Analyzing the Odds of Playing Poker Professionally (And How to Make it a Reality)

By J.W. Paine in Poker
| July 1, 2022 12:59 pm PDT
Texas Hold'em cards closeup

We are currently living in the Golden Age of Poker. Virtually all the biggest winners in poker tournaments are not only alive today but are still active in the game. So naturally, we’re all thinking this might be the right time to join the ranks of professional poker players.

But just how does one become a professional poker player? And how likely is it that you or I might have the skills and abilities to reach that level?

Here’s an encouraging factoid: In 2007, Bryn Kenney switched from competing in Magic: The Gathering games to playing poker full-time—and since that switch, he’s won more than $57 million.

Nice work if you can get it, right? But realistically, how likely is that to happen?

By the Numbers

In her 11-year poker career, Vanessa Selbst won more than $11 million. Phil Helmuth cleared $800,000 in WSOP tourneys in the year 2021 alone.

Fun facts, indeed. Always good to read about someone’s success in a field we’re interested in. And those blurbs read like they were ripped from the Professional Poker Players Daily News headlines.

Want to know the real average salary of professional poker players? Zero. Zip. Zilch. Professional poker players are self-employed (with one notable exception I’ll discuss later). If they don’t win, they don’t eat. They don’t make their rent payment.

So let’s look at some very truthful—but far more sobering—factoids.

Rich and Poor graphic

Most experts agree that only about ten percent of the people playing poker in the US are consistent winners. Still, according to some estimates, about 30,000 “semi-pro” poker players in the US grind out $20,000 to $30,000 per year in the game.

Comparably.com says that professional poker players make between $19,910 to $187,200—a huge and frankly useless range—like saying a lump of gold weighs somewhere between 0.05 ounces and 63 pounds. I don’t know about you, but the one that weighs 63 pounds sounds like my kind of lump.

So, skipping a few steps in my logic, let’s agree that living on $20K a year is a decidedly different experience than living on $187K a year. What if you make $187K this year but only $20K next year? Gonna be a bit dicey keeping up on those boat payments, amirite?

By the way, another job site, Zippia.com, claims that fewer than a thousand poker players in the US will achieve the professional level between now and the year 2028.

And the ESPN article I linked to earlier in this section asserts that of the 30,000 “semi-pro” poker players in the US today, only about ten percent of those—3,000—are what could be considered professional poker players.

Of the millions of poker players in the US, are you one of the tiny fraction of a percentage point who will make it to the big leagues?

It’s All About the Climb

You could be—big league material, I mean. But you’re in for a long and arduous journey.

Poker has a nebulous and confusing apprenticeship program. You can graduate almost immediately if you’re a prodigy or one you’ll be in until it dawns on you that this isn’t the life where you’ll make millions of playing cards. Maybe next life.

In any case, reading about the most valuable tips to help you win at poker every time isn’t going to prepare you enough for your new career. Let’s take a look at the road ahead.

The Groundwork

Zippia.com says that 73% of professional poker players have at least a bachelor’s degree. Quite a few of those degrees are in computer science or the law.

If you’re in college and considering poker as a career, you may want to follow through on that degree. Stick to math and science-related degrees; eschew (I’m pretty sure that means “sneeze disdainfully upon”) the liberal arts.

The Grind

Person intently staring at a computer monitor

The 2007 film Lucky You gives a good, albeit compacted picture of the trench warfare that is poker-as-a-profession. It’s not glamorous; it’s not easy. It can be fraught with moral choices that none of us would care to be in the position to decide.

You’ll need to play thousands of hands of poker to understand the positional play, what variance can to your carefully calculated odds, and the real risks involved in poker. And not just Texas Hold’em. No. You’ll need an intimate knowledge and virtuoso level of skill in Omaha, as well. And Razz. And Seven-Card Stud. And Five-Card Stud. And Jacks or Better. And—well, you get the idea.

You need to be damned good at the best real money gambling sites every poker game you play. A steady diet of carrots suits rabbits just fine, but humans are omnivores. Guess which is at the top of the food chain.

The People Skills

Person mingling while gambling

You may think one of the best things about playing poker professionally is that—aside from reading tells—you don’t have to deal with people much. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As you progress up the ranks, you’ll need the financial assistance of people with enough money to back your play in the WSOP and WPT tournaments that can add seven-figure numbers to your bank account.

Sure, it’s theoretically possible to make a living playing poker exclusively online but to achieve greatness, you’ll need to play at real tables in real poker rooms against real people.

I know, I know. They’re real people online, too. But here’s the thing: Reading people and reaching the point where you instinctively recognize various tells is a major skill.

Three-time WSOP bracelet winner Russell (“Dutch”) Boyd had this to say about the profession of poker.

“If you spend a few hours actively working on your game… not just playing, but reading forums and books, watching videos on training sites, watching replays of final tables online and off, etc… you can get to a pro-level in about six months.”

