A side effect of poker’s popularity as both an online activity and a spectator sport is the growing number of professional players, superstar card sharks and individuals who seem to have ‘made it’ overnight. But is poker really an easy route to the big time, or is the reality different from what fans see on the TV?
Let’s get right to the point: Carving out a poker career, from online card tables to the bright lights of Monte Carlo, is a hard slog. In that, it’s no different from becoming a professional footballer or a ballet dancer. There’s a certain element of unpredictability in poker that makes a career in the game especially difficult to maintain.
Here are just a few things to consider before you set out on your quest for a World Series of Poker bracelet.
Persistence is a Virtue
On both a short-term and long-term basis, poker is a game that may not pay out. It’s entirely possible to win a week’s wages in a night and then lose every game for a month. It’s only through sheer force of will that poker players make it to the Main Event. To quote former pro Michael Shinzaki, “playing poker for a living is a roller coaster in every metaphorical way”.
In many ways, the old gambler’s fallacy – ‘if you lose a lot, your chances of winning don’t get any better‘ – applies more in poker than any other casino game. The difference is that long periods of failure are part of the poker lifestyle, and the expectation of a win at the end of a long, dark tunnel is exactly what keeps the most persistent players going.
Studying is Key
It’s no coincidence that many poker players become authors after they retire from the professional circuit. Reading and studying in general is key to improving your fortunes at the table, inclusive of the game’s rules (for beginners), past hands, and your opponents’ stats. There are also reams of material dedicated solely to psychology in poker.
William Ting, another professional player, remembers studying hands “like football players studying film” the day after a tournament.
Stay in Control
The uncertain nature of poker games is arguably one of its biggest draws, both online and offline. Not because its fans particularly enjoy games of chance but because increasing experience and skill can allow players to influence the table even if they can’t dictate its overall direction. However, tactics change all the time – what works at one table might not work at the next.
On a related note, a player’s ability to stay in control of their emotions is crucial to a long poker career. There’s a good reason why ‘tilting’ players (people who are clearly not having a good day at the table) are considered easy targets for the more level-headed players. It’s very difficult to think clearly when you’re angry or upset.
The career-orientated side of poker isn’t for everyone and it’s certainly not an easy road to a six-figure income. The reality is that only a small fraction of poker players break even and even fewer have the character and skills to turn a profit.
It’s not impossible though. And the difficulties of forging a career at the table don’t change the fact that casual poker is both a great social experience and a lot of fun regardless of your skill level.