I’ve heard hundreds of different “expert opinions” over the years about how tough it is to make a living as a tournament player and have even run into a few people who believe it’s simply not possible. The rake, the expenses, the ups and downs, all make it tough and the fields get tougher every year. So, is it really possible? If so, how tough is it? How good do you have to be? Let’s work with those three questions.
Is It Possible?
I believe it is. I know people who do it. I know players who have made a living playing poker tournaments for years without a conventional job or a side income, plus they don’t play cash games much, if at all. I have seen the evidence that it can be done. Getting a large enough sample size to prove that one can make a living playing live tournaments, as opposed to online, is tough, but I think a few of my friends have proven that it can be done.
I will stipulate, however, that most of these players also play online. They may even make the majority of their income online. Nonetheless, they are professional tournament players living in the United States who play live tournaments on a regular basis and they make real money. Their online play is mostly at unregulated card rooms that cater to customers in the US, and this may be risky but it’s working for them. I think they make a significant portion of their overall income in live tournaments, but the online game – with a huge number of tournaments and smaller buy-ins available – really helps them cut down the variance and pay the bills in between big scores from live events.
I also know some grinders here in Las Vegas who make a lesser living playing tournaments with buy-ins that range from $125 to $300. I play these tournaments sometimes myself and I see these guys on a regular basis. They really grind it out, but they are paying the bills playing seven or eight tournaments every week. Making $30,000 a year playing that much sounds awful to me, but to a 22-year-old grinder who is just happy to be doing what they love, it is the very definition of living the dream.
So, now that we know it’s possible…
How Tough Is It?
Long hours, late nights, and a lot of time spent on the road or lots of hours in front of a computer screen are definitely necessary if you’re hoping to make a living as a tournament poker player. Unless you have a massive bankroll and are one of the 20 or 30 best players in the world, you aren’t going to make a living playing five tournaments a month. I would love to be one of those guys, but with such a small sample size we honestly can’t even be certain they could play for a living long-term because we don’t know what their real win rate is. A couple of lucky scores for a few million each, and a willingness to gamble big on nosebleed buy-in events could be all they really have.
The players I know who are making a living as tournament pros are playing a lot of poker. Plus, they are playing well nearly all the time, which is not easy to do when you put in that many hours. They spend a lot of time away from their families and a lot of time on the road. They have also spent thousands of hours honing their craft to get to this point. And they are still often frustrated by a bad run. A month or two without a significant store can stress out even the most cold-hearted grinders. Are you really prepared for a job where you can hate it for months at a time on a frequent basis? From experience, I can tell you that the high of a big score doesn’t last as long as the miserable run-bad that lead up to it or often follows it.
How Good Do You Have To Be?
Have you folded queens pre-flop this month? If not, then you probably aren’t good enough yet. Have you jammed 15 big blinds all-in over a late position raise with absolutely nothing? If you haven’t done that either, then you really don’t have a shot. Have you read poker books, hired a coach, and joined a training site to watch endless hours of video from the best players in the world? Also a necessity. This ain’t easy.
There is a wealth of information available these days, with poker training sites like Red Chip Poker, Run It Once, and Poker Tournament Edge helping players improve quickly. The value of watching a world-class player play online while they explain what they do is incredible, and it’s available to everyone for a pretty reasonable fee. These sites have thousands of subscribers, and your opponents are all going to crush you if you don’t have the knowledge they do.
If you are going to make a living as a tournament pro, you need to be able to find soft events with good rake and structure numbers in places where your expenses will be low. Moreover, you need to be playing well every time you sit down at the tables. A few bad days here and there could make the difference between you being a winning player versus struggling to break even. A small tilt problem could be too much to overcome no matter how much you study.
Your opponents are hiring strategy coaches. I know because I’m one of them. There are mental game coaches, too. They are fixing their tilt problems, so if you aren’t fixing yours, you’re in trouble. They are learning all the math and studying their push/fold charts and working on ICM calculations to help them make decisions when the real money is at stake late in a tournament. They are getting better all the time, so if you aren’t catching up, you are falling behind.
Sounds Tough, Huh?
The good news is that it IS possible to make a living playing tournament poker. The resources are all out there. Joining a training site, buying a few books, and hiring a coach for at least a few hours can make you into the player who takes advantage of the wannabes who don’t put the work in. If you study hard for a few years and have some talent, you could be living the dream, too.
Tournament poker continues to grow. Tournament fields keep getting bigger and this year’s WSOP was a good indicator that tournament poker is as healthy as it has been since Black Friday (Ed. note: with 7,221 participants, it was the third-largest Main Event ever; Chris finished in 32nd place, by the way). While cash game numbers remain stagnant, tournament poker is alive and well and some new players are still joining the game and donating enough to help you pay the rent. If you do the work, you can be a tournament pro.
Guy at my table just said “tough way to make an easy living” and no one smiled or even looked up. I like my table.
— Ryan Van Sanford (@RyanTYFL) October 29, 2016
Importantly, if you do the work, making a living playing tournament poker is not as tough as it sounds. That’s because almost no one really does the work. All the work. Most of them read a book or two, hire a coach for a few hours, and join a training site and watch two or three videos. They don’t do the real work it takes to be a serious winner, just enough work to make them a thorn in your side. However, if you do the real work, it can be done; you can make it playing poker tournaments for a living. Whether it’s a good idea or not really depends on your life situation. But it’s doable.