Being John poker player

On becoming a poker pro

“Poker is the hardest way to make an easy living”

If you’ve ever watched cowboy movies, they all have a central theme: a mysterious lone gunslinger comes into town (or a farm or a ranch) solves a problem and leaves in a cloud of dust. The life of a poker pro is similar to that of a cowboy (without the pistols): you “travel” from table to table, or from tournament to tournament; to you, every other player is the ‘bad guy in black.’ Even the conclusion of a hand is called a…showdown.  However, just like a gunslinger’s life wasn’t just shoot-outs and collecting $5,000 rewards, so is a poker pro’s life…

Most everyone who’s played at the poker table, live or online, for free or for real money, at one point or another imagines him or herself as a poker pro, reeling in the big chips, watching as his stacks of cash pile up as he wins tournaments right and left; or at least, reach the cash-in stages. There’s also the bright lights of the poker tournament capitals – London, Vegas, Macau, Monaco…after all, hearing of all those million-to-one shot amateurs who defied odds and bigger, badder players than them to win multi-million dollar pots and earn sponsorship deals, media coverage and poker tours around the glove makes one believe that he or she can easily be part of it, right?

Well, yes…and no.

The life of a poker pro is a daily grind – literally. Although there are no office hours or traffic jams, and you can play pajamas when not traveling to a local tournament, you have to sit at the computer and play, play, play. Grind, grind, grind. Your “workday” may include sessions of 8-10 hours and then you lose an entire normal week’s pay with one hand or brutal bad beat. Are you prepared for that?

On the upside, poker can give you the freedom you’ve always craved: no bosses, no office hours, no rush hours, no overtime…The ability to work from anywhere (you have Internet connection, anyway). You could win freerolls to major tournaments and find yourself suddenly in Vegas or London or any other poker capital, playing, in addition to the big bucks, also for prestige and the chance to hang out with the big shots.

Then there’s the downside:

Life as a poker player can be very extreme – long stretches of tedious grinding with the occasional exciting win. To begin with, you need the bankroll to play poker. You need to learn proper bankroll management, or else you’ll sink fast and take close friends with you. You have to put in the hours – long hours at the table. There is the isolation factor. Unlike at a 9-5 job, you may play in jour pajamas or shorts, but can’t show up at the tables tired, unfocused, or doing other things such as talking on the phone.  Your family life takes a hit. Relationships crack easier than aces. In addition to your long playing sessions, there’s the hours you must invest in reading books, dissecting poker hands and game histories over forums, etc.

There are several factors in determining how good a poker player you can become:

Skill – well, duh…! Seriously, you must learn, learn, learn thoroughly the ins and outs of the poker game you wish to concentrate on. If it’s Hold’em, focus only on Hold’em; if it’s Omaha, focus only on Omaha. Once you’ve grasped the firm foundations and strategies of poker, and play it well – can you move to another variation. There is a famous story of a well-known female player who learned how to play No-Limit Deuce to Seven Lowball from a fellow pro in about five minutes and went on to win the first such tournament she ever played in. Remember, though, lightning doesn’t strike twice that often in the poker room – especially for beginners.

Bankroll – without solid bankroll management, you’ll sink pretty fast

Durability – yes, there’s the highs of the wins, but they are more infrequent than you may think. And the downswings can get extremely brutal at times: bad runs. Excruciating bad beats. Just plain tough luck, losing to a clueless ‘donk’ who lucked out on the river. Ask yourself: can you mentally withstand the loss of a week’s earning in a blink of an eye, and keep on playing…?

Flexibility – one of the great benefits of playing poker full time is that you choose your working hours. However, these working hours may include anytime within the day’s 24 hours. In fact, some players claim that they feel most comfortable playing late into the night and early morning. Do you see yourself sitting at the computer late Friday nights, multi-tabling while your friends are at a club…?

Support – it’s one thing when you’re in your twenties, carefree and poker-full: plenty of time to devote to poker. But what if you’re in your late twenties-early thirties, or have a family already? Or have a steady girlfriend or boyfriend? When you are deep into poker, unless you’re “other half” is extremely supportive (or poker player in their own right), it can easily devastate a relationship.

Morality – some players will shrug it off, claiming “one day you’re up and one day you’re down.” But can you cope also when you win big from someone who has trouble dealing with a colossal loss?

This is not the Olympics – this is not a race to see who’s #1. You only need to play a bit better than those you’re playing against at the table.

Stop looking at the so-called ‘superstars’ thinking you can be one – perhaps you can be, down the road-  but it sure won’t help you inspecting their career winnings (from which you should deduct taxes, various expenses, etc.). Then there are those nosebleed games – the so-called online poker bloodbaths? Remember, Somebody has to go broke being on the losing side of such a match. You won’t hear much about that in high-profile websites or tournament promotions. Also, bear in mind that many of the high-profile you hear and read about today are “staked” – meaning, someone gave them the bankroll in exchange for a percentage of their winnings. Many simply cannot afford the amount of money required for a proper bankroll. And if they lose – they’re in trouble. Sometimes, it’s better to be a “grinder” than a so-called “superstar”…

A poker table is like a swimming pool – you start in the very shallow waters, and then, very gradually, if you can handle the depth, moving slowly into deeper territories. Jump into the deep to quick and the sharks will maul you for breakfast. Knowing when to make the transition and profit from it, that’s the trick.

Poker is by its nature, unpredictable: one day you’re up, the next day you’re down. You’ll need to toughen it up mentally to get through the rough times – and, believe me, there will be rough times: bad beats, variance, tilts, whatever – you will see swings up and then you’ll feel the swings down; it’s inevitable.

In poker, supposedly anybody can hit a lucky streak at any time and win big. When the Internet poker boom began in 2003, almost every poker novice believed that he or she could take down that multi-million dollar tournament prize.  It’s also what draws crowds of tourists to Vegas every year. In fact, amateurs have made it all the way to the final table of the most prestigious live poker tournaments in the world, cashing in multi-million-dollar paychecks. What you don’t see behind those dramatic, high-stakes games are the endless months and years of practice poring over those numbers and honing your strategy. You’re not playing against machines; you’re playing against humans, who are always getting better. And you’re playing with your own money.

The reality is that when you play poker 24/7, you don’t produce anything of substance for society – it is a craft solely focused on oneself. As a noted poker pro states, “playing poker is essentially a selfish pursuit.” You’re on your own.  Even when you play in the occasional live tournaments, the people you usually meet are random – every table is a new set of players. Now you see them – now you don’t.

And so is your chip stack: now you see it climb – the next instant it vanishes, and you have to start from scratch. The question is: Do you have what it takes to hand that on a monthly, weekly, even daily basis…

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