So, you want to be a poker pro? I don’t blame you. It can seem like an enticing career path. No boss, no set schedule, no physical labor or pointless meetings, opportunities to travel, the list goes on and on. I spent the better part of a year in Los Angeles trying to live solely off poker income. As I soon learned, it’s not that easy to be a poker pro. It didn’t help that I sucked at poker, but even if you don’t, it isn’t easy to be a pro. I did befriend a few strong players navigating their early careers as professionals and spoke extensively with them about the pros and cons of making the game a career.
Every aspiring poker pro has many factors to consider when determining their potential poker earnings. Let’s examine some of those factors to calculate how much you need to make to be a poker professional.
First and foremost, when evaluating any potential career path you need to have a good understanding of your personal finances. Rent, student debt, car payments, groceries, and everything else you spend your money on needs to be tracked. I would suggest tracking every dollar you spend for a month or two.
When you have a good understanding of where your money is going, you can start to formulate what you need to make in poker earnings. If you find that your expenses are too high, find ways to cut back on them. You can always supplement your grocery budget by eating at the casino using rewards points. Player comps don’t come easy for poker players, but if you are playing close to 40 hours per week you should be able to rack up comp points for a few free meals each week. While these can help, the real goal is to cut back on big spends like restaurants and needlessly expensive clothes. Making the jump to a poker professional’s lifestyle is not easy. The best way to hold onto those poker earnings is to cut back on expenses.
The next item which needs to be considered is the cost of self-employment. Being a professional poker player is not unlike running a small business. Instead of selling a product or service, you are investing in your ability to win money on the felt. Like any business owner, you will take on expenses that you may not think about when you are an employee.
Insurance is a major cost that is generally incurred by an employer. Health, dental, and vision services can be very expensive. Employers typically get a group rate, so shopping for yourself can be difficult. Consult your local government about your insurance options. Depending on where you live, you may qualify for state paid insurance, or you will need to foot the bill yourself. Locking down your rates will be important as this is a major expense.
Taxation is next. While employers will withhold your federal and state taxes, as a poker player you need to pay quarterly. This is something every poker player needs to understand. Also note, that as a self-employed individual, you will be responsible for 100% of your Social Security and Medicare taxes. Employers typically pay half. Talk with a tax professional so you know exactly what tax bracket you may fall into and how much of your poker earnings will go to Uncle Sam.
Lastly, as someone who is self-employed, you will be responsible for saving retirement money. Even if you are well versed in retirement plans, it is easy to forget where that money is going when it isn’t being taken directly out of a paycheck. Make sure you formulate a plan and make regular deposits into your retirement accounts.
Poker Related Expenses
The previous examples apply when you are evaluating any career path. To determine whether a job is viable, you will need to understand how much you are spending. These next considerations are more specific to poker itself.
Travel expenses can eat away at poker earnings quickly if you do not live close to the casinos you frequent. As a cash game player, you need to take into account where you will be playing. If you reside in Las Vegas, Reno, or Atlantic City this shouldn’t be much of an issue. However, there aren’t many other casino-centered cities in America. If you find yourself somewhere like Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, or smaller towns across America, you need to make sure you live a reasonable distance from the casinos you will visit.
If you are a tournament player who doesn’t live in Vegas, you’re going to have to do some traveling. Many poker tournament professionals make their way through the WSOP circuit, which of course involves heavy travel. Plane tickets, cars, hotels, and everything else associated with travel needs to be considered as part of your operating expenses when evaluating whether you can be a poker pro. Check with a tax professional in your local jurisdiction, as you may be able to write off travel expenses. While this does not negate them entirely, it will at least reduce your tax bill at the end of the year.
If you favor a computer screen over a felt table, you don’t have to worry about travel expenses. However, you have other expenses you will need to consider. Many online poker pros have intricate computer setups, the highest speed internet available, HUDs, and other technical necessities. These are all expenses you need to include as your startup and recurring costs.
