It sure would be nice if we could make a living playing Scrabble, wouldn’t it? Maybe retire down Florida way after building up a solid nest egg from all of our Tic-Tac-Toe winnings? Or perhaps we could secure our fortune by becoming the world’s foremost crusher of candy. Ah…that’s the life.
Unfortunately, it’s more than a little tricky to make a career out of playing a game. Professional athletes do it, but there honestly aren’t many of them, and even those who are successful are generally battered and bruised and suffering from multiple traumatic head injuries. What about playing a game that involves no risk of injury, and is so physically undemanding that you could literally play it until the day you keel over the table and die?
The fact is that—believe it or not—some people really do make a living from playing poker full-time. But before you start jumping for joy and making travel plans to Atlantic City, be forewarned: The odds are awful (which should be of concern to you, given your gambling tendencies), and even the life of a successful poker player is hard.
Since the poker boom of 2004 especially, hordes of hopefuls have packed it up and moved to Vegas, or taken a sizeable bankroll and tried their luck online, all for the dream of being able to play in one’s pajamas and get paid handsomely for it. Very few have real talent…and even fewer of those are able to stomach the massive swings and/or have the money management skills to make it profitable in the long run. Not to mention the fact that most gamblers like to, well, gamble. So even if you make a killing at the poker tables, you then have to avoid the temptations of plopping down a few grand at the roulette table, or getting hammered and blowing it all in some swanky club; there are a number of ways to go broke in Vegas, some of which we probably shouldn’t mention here. Let’s just say it might involve some alcohol, a strip club, a dwarf minister dressed as Elvis, and the lack of a pre-nuptial agreement.
For most who take the plunge, the end result is pretty gruesome. There’s no glory, no TV time on ESPN, no World Series of Poker bracelets lining your trophy shelf. Chances are you’ll end up destitute and having to rely on your quickly diminishing list of friends to stake you in tournaments, then you’ll crash and burn in those and become truly desperate. And places like Vegas, Reno and Atlantic City are not the best places to be desperate and alone.
Others are able to squeak by, but their stories aren't much more inspiring. You’ve got your workhorses—players who nit it up at the tables and play strictly A-B-C poker. Nothing fancy, they’re just there to put in their 10-12 hours at the cash tables, make an average $200/day profit, and head back to their hotel rooms. But honestly, if you’re putting in those kinds of hours, making $50k a year and becoming stuck in a grind, aren’t you really better off getting some education in ya and doing something that gives you some sense of pride and accomplishment?
Okay—then you’ve got your rare cases of real success. These are the guys you see over and over on ESPN. They’re always making final tables, pocketing huge scores, globetrotting to exotic locales, even snagging sweet sponsorship deals from major companies. They certainly do make the lifestyle seem enviable. They’re netting a million a year or more (the very top pros clear millions more than that annually, and can go some stretches where they actually win millions in the span of a few days), and they’re all incredible physical specimens. Okay, so this last bit might be a flat-out lie, but who can really tell what shape they’re in under those hoodies?
If, despite all the warnings, you don’t mind having the deck stacked against you (hopefully not literally), then you need to figure out what kind of poker player you’re going to be. Are you only going to play tournaments? Bad news, amigo. It’s nearly impossible to make a living purely as a tournament player—even most of the top pros would tell you the same. The time it takes to maneuver your way through a major tournament, combined with an average cash rate, just makes it seriously difficult to show a consistently large yearly profit. Most poker players who are able to stay afloat either play exclusively at mid-to-high-stakes cash tables, where thousands—or hundreds of thousands—of dollars can change hands at every sitting, or at least achieve a balance between that and playing the tournament circuit.
Are you going to play online? Given the current state of affairs in the U.S., if this is the way you want to go, then you’d better make sure your passport is current, because you’re moving to Canada. You can still get away with playing on a few sites here, but chances are good that those, too, will soon be shut down and your assets frozen so it'd be best not to risk it. If you’re willing, however, it might be your best way to beat the odds. Because you can play multiple tables at once, and because the hands are played much faster, a strong player can vastly increase their win rate by focusing on online play. Better have a reliable Internet connection though. The first time you’re facing a bet in a huge pot after rivering the nuts and your Wi-Fi goes out, well, someone on the street below your hotel room is probably going to be getting a new laptop.
If you do find yourself making some hefty paydays, money management is key. Nearly all of the poker pros who have lasted in the biz will tell you that, without a good head on your shoulders and a penchant for saving and investing, you’re going to find that your entire life will be one long, bad beat.