If you’ve ever watched gambling movies like “Rounders” or “21” — inspired by the true story of six M.I.T. students who earned millions counting cards in Blackjack, you’re familiar with Hollywood’s depiction of the highs and lows that occur as a result of playing this risky game.
Beyond Hollywood’s mostly glamorous portrayal of this lifestyle, have you ever wondered what it’s really like for someone to spend their days traveling in and out of casinos, unsure of when they’ll get their next “paycheck”?
What risks are involved in pursuing this kind of lifestyle? How does a poker player handle personal finances and how is it managed when income is so unsteady and sporadic?
This week’s MyBankTracker interview is with a former professional poker player, who was involved in this high-stakes game for almost two decades.
For the sake of anonymity, we refer to this person as “Poker Face.”
MBT: Tell us about yourself and how you first started gambling.
PF: I have played poker for the last 19 years, but probably only started making it more of a serious career in the last ten years. I first started playing a form of poker or gambled in minimal stakes when I was in 9th grade.
MBT: The 9th grade?! How long did it take you to master the game and how much is based on luck and strategy?
PF: Mastering the game of poker is relative. If you’re complacent with your skills and unwilling to continue learning and improving your game, you’ll never truly master it. In the long run, the game is almost 90% skill and 10% luck, but in the short run, anything can happen, and luck plays a larger part of the game.
MBT: When did it become a regular source of income for you?
PF: During the first year of my professional poker career, I struggled to break even and had trouble managing my finances (AKA “bankroll” in poker terminology). My second year was my first year where I was able to consistently win month after month.
MBT: It sounds like playing cards was somewhat of a steady income for you. Over the years, did you ever consider looking for a “real” job?
PF: I have always considered looking for a “real” job outside of gambling, but mostly because of the stigma attached to the profession. I grew up in a conservative, Christian background, where education, family, and community were priorities of my upbringing.
My career as a professional poker player has been a constant mental struggle within myself (not wanting to disappoint my family). I opened up to my parents about playing poker in 1998, and they told me it wasn’t an acceptable choice in careers.
For the next three years, I worked in real estate to help mask my true profession from my parents. Although I’ve had a successful career playing poker, I’m currently pursuing real estate once again, to start something new, as well as make to peace with myself and my family.
MBT: How many times were you flat broke over the course of your gambling career?
PF: During my 19-year career, I was flat broke 3 times (mostly due to poor money management).
MBT: If you lost a large amount of money, how were you able to pay for rent and bills?
PF: I’ve had help from friends multiple times, but after learning some tough lessons of money management throughout my career, I have learned to keep money aside for those “rainy days.”
MBT: Glad you’ve learned to set aside an emergency fund. Of course we have to ask: what was your biggest splurge/purchase after a hefty win?
PF: I’ve never made any single large purchases, but spending over $30,000 in the course of a month on leisure (restaurants, bars, shopping, golf, etc.) was not out of the ordinary.
MBT: Sounds like you’ve had some amazing runs! Have you managed to invest any of your winnings?
PF: The only investment I made were through REITs (real estate investment trusts), and unfortunately I lost a lot of money giving loans to other professional poker players that went broke.
MBT: Can you share how much you’ve made (on average) in one year?
PF: Within a given year, I have made anywhere between $30,000 to $300,000. The swings may be big within this industry, but the key to success is money management, and emotional stability.
MBT: Do you have any money advice for someone who wants to go into this field?
PF: My initial advice would be to choose another profession! I’ve been fortunate enough to have a successful career in poker, but I’m guessing that less than 5% make a living doing this, and probably less than 10% of those make a decent living.
For anyone serious in becoming a professional poker player, my advice is to:
- MONEY MANAGEMENT (play only within your means, and increase limits in progression): For any profession, you need the tools for your trade. As a professional poker player, your cash bankroll are your tools. Without your tools (cash), you cannot work!
- Surround yourself with other intelligent, honest, successful players.
- Continue to improve your game, and asking the advice of your respected peers.
- Play longer sessions when you are winning and shorter sessions when you are losing. One of the biggest mistakes as a professional, is losing big and winning small. Most people, for some reason, can’t seem to leave the table when they are losing, and when they are playing less than optimally, they play their longest sessions.