. My small stakes losses--as someone who was new to the game was naturally incurring--would get replenished by the job.
I got more and more into poker as the US economy was slowing down, which meant that my job and work projects were slowing down too. So, what was initially limited, slowly structured itself into more and more proper grind time at the online tables. Full-time work (and paycheck) became part time work, then freelance. The offramp led directly to the poker life onramp.
Fast forward to Las Vegas, and we have Andrew in a new life, a new lifestyle, a new “job” with, “oh, so many distractions” - and absolutely no structure. The problem wasn’t that the low stakes games were super difficult. I was definitely a winning player. The problem is that I don’t even have the records to prove it to you because I didn’t bother keeping them. And, so begins a long list of things that I was doing incorrectly as a Professional Poker Player.
Fail #1: Keep Track of Session Results and Hours Played
My goal in the lowest stakes was to fill up my pockets to the brim eventually, and then take that wad of cash to the $2/$5 tables. But I had no clue what my winrate was because I wasn’t keeping track of each/any of my session results.
And, without tracking what my estimated hourly winrate was, I had no way of knowing how many hours I’d need to put in each week/month to cover my expenses and grow my bankroll.
Whether you’re playing live or online, several apps have the basic functionality of keeping track of your poker session results. This system will then spit out your hourly rate and help give you a more definite sense of what you’re earning. It will also, generally, (albeit not precisely) tell you what to expect to make over any given period.
Fail #2: Prioritise the Grind
It isn’t tough to envision what sort of distractions Las Vegas might present a man in his late twenties with nowhere to be at any particular time. That’s not to say that I was falling for ALL of them. But with bars that never close, and a city that friends always want to visit, the poker grind often got pushed down the list of priorities.
When you’re starting out in the low stakes with visions of both improving and moving up, it’s going to take as many hours as you can find. Often those hours are being used in another department—usually, social time with friends, watching/playing sports, a relationship, etc.
Decide what’s most important to you, and where poker fits into that list. Is it your number one goal to move up in stakes and make your living from poker? Or is it merely a fun pastime? It’s totally cool if it’s the latter, and that’s what it is for most people.
But if it’s the former, then make sure your actions back up your ambitions.
Fail #3: Limit Your Spending
If you are keeping track of your results and your hourly winrate, then you’ll know how much or how little extra cash you can expect to have on hand for discretionary spending. Chances are, it isn’t that much when you’re grinding the low stakes and paying bills out of those winnings. The problem for me was that I wasn’t keeping track of hardly anything whatsoever, aside from my total bankroll and net worth.
I had money in my pocket, and could probably get more, so why not discover all the craft cocktails in a city known for mixology? I was also living alone, not too far from the strip. What I should’ve done is searched for a roommate and cut my living expenses in half.
You should try and return as close to 100% of your poker winnings back to your bankroll as possible. I know it sounds boring and very anti-baller, but you need to have patience and recognise that the material things--if that’s what you want--will come later in life.
You will get nowhere if you need them immediately and you put your bankroll on a treadmill.
Fail #4: Network, Network, Network!
For the majority of the first year that I lived in Las Vegas, I rolled solo. I didn’t talk poker hands with anyone, I didn’t discuss which rooms were the most grinder-friendly, and I certainly didn’t swap action with any fellow grinders. I’d see familiar faces at the table, but I basically left those relationships and acquaintances at the “office”.
Again, people were coming into town all the time, and I did know a small handful of people in town outside of poker (a circle that would continue to grow). So, I had a social life. But I didn’t have a proper poker life.
On the one hand, poker players are a special breed: They like to eat, sleep, and breathe poker. They will chat hands from the day’s session and remember runouts as if they happened 2 minutes ago. Then again, no matter what industry you’re in, the people who genuinely want to be successful and love what they do approach their own field the same way. A plumber will tell you every size pipe and ratchet; a pro golfer will chat about what hole has what green speed on what course.
Just because it’s beneficial to you to make friends with other players, doesn’t mean you’re using them. They’ll want that colleague/discussion partner/friend as much as you and will benefit approximately equally. You need other winning players to discuss hands with because there will be so many instances where you aren’t aware that you’re doing wrong. Often these leaks take a long time to reveal themselves in poker, or only do so very subtly. Having a “crew” of poker colleagues will speed up the process tremendously.
If you’re based in a location that makes this especially difficult, there is a new invention that will help you: The Internet! There are several forums you can find and post on, for free, and discuss all the poker you want until your heart's content. Poker players are not exactly known for being the least socially awkward, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that many friendships and crews will be formed online.
Decide, then Start Checking the Boxes
All of the above will apply to both live and online poker, as well as other pursuits when you’re just starting out. Decide what it is you want out of this endeavour. If you want a laugh with friends and some free beverages, that’s great! But maybe it’s something more. It took me a few years after moving to Las Vegas to decide what was most important to me.
And it wasn’t until I started checking off all these boxes consistently that I began to make some proper progress in this poker life.