After 50 years of playing poker, I have gained some insights along the way that might help anyone considering becoming a professional poker player. Like any endeavor in life, there are great rewards as well as pitfalls, and it is necessary to be fully aware of them before making such a life-changing decision.
You’ve Got to Have Poker Plan
Unless you inherited a great deal of money or sold a tech company and have a bankroll of millions of dollars, you are going to need a plan. You need enough courage and discipline to elevate your game in steps. This means if you win $200 at the $3/$6 game one day, jump over to the $6/$12 or $200 No Limit, and if you can win $500 at that table, go to the next level and so on.
You must move up in limits and games. You can’t just grind it out. You must parlay the money. The days you are winning are the times to push it up. In my case, I was fortunate that tournaments were introduced in the early 70s, and I was able to parlay tournament wins into buy-ins into bigger tournaments, and I did well enough that I was able to retire at 36.
In the 80s, when hold’em was legalized in California, I decided to come out of retirement and move out west. I started playing $20/$40 and wondered how anyone could survive playing at that level.
I calculated that you had to win over $60,000 a year, plus another $30,000 to $60,000 in collections to cover your expenses and to be able to deposit even a single dollar into a savings account. And that budget did not account for losses! It is said that poker wins and losses are year-to-year, but your personal expenses are day-to-day, and that’s why it is imperative that you push your game up and manage your bankroll.
Understand Your Potential to Win
To become a pro, you must have an understanding of your potential profits and losses and ask yourself what you can win in this game. A good friend of mine named Ray Hall, who was my road partner at the time, taught me about the importance of understanding and analyzing a game. We once traveled to Texas to play in a No Limit game. At the time, he was playing in games with buy-ins starting around $2,000 with no cap, which was huge for the 70s. I was only playing $20/$40. This place provided both games.
The first night Ray beat the game for $15,000. I won around $500 and thought it was a good night. I said to Ray, “That was a good night for you, right?” I was shocked by his answer when he said, “It was a good night, but I think we should check out of the motel and go back to Alabama.” We had planned to stay a few weeks.
I asked him why and he said, “Robert, they are raking the game $5 a hand. No poker player alive can beat that rake.” I never paid that much attention to the rake before. I just thought it was the cost of doing business. You have to pay attention to what is on the table, what’s coming off the table and what your chances are of beating that game. If you don’t do that, you’re drawing dead.
Choose Your Opponents Wisely
Another element of your game you must master is choosing your opponents wisely. The players that have always caused me the most difficulty were the ones who were looking to exploit every single edge and when there was no edge, they would quit the game and look for the next easy spot.
These players are the survivors in the poker world that have stood the test of time. Whether you like their style or not, they are the true pros. To survive like them, you must look for the edge every day of your pro poker career if you want to stay in the game, and that starts by avoiding playing with them at all costs and selecting games you can beat.
A story that illustrates this concept comes from my days playing gin rummy. I once played a guy named Eddie, who supposedly was Stu Ungar’s mentor in gin rummy. Now I was playing the master and I knew I was outclassed. However, I got lucky in this match and beat him, which was a devastating blow to him.
Later in a bar that night at the Tropicana in Las Vegas, he challenged me to go to his room and play some more gin rummy. I knew this would not be a good situation for various reasons. I looked at Eddie and said, “Why don’t we find someone we can beat?” He understood exactly what that meant.
Why would you ever play a match where it was dead even or your opponent played better? I can’t stress enough the importance of choosing your game wisely and matching up with your opponents carefully to maintain an edge.
Understand When You’ll Have an Edge
This is the reason pros love mixed games so much. They are always looking for weaker opponents who haven’t mastered some of the games to create an edge for themselves. Without the ability to do this, there is no reason to sit at the table. This is the cardinal rule of poker. You must master at least four different games to play at a world-class level.
The following story is an extreme example of how critical it is for professional poker players to find players they can beat. It will also help you understand the psychology of gamblers. It involves my long-time friend Ray Hall again (or Mighty Ray Hall, as he liked to call himself). He is also one of the funniest guys I have ever been around in gambling.
I was invited to a game in Georgia where I was told they were playing 14-handed hold’em. They were literally using a rake to push the chips across the table because the pots were so big. The host said the only bad thing was that they were raking $15 a hand, but it is the wildest game you will ever see. I called up Ray and he said, “I can’t beat a short-handed game, much less a 14-handed game.”
When I told him the details, he quickly changed his tune and said, “When can you leave? Let’s go now.” I asked, “Ray, what about the rake?” I will never forget his response. He said, “If those fools are allowing that rake, I want to meet them because I am sure I can beat them!”
When we arrived, I saw the biggest table I had ever seen, with a paper grocery bag underneath it being used as the drop box. Ray was right – that was the liveliest group of people I had ever played poker with. They didn’t care about the rake; they just wanted to gamble. He had a better understanding of the mentality of gamblers than I had at the time.
Check Your Ego at the Door
This next subject is rarely spoken about, but it is the Achilles’ heel of many pros (in my opinion), and that is ego. A friend of mine who had cashed in several tournaments for over $2 million in one year’s time asked me for some career advice. I told him to take $60,000 and hire a PR firm to help with his image so as to create a legacy that might help him with sponsorships and teaching in the future when things went south.
He agreed, but I knew it was a long shot that he would heed the advice. He has now fallen on hard times, and all I can wonder is why didn’t he invest in himself when he had the chance? His ego made him believe he was going to win forever.
Reflecting Back on My Years Playing Poker
What have I learned after all these years of playing poker? To play professionally, you need to protect your bankroll, choose your games and opponents wisely, take advantage of every edge you can find, and, most importantly, have balance in your life.
Poker has given me a blessed life, but it has not been without regrets. If you allow it to, poker will take a toll on your personal life. Poker Hall of Fame member Fred “Sarge” Ferris, after he found out he was dying, told Doyle Brunson to “stop and smell the roses.”
The game may reward you with material things for your family and bless you with memories you may not have otherwise had. That said, reflecting back on my years of playing, I have to say I wish I had spent more precious time with my family and a little less time playing. Remember, the game is not going anywhere. Keep your friends and family close because you can’t make it without their support.
I hope you take all of this advice to heart. These are things I wish someone had told me. If you see me at the table, or Ray Hall (who, at nearly 80 years old, still plays poker in Tunica, Mississippi), feel free to share your stories about your life on the felt.