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The Myth of the Live Pro (Part 2)

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I have now been playing poker for a little over 17 years, creating a near 2 decade black hole in my resume.  And although not every one of those years has been profitable, it remains a passion in my life and something that I will continue to pursue in the future.  Having said this I am very realistic about my results as for most of my years playing I have kept accurate and faithful records of my winnings.  I have certainly performed better in the first half of the 17 years I have played than the second part.  I am fairly certain at this point that I can no longer beat no limit hold’em online and I also realized that I was not winning enough in live games that I made the switch to omaha two years ago.  And while I no longer claim to be a “professional” player, I can still look people in the eye with a straight face and declare that overall I am a winning player.  This is not something many people can say and I hold it as a sort of badge of honor.  The reality is that if we polled 100 random regular poker players, at most 10 are winning ones.  And if we restricted the criteria to those who won enough to exceed their expenditures that number would most likely shrink to less than 5.  And yet if you hang out at enough poker rooms and speak with other players it seems that everyone and their uncle plays for a living.  This sort of thing is of course universal and not only relegated to poker.  It would be too strong of a word to say that people were outright lying about their prowess as a poker player.  People in other professions exaggerate all the time regarding how much money they earn.  But in such cases, they still make something and are able to live.  It is rarely the case that a poker player who oversell their results still wins but just at a lower rate as it is more likely the case that they are just losing players.  So what is it about this game that allows so many to try and fool others or rather more importantly, themselves?

I noticed an interesting phenomenon a few years back here in Cambodia in regards to those who came here to play poker.  For most that come here for such a purpose they start their play at one of the local card clubs instead of the casino.  Such places get advertised more on online poker forums and there is a certain mythos to the whole idea of playing in an underground club in a third world country.  For those that lost in this club, and this was the case with most players, they always had the option of trying their luck at a different location and playing at the casino.  What I noticed was that of this group, they would almost universally report back with better results.  Some of this can of course be attributed to the notion that the casino probably had better games.  It is reasonable to think that a place with revolving foot traffic will have more recreational punters than a local’s card club.  But having said that, with the passage of time I still did not observe anyone who was winning and saving any sort of significant money.  As time passed, whatever these players won did not exceed their expenses and they stopped playing, started to play smaller elsewhere or just went home.  I do not recount this phenomenon simply to malign these players as liars or speak of them in any sort of negative light.  In fact I fell victim to the same thinking as when I first arrived I too started my play at a local card club, did not have good results, started to play at the casino and immediately saw better results and felt that I could sustain some sort of prolonged state of winning.  This was during my first year in Cambodia and while I was fortunate enough to not go broke, when I did return home it was certainly with far less money than I arrived with.  So what happened?


I should mention at this point that the caliber of the dealers in the two locations were quite different.  In the local card club the dealers were more than competent and some were even on the level of the Vegas dealers that I had played with in the past.  A few of them easily got out 20 hands or more in a 30 minute shift but the same could not be said of their counterparts at the casino, who got out about half as many hands.  I can only conclude from this is that what all of us did not realize at the time was that we were simply losing slower rather than winning.  In this one example exists the biggest issue with live poker in regards to trying to play this game for a living, namely its pace.  To give a real life example, there was a week recently in which I played 12,000 hands online.  Let us consider for a moment how long it would take to play these many hands in a live game.  When I lived in Vegas the dealers in the casinos were of course of varying competence.  But in a city such as this where poker is so important I would state confidently that most were able to get out 20 hands in a 30 minute shift.  If we can assume a 40 hour play week then we arrive at the following:

  • 20 hands per 30 minutes x 2 = 40 hands per hour
  • 40 hands x 40 hours per week = 1,600 hands per week
  • 12,000 hands played in 1 week online / 1,600 hands = 7.5 weeks

By this calculation we can observe that it would take nearly 2 months to play the same amount of hands in a live game that I was able to play during 1 week.  My point in formulating all this is to make the point that whatever happens in a live game can often feel like the norm, that such will always be the case or just feel like it will last forever.  It is often said that the worst thing that can happen to someone who plays poker for the first time is win.  Put that player on a 5 day heater and he will feel like he can quit his day job and become a full time professional poker player.  Live players tend to measure the game in a manner that belies what is needed to develop a true sample size.  If one plays in a live game for a week and absolutely crushes, that person tends to oversell in their own mind how much it is they truly played because they look back upon their week as 40-50 hours over 7 grueling sessions.  All of this can seem like a lot to most reasonable people, when in reality it comes nowhere close to determining where one is truly in regards to winning or losing long term in this game.  This effect can have many ramifications as those who win a lot in the short run can often deem themselves better than they really are, thus ignoring other important factors of the game such as studying and staying ahead of the curve and recent trends.  Of course the exact opposite is true for those that play online as playing 24,000 hands over two weeks will easily enable most players to determine whether or not they are winning.  It will also help them make adjustments and try to improve their game as results come in much faster, allowing more concrete conclusions to be reached.  

