The professional poker player: Keeping the dream alive

The Professional Poker Player: Keeping The Dream Alive

After Mike McDonald and JC Tran tweet about the difficulty of being a professional poker player, Lee Davy, tries to establish if the dream of being a pro poker player is dead or alive?

The Professional Poker Player: Keeping The Dream AliveIn one of his Vlogs, Jake Cody expressed an opinion that the online poker rooms have to keep the dream alive of becoming a professional poker player.

I think the future of poker depends on it.

A glance at the recent numbers at the European Poker Tour’s (EPT) final stop in Prague may lead you to believe that poker is alive and well. But it’s not that simple. There is a concern amongst the elite that there is a problem within the cellular structure of our game.

Is the dream of becoming a professional poker player going the way of goatskin clothing?

I sought the opinion of nine players who are or have been professional poker players, and this is what they said:

Spend Your Time Doing Something Else

There is a growing movement emanating from the study of K. Anders Ericsson that believes in the art of deliberate practice as a vehicle to the achievement of mastery. It doesn’t matter how you dress this belief up – it translates into a need to work your butt off. You have to dedicate a significant portion of your time to master the game if you want to become a professional and Jason Koon doesn’t think it’s worth it.

“No Limit Hold’em has passed its glory days – especially online,” Said Koon. “The amount of time it would take someone to learn the game almost certainly wouldn’t be worth it since it’s approaching being solved. Within 2-3 years online cash will be completely dead at the highest stakes.”

The Online Poker Rooms Are Killing The Dream

There is a real dichotomy going on in the online poker sphere presently. On the one hand, as a recreational player, I understand and like the changes that the online poker rooms have been making to ensure I can play. But at the same time, they are killing the dream of playing professionally, and I fail to see why they would get the paddles out in an attempt to restart that particular heart.

As a recreational player, poker comes behind my role as a parent, husband and a career that pays the bills. There are other more important priorities, but those three will pretty much surface first in most recreational player’s lives.

All of this means that time is of the essence. The introduction of games like Spin & Go and Beat The Clock may make it tough for someone to beat the game, but they do suit the lifestyle of a recreational player. Mark Radoja believes this push towards attracting more recreational players in this way could sound the death knell for the professional.

 “Although not impossible, I certainly wouldn’t advise anyone to try and become a professional poker player.” Said Radoja. “Poker is extremely tough, and Amaya has not helped by increasing rake and promoting new game formats that are literally unbeatable. It’s a shame because people play poker mostly because they think they are or someday will be winning. Once they find out that no one wins, no one will play, and everyone loses.”

I think where this hurts poker the most is the group of players who decide to give life as a semi or full-time pro a shot. It’s this group – who I was once a member of – who provide the biggest slices of flesh for the hungry pros. If they no longer believe they will make it, then they will leave – as I have – and that’s a problem.

The Problem Worsens The Higher You Get

The greatest book I have ever leafed through on personal finance was Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. Before I read that book I had a vision of grandeur when it came to money. As a lad growing up in the 90s the desire to be a millionaire was strong.

When I read Robin’s book, I learned to see things differently. Instead of picking a random number from thin air, I was able to take a look at how much I needed to become financially free. It turns out that I need £6,000 per year in passive income to reach that goal.

Mike McDonald and JC Tran have no doubt grown accustomed to earning ‘x’ amount of dollars. I imagine that continuing to make ‘x’ amount is tough in today’s climate. So are we saying that it’s difficult at the higher echelons of the game, but doable when you set your financial targets a lot lower?

 “Poker is more difficult to enter now than it was during the boom.” Said Brian Rast. “At the same time, there are so many ways to train and get better at poker now that it is accessible to anyone with access to the internet and passion.  I believe the future of the best poker players will start to approximate chess and backgammon and other solved games. 

 “The right way to play “game theory optimal” poker will be able to be studied more and more, and people’s intuition will become less important.  On the lowest levels, people will always be untrained enough for this not to be the dominating force, but not on the highest levels.”

 “Poker has obviously gotten more difficult, but I think some of the super successful pros commenting are coming from a much different point of view than many players.” Said Jamie Kerstetter. “Many people enjoy the freedom and independence professional poker affords them, and do not necessarily aspire to immense wealth and fame. I think poker is way less likely to make millionaires out of random people than it used to, but still offers the opportunity for a much more interesting life than a regular 9-5 could provide.”

The Route to Professional Poker Lies Along a Different Path

Most of our rare group of professional poker players have talked negatively about online poker, but we all know that’s not the only form. Not everyone likes the digital revolution. There are a group of people who prefer digital minimalism.

There is a way of making a living playing poker. I see it. I have experienced it. You might not be earning a Fedor Holz sized wage, but remember, we don’t need to make half as much as we think we do. There is a threshold and once you reach it satisfaction related to money plateaus.

The feel of the cards, the stare down, the smell of stinky feet – I am talking about live games, and particularly, home games.

 “Live is still very behind the times and people should have a long time to extract money, that said it wouldn’t be huge money.” Said Jason Koon. “Most tourneys are over-raked, and unless that drops, the ecosystem will not be sustainable.”

