Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Playing Poker for a Living - Keep your day job

Playing poker for a living looks exciting and glamorous, and seems like a dream job. With the fame and fortune that goes along with winning televised poker tournaments, more and more players World Poker Tour dream about becoming a professional player. Here’s a word to the wise: Keep your day job. Everything is not always as it appears.

Those who make a career out of playing poker do so because it seems like a better job than most. Far and away the best thing about being a poker player is that it provides you freedom to be your own boss and work your own hours. To be successful, you have to have real talent, a driving desire World Series of Poker to constantly improve, and a great passion to play (which in my mind should be the most important factor in your decision). And I don’t mean like to play poker, I mean love to play poker. If you don’t love to play, you won’t be happy, and it won’t matter how successful you are.

The legendary Johnny Moss (three-time world champion and inaugural inductee into the Poker Hall of Fame) once said this about playing poker: “It’s a hard way to make an easy living.” That is so true. I used to love to talk to Moss about when he played on the road in the old days. He told me, “Beating the games was the easiest thing to do. The toughest part was getting out of town with the money. You had to dodge the robbers, the cheats, and the cops.” Luckily, poker has passed that era.

Fortunately, those who play tournaments today don’t have to go on the road to play, other than to the finest casino properties in the world. And, yes, most big events pay a million dollars or more to the winner. It is a great life for those who win. The problem is that most don’t. Stress and frustration come into play Texas Holdem for the vast majority. In poker, everyone has to deal with adversity, especially on the tournament trail. Winning tournaments is very difficult to do. Being able to handle defeat regularly takes a special kind of person, and support from loved ones. You have to be mentally tough to handle it.

Perhaps the most underrated skill in playing poker for a living is money management. This could well be more important than being an outstanding player. A C+ player who is an A+ money manager will have more money at the end of the year than a much better player who is a poor money manager. You might be an A+ player, but if you’re a D or F money manager, you will never have money. And if you have any bad habits, such as playing in the pit, betting horses, betting sports, doing drugs, drinking, or whatever, you have very little chance to succeed. And one bad habit is all it takes.

I can attest to the fact that one bad habit is all it takes. I’ve had only one in my life (betting on sports), but it kept me under financial stress for 20 years. On the weekends, when the poker games were the best in Las Vegas, I preferred watching football to playing poker. And if I was playing, I was watching the TV screens rather than focusing on my game. Thus, I paid a double penalty: I lost on sports and missed out on valuable earning potential in poker.

Sadly, most of the top poker players, certainly the high-stakes players, are gamblers by nature. Most of them love action. They like to bet on sports, the horses, and golf, and some like to play in the pit. This results in mental stress from being broke, borrowing money, and getting staked when they do play (meaning they can win only half of what they should be making). And they can borrow money only if they’re honorable, and get staked only if they’re recognized by their peers as being very good players.

The youngest inductee into the Poker Hall of Fame, and perhaps the most successful player of all time, is Chip Reese. He and I were talking one day about Stu Ungar. He agreed with me about Stuey’s unparalleled talent Texas Holdem Poker and abilities as a player. But, Chip then said the magic words to me: “Stuey’s problem was that he never understood the object of the game.” The object of the game is to increase your wealth, improve your lifestyle, and provide for your family.

I don’t want to discourage anyone who has terrific talent and the passion to become a professional poker player. Go for it if you so desire. I wish you all the best, but never fail to recognize how tough it really is.

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