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 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 poker wins and losses are year-to-year, but your personal expenses are day-to-day, and that’s why it is imperative 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 who 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 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 is dead even or your opponent plays better? I can’t stress enough the importance of choosing your game wisely and matching up with your opponents carefully to maintain an edge.
Editor’s Note: Next week in Part 2 Robert will discuss understanding when you have an edge and checking your ego at the door. He’ll also reflect on his years playing poker.
Insights to help anyone become a professional poker player
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