In this section we explore everything that does not have a strict strategic component. I could really write an entire book on the game behind the game in poker, but now I’ll just expand on the topics that are most pressing if you try to make a living from playing Texas Hold ‘Em.
Poker is Unfair
Your suspicions were always correct: most professional poker players are just lucky. I’m not saying that to make you feel better or to tell you that hard work doesn’t get rewarded. It’s merely a fact. Remember the graph shown in Figure 166, which we used earlier in the book?
This shows the results of every player who has a 20% ROI playing the Sunday Million every Sunday for 10 years; 57% of the time this player does not make a profit, and 80% of the time he does not make a profit of any consequence. Parceled out over 10 years it does not add up to much. At live tournaments, in poker magazines, and on television you are surrounded by players right at the top of that spectrum, that “1%er” who has effectively won the Sunday Million every five years.
You could have a 40% ROI in this tournament. This would make you twice as good a player as that gentleman with $350,000+ in profit. You could be that talented, and you still would not turn a profit half the time you played the Sunday Million every Sunday for a decade. If you feel that is grossly unfair, that’s because it is.
If you start dwelling on this constantly you will be ruined. There is nothing fair about poker. People lose their minds in this game watching beginners make millions. They can’t stand how unjust that is. The anger seeps into their game as friend after friend gets their “one time” and they are left grinding the small games. Eventually, while they had a good profession before, they find themselves unable to perform. They are trying to imitate the plays the 20% ROI player made during those multiple deep runs, not knowing that’s actually unraveling their 40% ROI game. Their results worsen imitating the “great” players, and they wonder what is wrong with them.
If this is you, I’m sorry, I am not going to be nice here. You need to hear this: No one gives a shit what you’re going through.
I used to have thoughts about how unfair poker was. In certain big tournaments I had run so bad I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’d been one- outted on the river for over $100,000+ at my largest online final table. I lost a huge flip at my European Poker Tour final table. That ate me; at the time that was the largest field European event in history, and I’d been close to winning it despite having the flu the entire tournament.
It wasn’t till I went home to the area I came from that I understood how stupid I was. My friends were changing tires for 10 hours a day. Many still worked in the kitchens I’d left a decade ago. My family members were still risking their lives commercial fishing for the same money I could make grinding $16 SNGs. You know what’s real injustice? It is disgustingly unfair that anyone makes a living at a game.
Think of this: 80% of the world doesn’t have access to a computer. Only a very small percentage of the other 20% is able to put money on a poker website and even try to make money from a game. There could be only 1 person out of 100 who is able even to try playing online poker. Imagine 100 paper cups on the floor of the room you’re in right now, and a friend hiding a ball under one cup while you are blindfolded, and you picking that cup randomly on the first try. That’s you. Right now, that’s you. You won the lottery for even being born now, and for being in a situation where you could play poker. There has never been another time where more people have made a living from a game. If you make $33,000 a year you’re in the top 1% of wage earners on Earth.
With online poker, you also have the extremely rare opportunity to make your money in US$ anywhere in the world. So remember, if you’re a poker player who makes more than US$33,000 a year, you’re a one-percenter griping right now.
I’m not sure how I recognized this at a young age, considering how stupid I was with certain other things, but I knew the real value in poker came from being able to do what you love. I lived on four different continents and visited 40 countries because that was the real luxury in poker: I got to live the life I wanted, with jobs that paid well in the Mediterranean, the Far East, the sleepy mountain towns of Central America, and on the tropical beaches of the Pacific Ocean. If I ever worried I wasn’t living a rich life I was being horribly vain. At one point I got lucky and made a significant amount of money, but I had no idea what to do with it. Eventually I learned that there’s a good reason so many people have heard the phrase “a fool and his money are soon parted.” Those $10,000 tournaments are a collection of guys who’ve had a horseshoe up their ass for years. They do not understand how absurd the variance can be when they only play in a pool of talented players who are also confident.
The people who start backing all their friends and playing the circuit rarely have more than a few hundred thousand to their names, perhaps a little more if they ignored the tax man last year (which is an incredibly shortsighted play). These players don’t realize that they essentially sat down in Bobby’s Room with
four buy-ins to their name, expecting to make a living. If they think there is no chance they are going to go broke then they have another thing coming. And what happens if they run those few buy-ins up? Well, obviously, they play even higher! There are $25,000 tournaments now! There are Super High Rollers! Why should you ever stop?! A $100,000, $250,000, $1,000,000 buy-in! Come on! Sesame Street and your Mommy said you were special! Let’s see what you got!
