In a coincidence of holiday planning, both RC and CLP put out media on deciding to become and be a professional poker player around Thanksgiving Day. I noticed this in the uneasy tranquility of my Borgata hotel room: a place, its view casting upon the metal grey of the boardwalk casinos and the angry Atlantic beyond, to reflect on this journey- and what one might need to know before beginning it.
The Red Chip article which triggered their podcast is in fact very good. It isn't the usual poker media fluff list (Five Tips For Playing Jacks from the Medium Blind!) or even a more localized casting call for some three betting ninjas. (What kind of ninja would call so much attention to himself?)
Nevertheless, what’s also striking about these sorts of guides, no matter how thorough they are, they never tell you what you really need to know.
The stuff no one told you but you wished you had heard before you began.
Or the stuff they did tell you but at the wrong volume, afraid to discourage you.
So to fill in the gaps, I am going to delve into what is demanded of many pro poker players beyond the basics of bankroll - especially for those of you who don't have your life in order.
Now, for those of you who are naive, who don’t understand how the world works, who worship poker celebrities, who think the opinions of actors and musicians are important, who think nation states exist on attitudes and polls, who Stood With Her for Unaccountable Mediocrity or think a petty, hypersensitive, brazen reality television star will make you Great Again, in other words, the Fish…
…this might get painful.
Time to put on those shades you wear at the one two game!
Know Thine Edge Because it is Not Mathematically Quantifiable
This is a big one, because it has important ramifications. Whenever you see an article telling you how many hands you need to determine your win rate… pretty much hit Back.
You are in flux, your opponents are in flux, the game is in flux. You will never be in a static enough environment to glean precisely from the past what the future holds.
Are you planning on playing the same game with the same people at the same stacks every day of your playing life?
(I thought we were talking about poker, not hell.)
Now, to cover up their deficient reasoning, the poker advisers give you bigger and bigger samples to accumulate (100,000 hands, okay maybe 200,000 hands, oh, shit, you have that, let’s go for a million…).
So, why does this matter?
Because only you (and maybe some trusted advisers) can decide if you have the skill to make money professionally over an extended period of time.
Now, like anyone at the beginning of a career, you will learn. When you stepped out of college were you the proficient worker you are now?
What happens when the game undergoes its next seismic shift? Is your bb/100 number insurable?
Your win rate will change - if it ever really was yours to begin with. (It wasn't, past self.)
So if you need to look at some graph to determine your future… you probably don’t have the one you are imagining.
Only knowledge of yourself and the game matters... because that's where that bb/100 rate came from.
If the Greeks had Know Thyself, the poker sages (and the Goddess herself) would say: Know Thine Edge.
No Man is an Island, There is No Perfection, the Grass is Always Greener
No matter what you do, there will always be ramifications, compromises, and things that are lost, even as you gain from your decision.
The dream of being free is only as true as you are potentially free, which is to say, it is not true.
You will gain in freedom by going into poker full-time, but you will become subservient to a million factors – only some of which you could have predicted.
Do not pass over this lightly.
Professional Poker does not equal freedom. (It does, however, equal more poker.)
Further, if you are one of those people who have “problems with authority,” pay attention:
This is a really bad reason to go into poker on its own.
Authority comes in many forms, and everyone is subservient to someone or something. Those who can’t even recognize what they should respect or resist constitute the mass of muddled minds. Just look at the current political situation in the United States. These people – the same people who want to physically incarcerate climate change dissenters, change our tongue to fit their anthropological whims, and ban speakers with dissenting views from university campuses - wouldn’t know Fascism if Hugo Chavez turned over Mussolinis Full at showdown.
If you have problems with the normal forms of authority, such as with someone who hopes you show up on time a few days a week in exchange for your market value, it means you often cannot recognize the validity of an authority – nor examine its limitations and thus its proper place. You are in for a world and a life of confusion if not some pain. Worse for your development, you will gravitate to those with equal problems in order to maintain your illusions. Try to #Resist that whirlpool for an extended period of time.
Playing cards instead of participating in the noble workforce is only going to solve this problem for so long.
The organization of a successful society such as ours depends upon a hierarchy which does not in fact compromise individual self-worth or happiness. There is potential joy and dignity at every point on the spectrum for this reason.
In other words, address your personal issues separately from poker, for best results.
Now, there are people, in a similar and more potentive vein, who have the compelling want, and in some cases are nearly ready, to leave the corporate or governmental world in order to Be Their Own Boss.
It’s sympathetic. It's a good dream.
The problem here is that this guy is often the Worst Boss in the World. He’s full of excuses for you, thinks along the same lines you do, and misses all the things you miss.
I’d want to get out from under his thumb, too.
In other words, you’re going to have to train him in leadership the same way you trained yourself in poker. And that will be a big problem for many of you, who at heart, got into pro poker because you are lazy, undisciplined, and your unusual cleverness at a glorified parlor activity covers it up.
Poker is a Social Nightmare
While this factor fits under the previous, it is very important for the aspiring poker player to realize fully.
