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When Should You Become a Professional Poker Player?

18/01/2019 by Jonathan Little

One of the most-asked questions I get during my morning show A Little Coffee (Mon – Fri at 9am ET) is “When should I become a professional poker player?” To hopefully avoid re-answering the same again in the future, here are my thoughts on the subject.

Let’s assume you play $2-$5 no-limit hold’em at a local card room, which is roughly the stakes most people play who ask the question. The reason this is the general stake is because it’s the highest level played at most local card rooms, and most players who can beat this game feel like they are awesome at poker. Let’s assume you make $50 per hour. When I played $5-$10 at Bellagio a few years back, over the course of a year playing around 60 hours each week, I made $100 per hour. Seeing as $2-$5 is half the size of $5-$10, we can assume $50 per hour is a decent, sustainable win rate. So, if you play 40 hours each week, you will make around $8,000 per month, which sounds great.

There are a few problems with this nice $96,000 per year salary. First, no one wants to play 40 hours each week. I found myself constantly wanting to take days off or cut sessions short because I simply didn’t enjoy sitting at the table for that many hours. Also, most players feel a desire to take time off when they are either winning or losing. Because of this, you will probably only be able to get in 30 hours each week. We’re now looking at $72,000 salary.

Next, you have to pay taxes. Assuming you pay your full 20 percent or so, you’ll actually bring home $57,600, which still isn’t too shabby. You’ll probably need to buy medical insurance, which will cost around $200 each month for marginal coverage, bringing your profit to $55,200 a year. While this still doesn’t sound bad, you also need to set aside money for retirement, which will set you back roughly $10,000 each year, though you’ll eventually get that back at some point. You’ll be left with around $45,000 each year to live off and spend while trying to grow your bankroll.

It should be noted that it is extremely optimistic to try to become a professional without at least a year’s worth of living expenses set aside and a nice starting bankroll, at least 50 buy-ins for cash games. So, if you spend $3,000 each month, you need at least $61,000 before even considering becoming a pro.

There are numerous factors that should greatly weigh on your decision to become a professional player. If you have a family, your expenses will be much more than a single person, and they probably will increase as time goes forward, especially if you have young children. You’ll also find it hard to justify putting in numerous hours at the table while you miss your child growing up. This will often result in playing during non-peak hours, which will dramatically cut your win rate. If you have a job that pays well, you’ll also find a tough time justifying making the move to poker. If you make $40 per hour at your job, which provides a nice, secure paycheck, there is really no reason to rely on poker, even if your actual hourly rate will be slightly better.

One thing most players don’t consider when going pro is that they may not be as good as they think they are. If you don’t have a long track record of winning, you shouldn’t even consider quitting your job. I would estimate that you need at least a 500-hour sample in the given game you plan on playing before going for it. These 500 hours will also have let you grind up an adequate bankroll for the game. Ideally, this trial period will let you know roughly what your win rate is. You may find you enjoy poker as a hobby, but not as a job. I suggest taking some vacation time away from your job and play poker as you would if you were a professional before actually quitting your job. This will let you know what it feels like to play poker every day.

In the end, if someone hates their 9-to-5 job and wants to play poker, they are probably going to do it. Do your best to make sure the decision is the correct one because if you’re wrong, you may be left with a wasted year and no bankroll.