As you can tell from my unrelenting sarcasm I do not think this is a good long-term play. When you just keep moving up in stakes with all the money you have you are essentially playing a tournament against yourself for your whole career. Most of the “big names” you see on TV are broke in real life. If you don’t believe me make friends with them and pay attention to how they look when a dinner check comes up. At the beginning of their career, it’s all fun and games. “Let’s play credit card roulette!” After a few years, tell a table of eight big shot players you’ll put the bill on your credit card, but you need them to chip in their eighth in cash. I’ll bet you dollars to donuts you end up paying over half of that check.
I consider myself a very competent poker player, but not an excellent one, and I have much to learn in this game. At times I struggle greatly. I work so hard on my craft because I know I don’t have the talent. What’s really surprising to me is how many TV personalities and players of the year are no better than I am at poker, and I’m not talking about an Antonio Esfandiari, Erik Seidel, Daniel Negreanu, or Faraz Jaka. When you sit across from them you know you’ve run into the real deal. But most poker players are just forcing their algorithm on the game. Since most of them created their style at one time and never updated it with various poker tools their effectiveness begins to fade over the years.
When it’s young men who go on this journey I don’t feel bad for them. They’re adults and they have the right to make their own decisions. What’s really awful to see is a man in his 30s with two kids who decides to go pro after some decent success, and always depends on the “table feel” he supposedly has to carry him through. I get to meet so many of these guys through my coaching sessions. Many times when they come to me it’s already a little too late to salvage their finances. Instead I tell them to move down, get a job, and work on their game. Some just hang up on me.
The Best Players Work the Hardest
I have been blessed enough to get to work with some truly great players. By great, I mean that I am not even in their zip code. Mostly what they hire me to do is teach them how to use their poker tools and verify some of their plays. From talking to them I’ve learned that these guys have just as many problems as anyone. Many of them work copious hours to stay at the top. They might not call it “studying” the way I do, but after every tournament they’re with their friends (who are also extremely successful) and they’re dissecting every hand that got away from them. They take very few hours off, never mind days.
The most successful players are often not even the most talented. The guys I know with a vacation house paid off are just better with the money than everyone else. They find an edge, often at a fairly mid-stakes game, and they quietly beat it to death. They don’t broadcast how much money they are making, because they don’t want to attract attention from the wrong element. They don’t want their games to become saturated either. It’s through them that you find out that many of the braggarts don’t have the money they supposedly have. The “mid-stakes pro” is usually the silent backer of the flamboyant TV names. They’re investing their 50%, the TV hero is blowing his 50%, and the relationship continues.
The truly wealthy players generally work pretty long hours and study the game greatly. They’re not the most talented guys, but they work harder, which makes them seem much smarter than they are. Come upswing or downswing they’re back at their desk, combing through the hands, and making new notes. They have an open mind, and are slow to judge. They never go outside of their bankroll. They never hold onto any play or player religiously; if it’s threatening their family’s income they are done. They sometimes seem callous. Many of the guys they came up with criticize them for not wanting to go “ball out” on the tour with them, but they would never retort by telling them what kind of money they are making. They would never mention which ones of their cohorts didn’t make it out. They take the plays from the friends who don’t want to hear what they have to say, and move on.
These guys have been my greatest inspiration. If I have aimed for anything it has to been to model their behavior, and make it a workable model for young pros who are tired of hearing about the careless internet regulars.
If you are looking to become a professional poker player, prepare for pain.
Many people come up to me and say, “I’d kill to have what you have.”
The 53rd time I heard this in the form of “I’d kill to run like you” I said something which a friend republished on a forum: “Yeah, you’d kill to be where I’m at. That’d take what? 10 minutes? You would never put the work in that I
When I was 10 years old I had a paper route. At 12 years old I started
mowing lawns. I didn’t own a lawn mower, so I would go up to people’s houses and just ask if I could use their mower to trim their lawn. I’d take $5. At 14 I started getting paid under-the-table to move Persian carpets. At 16 I worked 40+ hours a week at a fast-food restaurant while still going to high school. During my senior year at Inglemoor High I rented a garage in Casino Road, Everett. I couldn’t afford to pay the whole rent, so I kept landscaping for the family. At 18 I became a commercial fisherman, where I worked 20 hour shifts and 110+ hour weeks. When I got home I wasted no time getting a job as a security guard.