The world does not organize itself around the poker player. Like an entertainer, or firefighter, or nurse, or some profession that finds its hours based outside the bright days of productivity, you will be confined and delimited by your profession.
However, while this is glamorous in the case of many professions, it is at its nut low in poker.
You will be tempted, and may even find it necessary, to play at hours when the game is best, such as Fridays or Saturday nights – just when the rest of the world is enjoying itself. This will become a problem for many of you, as finding companionship, community, and activity in life is critical for happiness – far more so than an uptick in your win rate.
The pro poker player often lives against the grain in order to enjoy more fully what he left behind: problem.
Then, until and unless you truly succeed, your choice of career will be looked askance and questioned by nearly everyone, from relatives and friends to potential mates.
Further, the people you meet in poker will not often overcome or compensate for this, and that’s about as nicely as I can put it.
There’s more, though. The world is bigger than poker, and you will find that your ability to four bet A10 and get JJ to fold really doesn’t translate into any sort of standing anywhere. You don't need poker to become a day trader - imagining there is some natural career path or that employers are excited by the final table on your resume is a mistake in all but the most favorable circumstances.
In other words, as you gain in poker, unless you are diligent and cultivating other gardens, you will find that this is a field where success does not yield social standing in the same way more typical professions do.
In most cases, in fact, your social standing goes down. This is why many players become lovers of the signs of success – watches, cars, social media popularity - to project what otherwise would be more natural and naturally earned.
And what does that tell you?
When In Rome
The flip side of the danger of relying on poker for community is the poker's great virtue: it is the game that erases social standing, bridges cultures, and makes men and women of all ages equal.
Poker is a great social past time.
Of course, there is a lot of fuss, most of it not even that subtly self-serving, about bad behaviors in poker, but at the table itself, there is no finer example of competing humans getting along and respecting each other. Like the seasoned Abe Limon, someone you can trust probably more than anyone else in the entire field of commentators, I have never witnessed an example of sexism or racism at the poker table. And even if you have, or you've heard of one, how do you think it compares to the rate of actually divisive opinions?
No, the hysterical, identity politics people - our own nervy canaries - are all wrong when it comes to our game.
This is because we are competitors given no advantage - no quarter - and thus must all fend for ourselves under an equal rule of law.
You're in the Forum.
The poker table, not poker, is the great encapsulation of an ideal society, and by becoming a professional poker player, you not only get to take part, you become a guardian of it.
You're in the Senate.
Not only is poker the great leveling game where anyone can win, the people in poker are the most interesting in the world. There is no stratus of society that does not visit the game. Even more telling, there is a tradition in poker of the players solving the issues that come up at the table.
You're in the Colosseum.
If you have a healthy life, and keep somethings apart from Poker, you will be in a position to meet and appreciate more people than nearly any other activity you can imagine.
But if you ignore this, or partake of it badly, you'll be missing out on one of the game's great virtues while suffering under its defects.
Don't be an atheist when you're in the Pantheon.
More Poker Means Becoming a Part of Poker Culture
Nevertheless, poker players find many ways to evade these and other truths, and in doing so, fairly regularly take on the ironic, iconic Successful Poker Player Personality. Being given full opportunity to be unbought and independent, so many of them embrace the majoritarian, virtue-signalling mob instinct, despite taking on a profession that supposedly makes them the Outlier.
Just consider how they reamed out poor Martin Derbyshire every time he offered an observation, literally calling for his job because of opinion pieces. How online, illegally used poker sites became a tragedy and no one held themselves responsible, like people who blamed the banks alone for the financial crisis.
Et tu, Debitor?
Poker players, in other words, love the hall of mirrors they set up for themselves:
I’m independent, I beat the games, I read NVG for culture and get world news from Twitter.
So, they are great at poker (maybe), but what else?
Can you be nourished, culturally, spiritually, even physically, by this group?
Now, I know some will scream about this (fortunately I am immune and unbought.) But you, alone, or with your family and friends, won’t find much comfort when you need it once you are familiar with their hypocrisy.
Truth has a way of giving the most unpleasant reach around you can imagine. The signs and images and things you love to love and love to hate likely do not mean what you think they mean.
You need, above all, reality, not even knowledge, to thrive in this world. The team colors don’t bleed for you as much as you will find you bleed for them, lass.
The poker community is as fickle as any other one, and any wisdom you take from it won't hold you in the dead of night. The approval of a bunch of cluckers on Social Media, no matter how coolly they misspell everything and how marvelously snappy their choice of GIFs are, is far less comfort than you might imagine when you are in the grip of struggles.
What makes for a good life – balance, love, family, variety, neighborhood, spirituality, philosophy – must be brought in, imported, into the game.
It can be done. You can make poker work.
However, the trap of buying pieces, selling stakes, gambling, dealing with the desperation of others, reaching the limits of your edge, and all the subsequent highs and lows you are likely headed for, will be too much for you if your whole life is poker and the casino and gambling.