Six months? Easy enough, right?

Ah, but then Dutch adds a pretty important caveat: “That’s assuming you have what it takes to beat the game in the first place because quite simply, there are plenty of people out there who just don’t. Not anybody can make it in poker. I’ve known many people in my life that could spend ten years studying and reading and still would just lose.”

Online or Brick and Mortar Casino?

Anyone who’s ever played poker in a casino poker room and online knows well that the number of differences between the two (in terms of play) is immense. The absence or presence of human interaction, the conversation (or lack of it), and the obvious difference in the pace are all obvious and distinct.

But let’s look beyond that. Which one is better in terms of contributing to your proficiency level as you climb the ladder to professional poker player status?

Online

Annette Obrestad

Studies say that approximately 60% of all poker professionals play exclusively or primarily online. The reasons for this are varied, but the primary reason is that the internet is available everywhere, while brick & mortar poker rooms are not.

Aside from playing poker with the other kids, online is where most of us get the vast majority of our poker-playing experience. And there’s a real benefit to that, and it might surprise you: You will need to focus almost entirely on developing your math skills while playing online.

Why? Because math is all, you’ve got. You don’t have tells. You don’t have a conversation. You have math.

Incidentally, take advantage of your time at the best online casinos. They all offer a multitude of freeroll tourneys—low-level tournaments that you can enter for free.

Annette Obrestad—the youngest person to ever win a WSOP bracelet—built her initial poker bankroll playing in online freeroll tournaments.

Brick and Mortar

Kathy Liebert

However, if you prefer the relative anonymity, speed, and convenience of online poker play, you will need to do some severe grindage in the nearest casino’s poker room. That is if you want to keep moving up the professional ladder.

Not only is there the opportunity to fine hone your people skills, but there are actual jobs available to poker payers. Have you ever heard of a prop player?

Quite different from shills, prop players at the the poker table are paid by the casino (or poker room) to play games as directed.

No, the casino doesn’t tell them when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. The prop player’s job is to fill a seat at one table or another. The prop player works a 40-hour week at a minimal hourly wage (usually with health benefits—the prop player is a full-time employee, after all),

The prop player plays with his own money, keeping the winnings (but eating the losses). It’s an honest day’s work, and several poker stars began their professional journeys as proposition players.

Kathy Liebert—who beat Phil Hellmuth, Chris Ferguson, and Mel Judah at the final table during a PartyPoker cruise in 2001—started her career as a prop player in Colorado casinos.

Proposition poker players are forced early on to treat wins and losses as part of their job. Poker is no more a game to them than digging a ditch is to a… well, a ditch-digger.

The Awful Truth About Becoming a Pro Poker Player

The real and disturbing truth is that eventually—if you want to be a professional poker player, you will need to quit your day job.

While some players moved into the big leagues right out of college (having played online poker instead of studying for all those history exams), most spent years playing part-time before they felt comfortable with the move.

Poker is the art of the risk. If you are to be a champion-level poker player—or even one of the few that pulls down $180k a year—you need to understand risk completely. And the first risk you need to assess honestly, and head-on is the risk that you may not be a professional poker player.

Dutch Boyd pointed out that some people “could spend ten years studying and reading and still would just lose.”

Should You Try to Play Poker Professionally?

Wow – the fact that you’re asking that question even after all the scary stuff I’ve described in gory detail for the last dozen or so paragraphs proves that you might just have the will and fortitude to at least attempt the feat of becoming a poker professional—someone who supports himself entirely on his poker winnings.

So, the bottom line here is the actual crux of the situation: Your decision to gamble professionally full time (or not) must be predicated on factual proof that you are not taking extravagant risks to live the dream.

Important

If you’re young enough, you can try for a paid position as a proposition player, but those positions are notoriously rare, and the competition for them is fierce.

Initially, your best bet is to play the top online poker sites, learn how to calculate odds and outs, and figure implied and pot odds. If you learn those skills—and see your proper application of them resulting in more wins than losses, then and only then should you take it into the “real world.”

There, you’ll further your education by acquiring the necessary people skills to accurately determine if an opponent’s bet is a bluff or a clever invitation for you to fall on your sword.

And one last thing: Most of the people you’ll be playing against have baccalaureate degrees or better. And not in the fields of Underwater Basket Weaving or Etruscan Artistry.

Chase the paper before you try chasing the cards. Actually, strike that last. Don’t chase cards. If you want more gambling tips, start with some methods for picking up on other player’s bluffs.

Analyzing the Best Methods to Recognize Bluffing in Poker

Whether you’re here to learn how to tell if someone is bluffing in poker or need some tips for improving your bluff game, welcome. Before we get to business, let’s ensure you’re comfortable. Got a nice place to sit? Great. How about a drink?...

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