 “As far as live poker goes. I’m sure you could start from scratch and possibly become a small winner there.” Said Mark Radoja. “It would take a ton of dedication and time to move up from the smallest games.”

 “I don’t want to steal Timex’s words, but I feel 100% the same way.” Said Pascal Lefrancois. “Poker used to be a great opportunity “time invested” versus “potential money”.  But it has drastically changed.  Except if you can get into very big/fishy games with non-professional players.”

The Derek Sivers Way of Looking at Life

I love listening to and reading Derek Sivers. I don’t know if Sivers plays poker. I doubt it. But that’s what I was thinking about when I read his latest blog post: How to do What You Love And Make Good Money.

In his post, Sivers takes on the myth that you either have to be a slave to the wage and in the words of Studs Terkel settle for a ‘Monday through Friday sort of dying.’ Or you have to give everything up in search of purpose and meaning.

Sivers believes you can have it all; you just have to be smart about it, and I think poker fits into his answer like white gloves on a Jacko impersonator’s hands.

His solution?

1. Have a well-paying job
2. Seriously pursue your art for love, not money

You don’t have to earn 100% of your income through poker, nor when you take into consideration the nature of the beast, do I think this is sensible.

 “This question {is it too difficult to become a pro} is obviously very person dependent.” Said Danielle Moon-Andersen.”It would be silly for me to say it’s ‘too’ difficult to make a living playing poker today, as myself and others continue to do so. However, it’s certainly not become any easier, and most signs point to it continuing to become more difficult in the near future. The skill threshold for being able to play professionally has gotten higher and higher as the player pool has gotten smaller and smaller in recent years. The fact is, while money continues to come out of the poker economy via rake and the top players, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot more coming in. This leaves a select group of very talented individuals fighting over the scraps, rather than the feast we were accustomed to sharing ten years ago.

 “I’d guess 8/10 of the peers I used to play against in the ‘glory days’ who considered themselves professionals, have moved on to other means of supporting themselves. While I wouldn’t change my professional path for anything, I wouldn’t recommend a new player consider goals of a prosperous professional poker career very realistic at this point in time.”

 If you watched the Bet Raise Fold documentary, you would have seen Danielle struggle to balance life as a professional poker player (love for the game and income provision) with being a devoted mother and loving wife. It’s a problem that Seth Berger is currently contemplating and why Sivers may have the way out for them both.

 “I’ve only been playing very sporadically since Vivian was born and even when Jeannie was pregnant.” Said Berger. “I did hear about these tweets and it is a little bit scary because I was hoping to get back to full-time grinding soon but having a child to support it would be tough to justify going to play if my edge isn’t big.”

 I wanted to become a professional poker player because it seemed like an easy way to make money when compared to the type of jobs Studs Terkel addressed in his great book Working: People Talk About What They do All Day And How They Feel About What They do. I know it’s tough. But I wasn’t thinking about ‘tough’ in the context of making money. I was watching someone sitting at a poker table folding cards and comparing it to someone cleaning shit out of my toilet.

But poker isn’t only about money.

In a recent article, I asked numerous professional poker players if they would want their children to play professionally. The main answer was negative. But they nearly all recommended poker as a great way to learn about life. Phil Galfond has a similar view.

 “Poker is clearly a lot tougher than is used to be.” Said Galfond. “A decade ago, if you were smart, hard-working, or obsessed with poker, you could make a living at it.  These days you need to be all three. If someone is looking to get into poker to make money, I’d tell them not to.  If a capable person wants to take poker seriously because he loves the game, I don’t think it’s too late.

 “There are some obvious downsides to going pro for a while and then needing to re-enter the “real world,” but I think the benefits of poker on “real word” abilities are under-appreciated.  Poker players understand things that are hard to learn anywhere else.” 

 The Next Poker Boom

 Things can change.

The Chinese might decide that gambling is not akin to eating another man’s spleen and legalise it sending a billion people into the water thrashing around in excitement. And lest we forget there is an entire gender not able to get into the game because of the patriarchal societal conditioning that unwittingly invades our minds like the 5,000 adverts that seep into our grey matter on a daily basis.

Could a poker boom ignite the dream?

Phil Hellmuth thinks so.

“Poker is tougher than it used to be, that’s for sure.” Said Hellmuth. “But there is still a ton of opportunity!  And when online poker is legalised in the USA, I expect another sonic poker boom!”

 Danielle Moon-Andersen doesn’t think it will be Sonic but still holds out hope that it could change things.

“Hopefully, legislation happens, or an event like a woman winning the Main Event, and it sparks a new poker boom.” Said Moon-Andersen.

 I think the only problem with a boom is we will always end up right where we are just like poor old Dolores in Westworld.

I watch Jake Cody’s vlogs because they remind me of my failure to make it as a professional. I don’t do it to beat myself up. I do it to remind myself that anything is possible. In the same period, I have listened to professional poker players talk about how difficult it is to make it, I have seen the likes of Charlie Carrel and Fedor Holz do the opposite, but all the points made here are valid, and all lead to the most important question of all.

What can the online poker rooms do to make the dream of becoming a professional poker player seem realistic and do they even want to?

I am going to see if I can figure that one out.

In the meantime, what’s your view?