How Hard Is It to Become a Pro Poker Player in 2016?

Steve Ruddock : March 28th, 2016

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During an emergency session of Joey Ingram’s Poker Life Podcast last week, poker pro Mike “Timex” McDonald made a very astute observation when the discussion veered away from the PokerStars and into the difficulties of new players making it as a poker pro in this new, changed online poker environment.

McDonald compared the idea of becoming a poker millionaire during the boom years to winning the lottery – seen as something pretty much anyone could do. On the other hand, McDonald now sees the idea of becoming a poker millionaire more akin to becoming a doctor – something that takes brains, hard work, and experience.

you can watch the entire podcast here:

I completely agree that this is how people viewed poker success during the poker boom (“that could be me!”), and how people now perceive poker to be (“who has that kind of time and energy to dedicate themselves to poker just to beat $2/$4 NLHE?”), and in fact this is how the game is now being marketed almost across the board. Playing high stakes poker is no longer something anyone can do.

But what this point of view fails to consider is the idea of becoming a poker millionaire is a relatively new phenomenon. Making it as a poker player is more like making the major leagues, and it always has been this way. Well, almost always.

The outlier period

There was a period in time when “making it” as a poker player was not only possible, it was, in relative terms, easy.

That period occurred during the first half of the poker boom, where, with a little time and a little effort, virtually anyone could earn a decent living playing poker, and there was a huge increase in the number of people who were making six- and even seven figures from poker. Aside from a handful or two of the very best players, this had never been possible before, and it’s simply not going to be possible again. Like so many other ventures that gave first-movers a huge edge, the early Boom years were a one-time opportunity.

For a confluence of reasons, poker during the boom years allowed people to do a lot more with less. It was as if between 2004 and 2006 you could be a doctor with just an associate’s degree, instead of needing to earn a doctorate and go through a lengthy internship.

The capability of honing your poker skills over a period of six to twelve months and suddenly playing in high-stakes games, or competing in $10k buy-in tournaments, no longer exists, or better said, has been drastically diminished. It’s not because of the current changes that have been put in place, rather the first wave of the poker boom allowed for opportunities that didn’t exist prior and don’t exist now.

A good analogy for this would be poker domains.

In the year 1995 you pretty much had your pick of domain names, but over time you had to get more and more creative as the best names were scooped up. In 2001 you still had a lot of good poker domains, and throughout the early days of the poker boom people were buying up these domains and launching affiliates sites. Nowadays, most of the obvious poker domain names are taken.

Unfortunately, if you weren’t around during the early days of the boom you missed your opportunity to grab a really good poker-themed domain name, set up an affiliate site, and watch the cash roll in. You can still create a good poker domain in the year 2016, but it takes a lot more time and effort. you need to be creative with the name and you need to provide good content.

It’s not impossible, it’s simply harder, because PokerNews, PokerStrategy, Bluff, and other clear cut poker domains are already taken.

The same is true with playing poker for a living. To have success in 2004 you didn’t have to do a whole hell of a lot, you were simply in the right place at the right time, and even a modicum of skill was enough to beat the game for a decent living. It was the domain buying version of grabbing poker.com.

On the other hand, in 2016 you have to work your ass off to climb the professional poker ladder. Like McDonald said, it’s akin to becoming a doctor. You have to have the smarts, the drive, and the time to take on the challenge.

So where does this leave us?

McDonald is quite right that going from newbie to poker millionaire in the current climate is near impossible. But making a living playing poker is still a realizable goal. The problem is that the people that were around during the golden years haven’t readjusted their expectations, and consider the idea of reduced win rates, or an inability to earn six-figures, as a sign of failure or unworthy of their time.

My advice to a new player wouldn’t be pessimistic, it would be simple and honest. This is what you can expect if you put in the time and effort. And even though you’ll never replicate the players who preceded you, what they can expect is still pretty stinking good.

For most 20-somethings, making $50k to $100k a year playing cards would be a pretty good life. And if they can play poker part-time, and make maybe $25k-$30k a year while putting themselves through college all the better.

Being a capable poker player also offers people who change professions and have to start over a way to supplement their income until they get back on their feet.

It’s not that playing poker professionally is now somehow out of reach for everyone, or not worth the time and effort, it’s just that making millions playing poker is about as realistic a goal as making the NBA, as it has almost always been… with the exception of the small window during the poker boom.

Even during the boom years people’s expectations had to change. During the early days of the poker boom, Sit & Go ROI could be as high as 20%. The same game in 2011 likely offered no better than a 5% ROI.

Things change and our expectations have to change along with them.

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