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The Pro Poker Player’s Paradox

Pro poker players have it rough. It takes a tremendous amount of skill-sets to make a comfortable living playing poker. A wickedly deep understanding of the game, the ability to suppress one’s emotions in the face of intense financial swings, and the discipline to disallow one’s ego from influencing their decisions with regards to game selection are just a few of many uncommon traits needed to thrive in poker. And if you can master all of the skills needed to make a living playing poker, you can probably make $50-$200k in a year playing poker. Well, that was this year. Next year, it might only be $40-$180k. And in 2012, a player with nearly impeccable skills across the board might struggle just to out-earn the mid-level finance workers he went to high school with.

This is the paradox of a professional poker player. The saying, “poker is a hard way to make an easy living,” rings loud in its truth. Poker is a somewhat unique career choice in that there is not a direct correlation between hard work and earnings. In fact, as a poker player, you have to work harder and harder each year to get better and better and will likely make less and less despite that work. Of course, that is the experience of the median pro poker player. Obviously, there are some players who, despite not working on their game terribly hard, are able to runhot their way to a fabulous amount of money. And in the same way, there are those who toil and grind and perfect their skills only to see themselves spit out of the bottom of the poker economy. But on average, a pro poker player must work harder each year for less. In this way, poker is quite the unique career choice.

Let’s compare a poker player to a violinist. A violinist works hard practicing and improving their playing ability year after year. After several years or a couple of decades to dedicating their life to the violin, they have become a master. All along the way, the violinist’s earning ability continued to climb. At first, they were playing pro-bono for community orchestras. After a while, they became good enough to play professionally and took a $40,000 a year job playing full-time for an urban orchestra. As their skills continued to improve towards that of a master, they were promoted to first chair violinist in a prestigious orchestra which paid a salary of $120,000. Now, they supplement that income with private appearances, concerts, and records which brings in an additional $90,000 a year. Indeed, the lifetime earnings graph of a dedicated, professional violinist is fairly linear until it eventually flattens out at a comfortable number where it can remain for decades before retirement.

An equally dedicated poker player, however, does not experience this linear luxury. This is the curse of a poker player and the reason why poker, ultimately, is a terrible career choice. Poker thrives on one thing: casual, losing players contributing money to the overall poker economy. But it is important that casual, losing players either a.) have so much fun losing that they don’t mind (rare) or b.) believe that they are, in actuality, a winning player who is endlessly unlucky. The trouble is, as poker games become harder and harder, it becomes tougher for Joe Casual to justify that he’s actually a winning player that just keeps getting unlucky. Eventually, Joe must own up to the realization that he is not a winning player. When this happens, Joe will stop playing. What does Joe’s exit do to the poker economy? It makes the games even tougher. This causes other Joes to stop playing, and on and on.

Eventually, and anyone who has been playing for a while has seen this begin to come close to fruition, poker will become a next to impossible career choice. The games will be so tough that nearly all casual players will exit on account of the fact that they feel as though they can no longer win. Sure, there will still be the degenerate gamblers and whales who play for the rush and aren’t concerned with whether or not they win, but poker, as a career choice, cannot thrive solely on these types. They need the Joe Casuals who slowly bleed a few thousand dollars a year into the poker economy while holding down a day job. Without these players, the game will consist of just a few losing degenerates whose money a sea of regulars all fight for, with a very select handful of brilliant, elite players that succeed in feeding on these regulars. When the regulars realize there are very few scraps left to go around, many of them will exit the arena and move onto other careers. Those who remain will struggle to grind out a living wage in an economy that is a mere skeleton of what it once was.

This is poker’s destiny. The scenario I just described will all but inevitably be realized. It’s already been partially realized. There are far, far fewer people generating an income in excess of $75,000 a year playing poker than there were two years ago.

In the future, there may be some mini poker booms here and there that delay the inevitable, but poker, as a viable career choice, is destined to become close to extinct. Today, there are two types of “professional” poker players: those who are still managing to make a comfortable living from the game and those who were making a comfortable living a few years ago but have taken too long to admit to themselves that their time is now probably better spent on other things. The latter such players have become little more than break-even players dependent on rakeback to keep the lights on in their crappy apartment. It won’t be long before $12 an hour service-industry jobs start to look appealing to these individuals.

This is the paradox of a professional poker player. A successful player from a few years ago, despite actually improving at the game, is now beginning to think that entering the work force, with little to no experience on their resume, makes more sense than continuing to play poker. And while this player was futilely honing his card skills, the violinist’s skills and earning potential did nothing but go up. That’s the sad reality of poker as a career choice. For different reasons, it’s not too dissimilar from the life of an athlete. Poker players have been and will continue to be pushed out of their careers due to games becoming too tough. In the same fashion, athletes are pushed out of theirs due to diminishing physical abilities that make it harder to compete at a high level.

It’s a tough pill for any poker player to swallow, but it’s a pill that all but the most elite of pros will one day have to take. The more readily they take the pill, the easier it will be for them to move on to a more productive life.


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