I was not a winning player the first three years I played. At 15 I started playing games at home and at school. I’d build up a bankroll during the weeks hustling wild card games in the back of the home room, and then I’d lose it on the weekends to better players. At some point in high school I found a home game that threw tournaments once or twice a week. They rarely had more than 18 people in them. I played 50 of them before I got a win. Then I had to quit and get a job in fast food because I wasn’t cutting it.
When I moved to Seattle to make it as a poker player I’d work eight hours a day as a security guard, go home, change, run six miles, return home, shower, and then play poker for eight hours. I rarely slept for more than six hours and was ready to pass out every weekend. In my first two months of playing like this I saved up enough money to put aside enough to cover six months of expenses while still having a bankroll left over. On October 31, 2006, I decided to quit my job and go pro.
My next three months were a disaster. I pissed off the girl I was living with so much that she kicked me out. Then I moved into a new place, and started at $16 SNGs, where I grinded non-stop for three months. My first 1,000 tournaments online saw me having an ROI of -20%. People would make fun of me in the chat. When I tell people the above they ask a number of questions, including:
“How did you know you were going to make it?” “What kept you going all those years?”
“Why didn’t you quit?”
The answer to these questions and several others is, “I was having fun.”
One of my hobbies right now is battle rapping. Yes, like the movie 8 Mile. As you can imagine, I stick out like a sore thumb at the events, being the big white geek I am. What surprises many people at the events when we get talking is that I actually know where they’re coming from. I have visited people in rehab, jail, and psych wards. I’ve watched men die. As a child, I saw women get beaten. My brother-in-law has three bullets in his body. He killed the other guy.
Kids at school tried to kick my ass because the hoodie I wore every day was so bummy and filled with holes. My family couldn’t hold off the wolves, so eventually we lost our childhood home and had to scatter. I lived in ghettos, subsisting on welfare, food stamps, and free lunches at school. When I graduated from high school I couldn’t afford a gown.
What was worse when I was younger was not merely the financial poverty, but how poorly educated I was. When I went to my first job interview I Googled how to gel my hair. I didn’t know how to discuss a deal with people or work the Yellow Pages, so for years I just went without basic needs such as dental care. When I tried to make a go of community college the inner-city school said I had to repeat 9th grade math.
I swear to Christ everything I just wrote is the complete truth, and I also swear the next thing I am going to say is true: I am grateful for every minute of it. When I was failing at poker, yes, it pissed me off – but I was living a life I never thought would be mine. It was a joy being out of my previous situation. Being able to drink energy drinks, listen to trance, and play poker was a huge improvement from cleaning fish guts off the hull of a ship on a 17-hour shift. Even the long hours of driving to home games in the middle of nowhere were worth it to me. “Who gets to do this?” I thought. “I get to follow in Doyle Brunson’s footsteps, but it’s a new world out there. It’s my world.”
I failed, and I failed routinely. But every time I lost I learned something new. Eventually, I felt I found every way to lose. There wasn’t a bluff I wouldn’t try: I had to know what was right. My intention in telling you this story is not to garner sympathy or to say, “Look at me now!” It is because I needed an example, and this is the only poker one I know intimately.
If you make a habit of studying great performers in numerous fields you will find that my story is nothing special. Adam Carolla has a podcast called “Take A Knee.” He invites successful people from all walks of life to come on and discuss how they made it. Italians, Jews, African-Americans, actors, comedians, writers, rappers, business owners, tech giants, men, women, gay, straight, old, young… none of it matters. They all have the exact same story: they started working at what many would consider an obscenely young age. They failed repeatedly. They were often discouraged and down. They were broke. They had nothing waiting for them back home. And out of all of that something great was born.