Of course the opposite can happen to a player in live games as they can simply lose during what they perceive to be a duration of time sufficient for a good sample size.  But as much as good results are not an indication of anything significant in the short term, the same can be said for bad results.  But the player may not see it that way and simply give up playing, reasoning in their mind that they had failed at the game.  All of this is to say that if one were to solely play live poker, it would take a long time for them to truly realize whether or not they were winning players.  But in this scenario time is often the enemy as factors that weigh in on the ability to win only magnify and have greater impact over a longer stretch of time.  The most obvious issue, as with most cases, is the rake.  I have already covered in previous articles how the rake in certain games can make it nearly impossible for players to beat the game.  But there are other issues as well such as the cost of travel, food and of course tipping.  Having determined previously that a regular $1-$3 player pays approximately $23,000 in one year in rake, if we add the cost of food, travel and tipping we can easily estimate that a player who sits regularly in a game as small as $1-$3 is paying north of $30,000 USD in one year.  

Regardless of the title that I have given this blog post, I do not mean to say that the notion of a live pro is entirely a myth.  Rather I am arguing that the whole idea is largely a myth and that it is much more difficult than how it sounds from seemingly every single poker player who claims to be a professional.  There are of course live pros and if there are those reading this who would venture to follow in their footsteps, certain conditions and criteria need to be met:

  • Play higher
  • Play in an area with equitable rake
  • Table select
  • Minimize your costs

To the first point I will just say now that in my opinion there is no such thing as a $1-$2 or $1-$3 professional.  The money is too small, cost of living too high in most areas and the rake factors in too much to allow players to win at a rate that exceeds their expenses.  One simply must play higher in order to not only win more money, but also to play in a game where the rake taxes them less.  This is of course unless you play in many regions of Asia where rake goes higher the bigger one plays.  This leads to the next point of choosing to play and live in an area where the rake is equitable to the stakes that are being played.  I have mentioned in previous articles of how in cities like Las Vegas the rake remains the same going from $1-$2 to $2-$5 and are even better for bigger games such as $5-$10 that charge only a time rake.  And playing in a city like Vegas will allow players to table select where even for games such as $2-$5 there are multiple venues to choose from.  Minimizing one’s cost is also very important in order to play poker for a living.  As much as I love the dealers that have worked for me in the past, players need to remember that tipping is completely optional.  And while I am not a proponent of not tipping at all, still the task of paying for a suitable living for their staff should be on the casino or poker room and not the player, with tips serving only as a compliment to their salaries.  In some rooms in Cambodia dealers are paid as little as $100 per month, meaning the onus of providing for their living is on the player via their tipping.  As harsh as this sounds, players who endeavor to play professionally must worry about their own living as their primary concern before anyone else’s.

When contemplating the requirements that go into playing live poker for a living, there are really only a few cities that check every box.  The reason that I have mentioned Las Vegas so many times in my previous articles is because they are one of the few places that meet most, if not all of them.  I have not played in Macau but from what other players tell me it would seem they would fit the bill on most things, although it can be quite expensive to live there and their rake system is different from Vegas.  Los Angeles is another great city to play with multiple venues, but the cost of living once again becomes an issue.  I am sure there are many other cities that fit the criterias involved that I simply have not listed due to my limited travel experience.  But it is cities such as these that one must choose if they endeavor to take on this grandiose task, because to become a live pro is a difficult task that requires commitment.  One simply cannot play in an area where they play the same 10-15 locals every single day, no matter how bad they may be.  All of this is to say that playing live poker for a living is a very big commitment.  I remember an old interview once done with the famous movie director Quentin Tarantino.  He had always dreamt of being in show business and so he made the decision to move to Los Angeles, even though that meant he had to work as a clerk in a video rental store for a few years before he got his break.  He commented during the interview that this is what it took for him to make it in the business and that others should do the same.  I often think of this interview when I think of poker players and playing live for a living.  If one wishes to be on stage they must go to Broadway; one wants to be a movie star they have to go to Hollywood and if one wants to make it as a professional poker player they must go to Vegas (or a town just like it).

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