The Lifespan of a Professional Poker Player (Part 1)
I thought it would be interesting to write an article about the life cycle of a professional poker player. As a former semi professional and a full time backer, I have seen poker players of all types. Many of these players are in different stages of their poker careers and it is interesting for me to see the progression of a player’s cycle (both from the perspective as an investor as well as a former full time player myself). I will go through these different stages from a personal example and put YOU in the place of all of these stages. Perhaps you can relate to these stages yourself and you might see how you used to approach poker. Maybe you are still in the beginning stages of your career and want to see what is projected for you. I have seen players who have gone from stage 1 to stage 3 in literally less than 6 months- it’s possible if you work hard and have a natural aptitude for the game. Either way, I hope that you gain something from this article.
Note: I have been in the poker industry for over a decade and I have seen thousands of players in my time as a player and backer. I believe this lifespan that I describe is very accurate for many players.
As a newer player, you just learned how to play poker. Maybe you learned how to play against your grandpa for pennies when you were younger or maybe it was in a friend’s basement during high school. Either way, this is you learning the rules and being very interested in playing poker. This is not just some random game that you play once and won’t ever play again- this is a game that you really enjoy playing. You might know how to play 5 card draw and just have learned Texas Holdem, the most popular form of poker. You learn the structure of the game, you learn different formats of poker, and you are just playing for fun, or very low stakes. You might google some basic poker strategy tips or look up some basic hand charts as well. Either way, you know that you are interested and you want to keep playing.
David’s Experience: I started playing poker at a young age, probably around 9 years old with my family. We would just play with play chips, but we would learn a lot of different formats (5 card draw, this odd 7 card game called ‘screw your buddy’, where you were dealt 7 cards, could keep 4, and then give 3 cards to the player to your right (everyone did this). Obviously this would be terrible for collusion but we never had to worry about that). I first started playing poker my sophomore year of high school, in 2003. This was right at the start of the big poker boom, close to when Moneymaker won it all and ESPN was showing poker all day long. I played with my friends and we played very low limits- $5 tournaments and $5 freezeouts, generally.
As a semi-noob, you are a player who is fully passionate about the game and fully immersing himself into poker. You probably play 10NL online or 1/2NL at the casino and read as much as you can about poker. You have basic strategy down and you are breaking even or slightly losing at the micro limits. You understand some of your basic pre-flop ranges and you know basic concepts such as continuation betting, check-raising, and floating (among others). You are constantly looking for new sources of poker education. You are active on some poker forums (albeit lightly) and you enjoy watching twitch poker streams and poker videos. You are playing poker about 10-20 hours per week and you are obsessed with it. It is not just an activity you do once a week with your friends; it’s something that you think about all the time and enjoy. This is your main hobby and you spend a majority of your free time thinking about it or playing it. You just invested in some of your first poker software: Poker Tracker or Holdem Manager 2 for online and are excited to learn those new features. You might have even invested in Upswing Poker lab or Run It Once Essential and have started to use free programs such as Equilab or pro poker tools. Your poker earnings are minimal and you still have a marginal winrate overall.
David’s Experience: I found the 2+2 forums after searching on google and it changed my life. I read through poker books (to this day, I still think that the Theory of Poker by David Sklansky is one of the best books I have read). Check the resources tab for more sites, links, and software.
I started to share my hands on 2+2 (I had to manually write out the hands because my parents would not let me deposit online, so all of my play was from live). Eventually, I was able to get my friend to send me some money via player to player transfer and I was able to play 10NL and 25NL. I played way outside of my bankroll; moving about $200 at a time and playing 25NL. The games were incredibly soft back then, as you can imagine. I spent all of my time thinking about poker and it consumed me. I used a program called ‘poker stove’, which was essentially a simpler version of Equilab. I was breaking even at 25NL and posted on 2+2 constantly and also tried to expand my poker network as much as I could. During this time, I also played a lot of live poker and played in underground card games before I was 21.
By now, you are fully invested in poker and deep in the game, so to speak :). You probably play about 25NL-100NL online and are playing 1/2NL or 2/5NL live. You are still very passionate and have started to invest money in your poker studying itself- you have a few programs such as poker snowie, flopzilla, and maybe the basic version of PIO solver. You also still continue to read poker articles, forums, watch twitch streams, and now have a subscription to a poker training site. Poker takes up anywhere from 15-30 hours of your life each week and you can’t wait to get home to play some tables online or to go to the casino and put in some hours. You are competent with nearly all basic poker strategies and are now starting to learn more advanced tactics: Donk betting, turning hands into bluffs, taking advantage of capped ranges, utilizing different bet sizings for your range, and many others. You are finally winning overall and have continued to reinvest your earnings in your poker bankroll and can confidently say that you are improving with each month. You might have experienced your first real poker downswing (where you’ve lost 10 buy ins <) and had to deal with the psychological effects of losing sums of money that actually matter. You have a growing network for poker friends and you are a part of several poker strategy discussions and have friends from social media and poker forums. Your poker earnings average about $500-$3000 a month.
David’s Experience: I flew up in stakes and started to play 200NL online before I was ready. I still remember my first -$1,000 day like it was yesterday; I ran like God through 50NL and 100NL and had amazing stats of 19/13. I ate my lumps and eventually hit a downswing and stayed stagnant at 100NL and 200NL for a while. After doing more study, learning more poker theory, and hiring coaches, I finally broke through at 200NL and became a big winner at that stake. Two of the key changes to my overall poker playing was that I changed to a site that had a starting buy in size of 200bbs for all tables and I also hired a coach that sent my overall game into hyper aggressive overdrive (I had a really tough time transitioning and playing more aggressively and loose, but I took my lumps and learned to play with more marginal ranges and learned to bluff comfortably). Once I got coaching and became much more aggressive, this really helped while playing 200bb deep poker and I was able to learn to play a style that was very profitable in 2008 and 2009.
Part 2 will focus on the later stages of your poker career, which includes being a professional and the after stages of that experience.
Photo credits: A.J. Cann/Flickr, Julia Koefender/Flickr