One story I have never heard in that or any other podcast, book, or documentary I have taken in is, “Yeah, one day I was 28, living at my mom’s, eating Captain Crunch, and it hit me: I want to direct movies! So two years later I got a project that Spielberg passed on.” It’s worth thinking of our life as a story. If we went to the movies and spent two hours watching a guy wake up, eat his breakfast, go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch TV, and pass out we’d be infuriated. That movie would be horrible. Yet, when our own life is stoking the drama, we wave our fists to the heavens acting as if we are too good for these struggles. We don’t realize that nothing is made without blood, sweat, and tears.
The real privilege derived from poker is the freedom to make US dollars anywhere on Earth without any government, education system, or corporation deciding how your journey will proceed. The gravity of those words is hard to overestimate. Most fields are highly regulated, either by the government or by unions, companies, and trade organizations that grow within them. Your advancement is left to the whim of a petulant boss who is unhappy with his own life. Your dream job requires a degree that will take four years and tens of thousands dollars to achieve. If you decide to open a business you will pay through the roof to get the proper licenses from city hall, and then if your business is somehow successful you have 50%+ of your profits lopped off by taxes.
Poker has variance, yes, but it can be outdone by volume. Little else is regulated. There are no entry requirements. No one is going to turn you away from the felt because they have too many of your ethnicity. If you want to move to another game there is no zoning board to consult. Management can’t give your raise away to the marketing director’s son. Learning expenses can be kept low through small stakes practice and inexpensive training videos. Even the best poker consultants in the world only charge a few hundred dollars for personal tutoring and their best materials.
When you do make a profit? In many cases, it’s all yours. Many countries do not require their citizens to pay income tax as long as they are living outside the country. Others require that you pay a pittance, say 2%. In Canada, the UK, Ireland, and some other countries gambling wins carry a 0% tax rate. Even the USA, the only country audacious enough to charge taxes on their citizens when they live in a foreign country, gives a tax break to foreign residents. You don’t pay income tax on the first $95,100 you earn. Only the top 1% of professional poker players outearn that.
Does that mean you will make a fortune from poker? No, it’s not likely. Many of the people you see playing the big games are actually backed by wealthy billionaires who want a sweat. How much money do you really think a Tom Dwan or Isildur1 has? Even if it’s $10,000,000 (which I would bet against) that is pennies compared with what can be earned in the business world.
Many people are astounded when I tell them that the average salary for a professional poker player is $30,000. They say they want to earn more than that. “Go run a fast-food restaurant,” I say. “Their average salary is $50,000 a year. You can probably get the job within a year too, considering your competition is going to be high school kids who are huffing glue in the parking lot before they hit the fry station.” They back up from that point. There’s a good reason fast- food managers receive those kind of paychecks – it’s not worth the money. There’s a high turnover rate because the job is so demanding, the personnel constantly needs to be retrained, and chain restaurants are slammed at all hours.
Now $30,000 a year doesn’t sound so bad, but if you’re living in the USA that’s not much money, because the average salary in the country is $81,000, and the prices reflect this. However, if you take that same $30,000 to Costa Rica, where the average gross national income per capita is $6,810, you have significantly more money in what is a relatively first-world country. You can now rent furnished apartments and pay a personal assistant, maid, and cook to take care of your errands while you bust your ass at the felt, all at the same income level that would have left you in poverty in the USA. Not to mention, no one has ever walked into a school or movie theater and opened fire there, even in the worst districts of San Jose.
Say you double your income to $60,000 a year because you have more time to focus on your craft. Now you can save $30,000 a year if you’re still living on $30,000. After just three years you will be able to purchase, in cash, a home in the USA. It’s not going to be in Manhattan, but you won’t be in the boonies either. South Bend, Indiana, for instance, has a median home price of $82,500. This is also true in many parts of Europe. Maybe you won’t be able to buy a place in London, but many developing countries that are much safer than my beloved land of 300,000,000+ guns have homes that are worth US$50,000– 100,000.
While this all sounds lovely, the truth is very few poker players are homeowners. I have lost count of the number of guys who won a literal million dollars in a tournament, announced they were going to retire and buy a home, and then asked me for a loan a couple years later. Dan Harrington described poker players as the worst businessmen in the world, because they expect exponential returns on everything, and I’ve come to believe it. Very few of them transition into business. A lesser percentage buy a home outright, although they always seem to be leasing new luxury cars.