Lastly, the main expense any poker player has to consider is rake. Rake is the kryptonite for poker income. If you want to be a poker professional, you have to seriously consider whether you can play in games with a good rake structure. Rake varies widely across casinos and across the country. If you are a Los Angeles pro, you are competing against some of the worst rake structures in the country. If you find yourself in Vegas, you will be able to shop around for a good rake structure. Online poker rooms will have their rake information readily available, so make sure you choose the best site possible. If you live in an area where casinos are raking too much, you may want to consider a different career path or a different place to call home.
Want to quit your job and become a professional poker player?
Well, @MyPokerCoaching has some great tips to help you along your journey to become a poker pro!
— Cardplayer Lifestyle (@PokerLifeMedia) March 20, 2022
Location, location, location. It is as important to a poker professional as it is to a real estate agent. To be a professional poker player you have to live in a city or town that works. For a live pro, Vegas seems like the obvious answer. However, there are other areas that will bode well for you as well. Texas, Florida, and Los Angeles are other popular areas for poker pros to live. Make sure you are comparing the cost of living in all the areas you would consider calling home. Finding the lowest cost of living while still being somewhere you are willing to live is vital.
Online poker professionals will fare best in New Jersey, Nevada, or outside the US. Canada is very popular among online professionals, as they have access to the large European-based poker rooms. If you play online, you can live anywhere with a stable internet connection, so finding the most reasonably priced location is vital.
Ever heard the saying that it takes money to make money? Well a starting bankroll is the seed money you need to be a poker professional. You should not make the leap into professional poker until you have a proper bankroll for your stakes. It is also wise to have a few months’ expenses tucked aside when starting out. Then you can afford to go on an early downswing or incur unexpected expenses without going broke. The last thing you want is to be under-rolled, go on a downswing, and have to take your car into the shop unexpectedly. These streaks of bad luck can kill the dream of professional poker quickly, so make sure you have that startup money in the bank.
READ MORE: What Do You Do with a Busted Bankroll?
Estimate Your Poker Income
So you have a few months of living expenses, an emergency fund, and a bankroll. The only question left is, can you make it playing this highly variable game?
Everyone has a different number they need to earn for a career path to be viable. A single, childless person in their 20s is going to need a lot less money than someone married with children. If you only feel comfortable living in a single-family home, you’ll need to make more than someone willing to rent a room or a studio apartment. It would be impossible for me to tell you how much you need to make, but if you know the number, you need to be sure you can actually make it.
First, consider the stakes you are planning to play. It is almost impossible to make a living playing live $1/$2. Even if you are consistently beating the game, a great player can win 10bb per hour. If you are playing $1/$2 that is just $20 per hour. And you need to make that after the rake. While it is possible to live off that amount, it is not very sustainable. For live players, $2/$5 is typically the smallest stakes professional players attempt. If you aren’t consistently beating $2/$5 as a recreational player, you can’t make the jump into professional status. Make sure you are honestly tracking your results, since many of us believe we are winning more than we are.
Next, take an honest look at your win rate. As I just mentioned, tracking results is very important. You will need to get an accurate depiction of your hourly rate so you can play enough to make your expenses. You’ll need a large sample size, at least 1,600 hours to accurately determine your win rate. More than 1,600 is better, as it is possible you have greatly improved between the first and last 100 hours. Use one of the many poker results trackers available and make sure you can hit your needed poker income.
Lastly, you need to pay attention to the trends in the field and in your game of choice. If you find your rate trending down, you may be losing your edge. Poker strategy information is more available now than it ever has been, so the field is getting better every day. You’ll need to ensure you can maintain your current win rate by studying and continuously improving your game.
Unfortunately there is no one dollar figure to identify as the minimum amount necessary to be a poker professional. You’ll need to take a hard look at your finances, learn about the costs associated with being a poker pro, examine your win rate, and commit to working on your game to maintain that win rate. This all may seem like a daunting task, and it is! Being a poker pro is not easy, so make sure you are armed with accurate information before making the transition to becoming a professional poker player.