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Five Tips for Becoming a Pro Poker Player

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the pro poker player’s paradox which outlined some of the reasons against the idea of trying to make a career out of poker. But lest we become branded eternal pessimists, here are five tips for becoming a pro poker player should anyone choose to ignore our earlier commentary:

Play a Lot… like… A LOT!

If you are going to play poker professionally, you have to treat it like a profession. There are a couple of good reasons to play a high volume as a poker pro. First, it makes upswings and downswings a lot less dramatic. If you’re not playing a particularly large amount of hands per day, a severe downswing can drag on for months and months. If you’re playing a high volume of hands, a severe downswing should only last for a few weeks (perhaps longer if you’re playing tournaments). Conversely, upswings cease to become a distraction if you’re playing a lot of hands. A professional who plays sporadically might start to become over confident during an upswing which can lead to bad spending habits and life choices. A player putting in a high volume will see his big upswings level out sooner and can therefore maintain a more proper mindset for playing poker professionally.

By playing a high volume of hands, you’re much more likely to have a strong understanding of your true win-rate. This understanding can be imperative for knowing how much you need to work on your game and estimating your approximate income. To give you a rough idea of what I mean when I say “high volume”, a decent rule of thumb for multi-table tournament players would be to play 100+ tournaments per week. SNG players should be striving for even more than that. Cash game players (and as a side note: cash games are probably the best thing to play if you want to play professionally) should strive to play 10,000+ hands per week.

Of course, in an effort to play a lot of hands, one should never compromise their optimal amount of simultaneous tables or play for so long in a single day that they begin to make sub-optimal decisions. So if the idea of playing 100+ tournaments or 10,000+ hands in cash games in a single week seems overwhelming to you, you may want to consider working on your game and ability to multi-table while holding down your day job for a while.

Your Bankroll is Your Boss

One of the nice things about playing poker professionally is that you have no boss. A professional poker player only answers to himself. However, I would suggest you view this as not being entirely true. You do have a boss. Your bankroll is your boss. Your bankroll tells you what you can and cannot do. Just like you wouldn’t get very far in a “real job” by disrespecting, ignoring, or mistreating your boss, you won’t get very far as a professional poker player doing those things to your bankroll. If you are good and respectful towards your bankroll, it will let you know when you get a promotion. It is impossible to succeed in the long run as a professional poker player if you do not practice solid bankroll management.

This is not an article on the specifics of bankroll management (such as how many buy-ins or big blinds you should have). If you want that type of information, you can check out our bankroll management article or pick the minds of a few successful pros. Some good ways to reduce variance are to swap action with another trusted, strong player. For example, you can work out an arrangement with another pro where you swap 10% in every tournament that you both register for. It’s a bit harder to make swaps in cash games, but it can still be done. You just need to be swapping with someone you trust completely.

If you’re looking to “take a shot” at a higher buy-in poker tournament or at a higher-stakes cash game level, consider selling action. There are enough online poker databases out there that if you are a winning player, you can sell pieces of your “shot” to other players who can verify for themselves that you are indeed a winner at your current stakes. Just don’t do anything stupid like insist that your backers should let you buy software that will improve your game on their money.

Conversely, buying small bits of action in other players looking to take a shot can be a nice way to reduce variance. Just be sure you’re getting a nice deal prior to investing in another player.

Join or Form a Crew

One of your best assets in the quest to become a professional poker player is having friends who are also playing professionally. Joining or forming a group of friends who are all on a quest to succeed in playing poker for a living is invaluable. You can lean on these individuals to provide input on tricky hands, help calm your emotions when you’re on tilt, and generally make the life of a pro poker player more fun and less isolated. This is probably the best kept secret of becoming a pro poker player. Virtually anyone who has managed to do it successfully is probably part of a strong group of friends that all help each other reach their goals as players.

Hedge Your Bets

This tip is somewhat in direct contrast with our first tip, but consider maintaining other revenue streams outside of poker. This could be done in a variety of ways. One way is to keep a part-time job doing something you enjoy. By working 10-20 hours a week doing work you don’t mind doing, you achieve a few things. First, you keep your poker career in perspective since it is not your sole source of income. Second, an outside job can be a great way to spend time around people, specifically people who are in no way connected to the game of poker. There’s a lot to be said for spending time around non-poker players. Finally, a part-time job allows you to keep something going on your resume. In case poker doesn’t work out, a job will allow you to avoid having a big hole on your resume. You’ll be grateful for this when it comes time to figure out your next step in life.

Following this advice requires a lot of foresight and discipline. When you’re making $30 an hour playing online poker, it can be really, really tough to drag yourself to a job for 10-20 hours a week where you only make $11 an hour. But try to keep your eye on the bigger picture. First of all, you may not be making as much playing poker were it not for the balance the non-poker job adds to your life. Secondly, understand that poker may not be around forever as a viable career choice. There is a lot of value in maintaining talents and interests not related to poker. This way, when the day comes where you admit to yourself that you can’t play poker forever, you’ll have a little something going for you to fall back on.

Along these lines, treat poker like a regular job. This means you work regular hours, take regular days off, and even take extended vacations away from the game. Giving yourself at least one day a week off from poker is imperative though two or even three is recommended. Keep other hobbies and interests going. Have a group of non-poker friends that you hang out with at least one day a week. Join a club or an intramural sports league. You can even do some of your daily grinding in a Starbucks to feel less isolated. Get creative and do whatever it takes to keep other things going in your life outside of poker.

Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle

One of the biggest temptations associated with the life of a pro poker player is to take up the lifestyle of a partier. While there’s plenty to be said for cutting loose and enjoying spurts of living carefree, your life and your mind will deteriorate quickly if every night is a party. When you don’t have an office to show up at the following morning, it can feel like you have carte blanche on drinking and doing drugs at night and waking up whenever you feel like it. You might be able to get away with this lifestyle for a while, but eventually it will catch up with you. Your mind will suffer and as a result, your poker earnings will suffer.

Don’t interpret this as “never drink” or “never try a drug,” just do those things rarely and in moderation. The rest of the time, get daily exercise, plenty of sleep, and spend the time it takes to nourish your body with real, whole foods, not processed crap you throw in a microwave or have delivered. This is probably the most common leak found among poker players. A friend of mine regularly makes fun of how all poker players look like pears: wimpy shoulders and chest, big round, squishy mid-sections, and legs that haven’t experienced the sensation of “running” in years. Don’t become one of those players that sacrifices everything else in their life just to make a living playing poker. In the end, it’s really no living at all.