My theory as to why they do this? They love the game. They do not love the grind. They do not love the business. They do not long to create wealth for their family, so that they can create stability and a lasting legacy. This is where you must be different. The road is long and hard. It is fraught with more disappointment than you can ever imagine. If you realize every setback is an opportunity to learn, you will make it. If you want to make your own life living off your wits and your mind you will be immensely satisfied at every advance. If you want financial and personal freedom more than anything else you’ve ever wanted in your life, then you have a real shot at making it.
If you’re going to stay in the game and make something of yourself it is important that you keep a number of buy-ins in your bankroll. The more you play, the more you learn, and the more opportunities you will get. There is always a chance to make something happen if you’re still in the game. Conversely, a poker player who blows his bankroll is akin to a carpenter who sells his tools and work truck.
Many people recommend exceedingly strict bankroll requirements… and I’m one of them. That said, I don’t think it’s always a poor idea to take shots. Yet, when doing so we must remember one of the fundamental laws of professional poker: a large bankroll must be protected much more than a small one. I learned this the hard way. When I was scrounging my money together in high school and not making it work on the home game circuit I got tired of constantly being broke. Working dead end jobs to get money together was not my idea of a good time.
When my friend loaned me money on a poker site I saw where it was going to lead. There was this magical place where I could always get a game going. No family member could ever ask to borrow from my poker bankroll, because it was too far away and not easily accessible. My money was protected and could constantly be put into play; I didn’t want to endanger that. I turned that $50 into $80 the first night and sent the $50 back. My next goal after that was to turn my $30 “freeroll” bankroll into a real living.
I am proud to say I’ve done it, and in the process I’ve never deposited. However, the part of the story most people don’t want to hear is that it took me longer to get from $30 to $1,000 than it took me to get $1,000 to $100,000. I had no idea what I was doing initially and rarely played higher than $5 tournaments. Despite this I’d constantly lose and go on downswings. It felt like I was taking two steps forward and three steps back.
If I knew anything it was that I couldn’t go broke. There was a mental attachment to not putting money in again. It still felt like a project that was costing me $0 to learn from, even with all my losses and setbacks. I took copious records, played constantly, and never played above my station. What was my station? The cheapest games I could find without a rake that killed my profit margin. Back then these were $5 SNGs; I sought to make a bankroll from them, and was extremely cautious about moving up. It was a long time before I moved to the $10 and $20 tournaments.
Eventually, I got to a couple of thousand dollars, and combined that with my
money from commercial fishing and rented myself a dump in Seattle. While I was working with a few thousand at this point and my share of the rent was $400 I still didn’t go pro. I needed to calculate my expenses each month and set aside six months’ worth of that before I would take the plunge, reasoning that if I couldn’t find a new job in six months I didn’t deserve to be breathing, much less playing professionally. The built-in safety net seemed stable enough to help me mentally to tackle such a variance-ridden goal.
My first two months in Seattle I worked security while still trying to make that professional money. Since I had a real job to fall back on I took some chances in $10 and $20 tournaments. Somehow, not playing higher than this, I made $7,000 in two months. I had the money to put six months’ expenses aside and still have a bankroll.
So, I quit my job, and spent the next three months losing my ass off at $10 and $20 tournaments. I tried to move up to $50 SNGs, since before SNGs had been my bread and butter, but lost constantly there too. After four months I hung my head in shame and moved to $16 SNGs almost exclusively. I didn’t trust myself to play a $10 tournament. People laughed when they heard I was living on $16 SNGs. No one could believe someone could subsist on such a meager living. I worked more than I used to at security and made significantly less. People constantly told me to move up and take a shot, but I was convinced I had to reverse my graph’s trend. So I stayed at the $16s, studied, and eventually started getting better.
Slowly but surely I moved into tournaments again, and finally had some success, four years into playing poker. A year later I hit $100,000, and had no idea how I’d done it. I rarely played majors. Most of my tournaments were $50 or under. All I did was work and learn, withdrawing money only for the basics. I forgot to check my cashier for weeks at a time.
At this point my bankroll limits became what they would be for the rest of my career. I required 200 buy-ins for tournaments, which I later moved up to 300 buy-ins, and I needed a 100 buy-ins for SNGs and cash games. Again, people laughed their ass off when they heard this, or when they saw the tournaments I played. In my heart though I knew I wasn’t good enough to play higher stakes. I had so much to learn, and I wasn’t going to blow all my money finding out what I lacked.