Now, obviously there are many success stories and happy people in poker. Don’t fill my comment boxes with illogical white elephant whining about some poker player’s charitable giving – especially when they have likely taken this road to escape the very emptiness I am warning you of. Don't make my point for me.
And don’t tell me about bloody Alec Torelli’s beautiful life. I’m not talking about handsome men in scarves making great calls, floating through the YouTubes and inspiring beautiful women: I’m talking about the most likely pro poker outcome, the middle-income grinder, not poker’s (real) One Percent.
(This is one frequency you’d better tune into and one betting pyramid to get right, aspiring poker pro.)
The point is that if you are going into this field, set up a significant part of your social life and support system outside the game for best results and best chance of success.
Poker Players Become Lazy for a Reason
You may have noticed that many serious players seem to suffer from a certain "lay-about" attitude.
This is not a coincidence, and it may well overcome you if you are not careful. It's not even the worst thing.
The reason behind this is twofold and related:
First, poker is a performance. It is exhausting, and the bigger you play, the more thought you will put into your decisions.
In other words, you are rather secretly working far harder than other people, on a decision for decision basis.
Poker, it turns out, is not all fun and games.
This means you will be fatigued and need recuperation time that you may not suspect. This is also why a lot of dreamers think they can just grind forty hours a week and then find it actually impossible.
It's too much work, and their mind and body needs to linger and slow.
In other words, the poker player will often become lazy because in this way, his mind defends itself from the stress of the game.
Now, this fact is often worsened by another aspect of poker: poker's toll on the natural rhythms of the body. Many players must put in not only long hours, but late hours.
Once you start doing this to yourself, you are prone to take on a certain lassitude that is endemic to the poker community and its professionals.
Be prepared to fight it or accept it - but it is likely coming.
Financial Freedom, not “Crushing,” is the Real Challenge of a Poker Player
You can always tell a fool by the words he chooses. Among the debris of Poker Mushrooms that have sprouted overnight only to be wiped out by evening are all the dorks who insist on Crushing Things, including most obnoxiously, “Crushing Life,” like a mutant alien species spawned from your basement computer in your mother's house.
It’s hard to accomplish anything when you don’t know what you are talking about.
Poker is an enjoyable time of your life, and one of the best things to ever happen to me and others, but to make a full career of it, or even half a career, you need a full, specialized plan. One that is circumspect, wise, and slow.
You don't crush out a full retirement fund unless you're Fedor Holz.
No one but the most hardheaded, nearly sociopathic players can grind forty hours per week for twenty years.
Or want to.
This is because the game becomes somewhat rote after a while: just another job. Worse, in fact, because the natural need to produce and build is easily stymied by poker's natural abstraction.
Just what you were trying to avoid!
So the smartest players get interested in their Nest Egg, Financial Life Plan, Savings Goal, Businesses, Diversification – whatever it is and whatever word it is - that works for them – very, very soon.
And slowly work toward it, balancing all their cash flow needs.
The winners don't wait for a better spot.
They want to move on, move up, and accomplish and enjoy and create.
Those who didn’t? Mostly, they just got crushed.
The Highs of Poker Must Matter, Because Poker Owes You Nothing
For many players the fruits of their labors are not crisp apples but mealy applesauce.
This is no way to make use of your poker orchard.
What I am talking about it is an intuitive and studied phenomenon. We humans are essentially conservative.
We are afraid to lose what we have, and will risk more to protect less.
While this has a profound effect on the game's play and strategy, it also has a very interesting effect on our attitude toward our results:
Poker players lament their losses more than celebrate their wins.
Yet this is no way to live out a career. Think about it: If a great player wins between one half and two-thirds of his sessions, an incredible amount of suffering is coming his way if he remains under the spell of this attitude.
The professional poker player, then, must endeavor to enjoy his success for the good of his body, soul, life, and loved ones.
Many good ones naturally do. The great winners are often extraordinarily happy people with or without poker.
Benny the Crank at the Meshuga Card Room and Karaoke Bistro, still whining about Donkey John's suckout on Tuesday ruining his month's hourly, isn't.
There is causation and correlation here - a winning, positive attitude engenders a career in poker because it creates sustainable work attitudes.
And ultimately, when you are an established winner, and you look at the long-term, you can celebrate your losses with a little humor, too, knowing the game belongs to you - just not every day.
And there will be a lot of those days, because poker owes you nothing. (I feel some emphasis coming on.)
Poker Owes You Nothing
In the end, all things are the same or similar. All is diversion, and then you die.
However, how honestly you face this in part decides who you are.
The deck, aspiring poker pro, is stacked against you.
The facts of poker - all that you can count on - are this: swings, rake, and decisions.
Can you do it? Can you beat this game?
But if you think the game owes you something, that you are supposed to win, that you are surrounded by fish, that your opponents are dunderheaded farm animals waiting for the slaughterhouse, the road ahead will be hard.
And I dearly hope it is for you, if you think you deserve to win.
Because Poker owes you nothing.
You must claim what you want.