Between casinos, tournaments, and online games, poker is a common and widely enjoyed pastime. But a small percentage of players actually use poker to earn a living.
A Quora thread asks the question, “What’s it like to earn a living through poker?” It turns out playing professionally has its own unique set of pros, cons, and necessary skills. We’ve broken them down for you below, based on answers from past and current professionals Michael Shinzaki, Jeff Meyerson, and William Ting.
According to the responses on Quora, playing professionally isn’t for everyone. In fact, only a small minority of the world’s population are able to successfully earn a living. They need a certain set of skills and characteristics. These include:
Shinzaki: “There is an exorbitant amount of groundwork required to even try playing poker for a living and have any glimmer of hope of coming out ahead. A beginning poker player is terrible for a long, long time (sometimes, forever) before seeing any progress. The difficulty level of poker oscillates too, and not always as a function of time. It can run the gamut from ‘seemingly impossible’ to ‘Midas Touch.’ You can make a year’s worth of rent in a few hours (I’ve done this many times), or you can go months of full-time play and break even, or even lose (I’ve done this many times as well).”
Ting: “You grind, you review your play, you study other people’s hands day in and day out. At a typical job your concentration ebbs and flows throughout the day. Poker requires intense concentration for hours on end simply because a single bad decision could wipe out hours of work or more. I was always mentally drained after a day of playing. Afterwards I studied my hands for the day like football players studying film.”
Shinzaki: “One must keep up with the curve if they wish to succeed at poker long-term. You may think you are ingenious and crafty, but for every you, there are a thousand other guys out there crunching numbers on software and discussing strategy ten hours a day. Unlike a game such as checkers, trends and tactics fluctuate fast. One must constantly adapt. You can’t just get it down pat one day and profit off your knowledge ad infinitum. Best believe that when money is at stake, your opponents will be evolving rapidly.”
3. A level head
Shinzaki: “There is no other feeling than to lose an exorbitant sum or suffer prolonged downswings. Most people simply can’t handle it. I can’t say I am a Zen master of my emotions or anything, but I was certainly better than most and that’s a large part of why I had prolonged success.
… And so people who cannot harness their emotions usually end up having a tough time coping with the downs in poker and ultimately do fail. Poker as a profession is not for people who need constant reassurance or encouragement. Actually, it’s almost really not for anybody. You really have to be brutally honest with your performance. You have to be very hard on yourself and you have to grow calloused to the cutthroat nature you voluntarily step into.”
Ting: “Mental resilience was a byproduct of playing poker. Can you imagine working hard for hours on end for negative income? My worst run was breaking even over a period of 3 weeks / 40k hands. You learn to isolate your emotions and not dump it on your partner. My girlfriend severely stressed out if she ever found out I was up/down a mere few thousand for the day.”
Shinzaki: “The largest downside to poker that I can vouch for is a lack of fulfillment when it comes to feeling constructive and productive. Some people gain fulfillment from the inherent challenge of playing the game, others not so much. Anybody who can battle the competitive arena of poker and come out ahead has to have some inherent creativity, creative energy, or just mental wherewithal in general.”
Meyerson: “Sophisticated players understand that creativity is necessary to succeed. By this I mean strategic creativity. You can’t call out of the small blind with J3hh without a good reason. But if a play makes sense within your personal, well-architected framework, you don’t owe anyone a justification. This sort of framework, if properly constructed, is an abstraction which integrates human psychology, probability, and heuristics developed through personal experience.”
If you manage to become successful, the job come with many perks. Pros mentioned on Quora include job flexibility, lots of free time, six-figure earnings, and the rush of winning.
But with this inherently different lifestyle also comes downsides. Things like trouble managing finances, being unable to relate to friends, dealing with huge swing losses, and a lack of fulfillment.
In one paragraph, Shinzeki sums up the effect poker had on people:
“When the cards start flying and money starts changing hands, anything seems possible. I have seen nearly every human emotion played out in its purest natural form over a game of cards. I myself have felt like I was on cloud nine and rock bottom at various points. I have seen people so euphoric they have cried tears of joy at the poker table. I have seen people go from the verge of homelessness to paying six figures in taxes per annum. I have seen people crash and burn, crumble in defeat, go into debt, and look back on the whole thing as an ephemeral dream. Playing poker for a living is a roller coaster in every metaphorical way. It has provided me with raw elation and sheer depression. There is a sincere form of human nature that is brought out in every person when they engage in a game of poker. A part of you is barren for all to see. It brings out the very best and absolute worst in everybody. It’s just, crazy.”
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