I also had no home to go back to and doubted whether I’d get another fishing job, given how horrible I was at it. If I ran out of money, I would have to go back to living on the wrong side of the tracks, working $10-an-hour security at the headquarters of a Fortune 500 company, which had been threatened with bombing dozens of times. With no security blanket but what I could make myself I packed that much more money in my suitcase. What was wild was how often I needed it. I went on some horrendous downswings while I was learning my trade. Months would go by where I could not win and I worried that one day the jig would be up, I’d go broke, and everyone would finally see what a fraud I was.
Then, I went on a run where I began winning, and winning a lot. I won one $100 tournament multiple nights in a row. Every week I was in contention for the Tournament Leader Board. For months it seemed like if I played a pot I’d win it, which dumbfounded me as much as anyone. I wrote some articles for PocketFives at the time just because I had a number of thoughts on the game and I missed writing. That got me a ton of attention. Many people started discussing how consistent I was, now that my graph had grown. A backer approached me and entered me in a $200 Rebuy, which I chopped for $50,000. Now everybody was singing my praises. Kids I went to high school with heard about me. It felt good to be successful at something, after being a burn out in high school.
This was when I disobeyed the most important bankroll rule: a large bankroll must be protected by way more than a small one. It was fine for me to risk 20% of my bankroll if I so chose back when I had $30. I could go mow lawns again for a day and easily come up with that again. But now where was I going to get tens of thousands of dollars, especially given how few contacts I had? But I did what every poker player does: I let the talk get to my head and didn’t realize people only liked my money, not me.
So I started traveling to every live tournament my backer would put me in and running up huge makeup totals. I rented a condo in Seattle, which I decked out with flat screens, a sound system, leather couches, art, and new furniture. And I went broke. I’d spend a few months stressing out of my mind, wondering how I could be so stupid. Every time I woke up in the palace I was renting I’d shake my head: what a moron! Miraculously, I’d get another backer and final table a $100 Rebuy on a Sunday, and get a nice payout. But at that point the money felt like nothing to me. I didn’t trust it’d stay with me, so I put all my crap in storage and took a backing deal which had me gallivanting across Europe. I’d wake up in a hostel with 12 Indian laborers and walk to a five-star hotel to play a $10,000 tournament, making obscene amounts of money again, and repeating my mistakes. I rented mansions with private beaches, backed half the world, and lost everything again.
It wasn’t till I got sober and found myself renting another apartment in a ghetto that I realized I’d listened to the hacks and compromised my values: I used to be anti-drug, now I’d begun doing drugs daily because all the cool kids gave it to me for free; I used not to drink, now I was blacking out nightly; I used to protect my bankroll the way a printer protects his printing press, now I was abusing my resources. My destructive habits were losing me the only real friends I had, and my fake friends were quick to desert when I couldn’t be counted on for a loan.
I had made all the money I could have ever needed when I was playing small buy-ins that were appropriate for my skill level and putting in long hours. I had lost my soul on the tour chasing a mythical win so few experience. All those free drinks were costing me my life. So, I went back to my old rules. I stopped going on the tour. I played more small stakes tournaments. I played at odd hours when regulars weren’t playing. I stopped drinking and smoking weed. I went back to my old friends: caffeine, water, and running.
That was five years ago. Six years into my career I had $20 in my pocket. I had to put the ketchup I wanted at a local grocery store back up on the shelf because I couldn’t afford it. Today, I own a home, a recording studio, and a physical therapy clinic. I pay for my mom to go on international beach vacations several times a year, for her groceries and for her caretaker. I pay my taxes in the USA and Costa Rica. Now I own a decent car; have health insurance; employ multiple personal assistants; can afford real dental work for the first time in my life; have a gym in my home, flat screens, and oak furniture; give to charity every single month; and have built homes for widows.
I am telling you all of this about myself not because I really want to. I’m pretty self-conscious in real life, and this all feels really gaudy. However, the only example I have of an untalented poker professional making such a valued living is myself. I know that anyone can do this, because I’ve taught men and women from all walks of life to do it. The minimum requirements to be effective when playing poker for a living are to currency leverage, be a merciless nit with your bankroll, outwork everyone, and study as if you are going for your doctorate. You need to do this every single day.
Let’s discuss a few more factors which could tip the scales in our favor in the next chapter.