Playing Poker Professionally
© 2006 Randy Saylor  

It’s probably safe to say that anybody who has played a few hands of poker and won a few pots has at least considered the possibility of playing for a living. The explosion of poker on television with its multi-million dollar prizes only makes this notion stronger. Poker offers everything to the dreamer: glamour, fame, drama, flexible hours, and for the very best, fortune.

Professional poker players refer to their vocation as “a hard way to make an easy living.” Sure they aren’t doing hard manual labor or working in a hostile office environment, but they have complaints about their “jobs” just like the rest of us.

A Dangerous Game

Just some of the drawbacks to professional play include:

1) The temptation to get lazy. In the midst of a winning streak, a player might take an extended unplanned break from the game, feeling it’s deserved.
2) The risk of going broke. If an hourly worker shows up for work regularly, they get paid. A poker player could enough of their bankroll that they wouldn’t be able to support themselves while rebuilding the bankroll.
3) The temptation to spend their bankroll. Poker players must keep their bankroll intact and only spend winnings. This usually means setting aside a reserve for living expenses if a temporary shortfall in profits is faced.
4) The lack of employee-style benefits. Tax withholding, employer services, and health insurance are just a few of the potential losses.
5) The attendant health problems. Spending hours in uncomfortable chairs with no natural light and poor diet can take a long-term toll on a poker player’s health. Playing online poker is risky in this area if a player hasn’t made preparations to address ergonomic issues.

The biggest risk of all may be tilt. The trap of losing patience and/or playing frivolously, in a gambling manner, captures all players occasionally and some players regularly. Avoiding and controlling tilt is one of the best long-term skills of the best players. It’s perfectly acceptable for a recreational poker player to play frivolously, even if they know a better way to play. As long as they are making a conscious choice to play less than optimally, there is no harm done (and professionals rely on this gambling nature in recreational players).

A poker player who decides to play professionally must make a commitment: I will not play poker for fun. This does not mean that playing poker can’t be fun and entertaining, but no longer can a pro say “I’ll just go donk off $100 at a $1/2 game.” Every action must be made with the goal of building a business in mind, for the professional poker player is running a business.

Consider a skilled amateur player for a moment. This person might be extremely intelligent and skilled in their field, perhaps as a business executive. Although this person might like to learn some simple strategies to improve their game (thereby increasing their enjoyment), they do not dedicate their life to learning the game. Poker is entertainment for this person; they play for fun after working all day. The pro works all night at the tables then does other things for fun.

The Rules for Professional Players

1) Take poker seriously. This means making every play within a specified framework that defines how you will earn the most possible profit. Gambling on an inside straight draw because you “feel it” is forbidden.

2) Have fun and entertain your customers. Remember that having fun is not the same as playing for fun. Laughing and joking with the nine biggest donators in the world might keep them around for another buy-in or two. If you’re mumbling about bad beats and berating the fish, they won’t give you their money. You’re selling a poker challenge, gambling, and entertainment. They’re buying with the only currency they have - their chips.

3) Play a sufficient amount of time/hands. You must stick to a periodic number of hands or hours played to provide yourself adequate profits and allow you to grow your bankroll.

4) Practice the real estate maxim - “location, location, location.” You must play poker where you’re most likely to be profitable. McDonald’s doesn’t place its restaurants at the ends of dead-end streets in abandoned blocks for a reason. Don’t set up your poker business in a place where there are not enough customers. Online poker players have a real advantage here - it takes seconds to switch from one site or table to another.

5) Keep records and study them. Again, online poker players have a real advantage. The amazing Poker Tracker software does this virtually automatically. Once you have the records, you can study your results and improve them. Time of day, game type, limits, number of opponents, casino…all of these things can factor into your future choices. One player might find better results while four-tabling $1/2 and chasing bonuses, while her friend might have better profits single-tabling a $5/10 game that was carefully chosen and studied.

6) Maintain (and grow) your bankroll. Keeping your bankroll intact by setting aside extra funds for shortfalls in living expenses is a wise choice. Normal bankroll fluctuations are expected, but withdrawing half of it for a vacation is taboo.

7) Advertise. Advertising is a legitimate business expense. It is an expense for professional poker players too. Sometimes drawing to an inside straight early in a session against unknowns can pay off several times over later on.

In a nutshell: to play poker professionally (or semi-pro), put yourself in the position of a business owner. Go where the customers are and treat them well. Watch your cash flow. Make sound operational decisions, work hard, and keep good records.  

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