One of the strangest poker discussions of all time has been playing out on social media over the past couple of days, following accusations from the reigning World Series of Poker Main Event Champion, Joe McKeehen, who believes the poker media is the driving force for the WSOP’s decision to move start times up an hour, from noon to 11 AM.

Somehow the conversation devolved from there – but thankfully stopped short of Godwin’s Law – as McKeehen compared the plight of tournament poker players to slaves, evidenced by the WSOP’s decision to start tournaments before noon.

McKeehen has been catching a lot of grief for his statements, as anyone in the business knows it’s laughable to think the poker media could influence such a decision, and of course, the idea that professional poker players are akin to slaves was an extremely poor analogy. In my opinion, McKeehen would have been better served to lodge his complaint without scapegoating the media, and without the inflammatory word choice.

But McKeehen’s comments did kick start other debates and opinions about what it means to be a professional poker player.

“Comparing playing 11am poker tournaments to slavery is obviously absurd,” poker pro Jamie Kerstetter said in a 2+2 post. But Kerstetter didn’t stop there, she went on to say, “but comparing playing WSOP to working a “real job” is also a stretch.”

“Players are not getting a paycheck and benefits from WSOP for showing up and playing events. On the contrary, we are paying money for services provided (dealers, tables, chips, floor people) and should not be chided for expressing reasonable* opinions,” Kerstetter said. “Why is it considered “lazy” for a player to prefer a later start time? It is not lazy to put in 12-14 hour days just because those days start later than a regular workday.”

I agree that poker players should be able to lobby for their preferences, but it’s simply wrong to say poker isn’t a “real job.” Just because you don’t punch a time clock doesn’t mean you can do as you please – well you can, but it will be to your own detriment.

Accountability to self

You might not get a steady paycheck or health insurance as a poker player, but it’s still a real job. What you are is self-employed, just like me. I’m not going to play the “working class hero” card, mostly because I’m not a working class hero – I’ve been fired from all of those jobs in my more youthful days. My work schedule (I have kids so I’m up early every day, work or no work) is much the same as a poker player, a job I also held for nearly ten years and know a thing or two about:

I can get up whenever I want.

I can write as little or as much as I want.

If I need to do something on short notice at 11 AM on a Monday, I can.

If I don’t want to work for a few days I don’t have to.

That being said, if I actually want to excel I need to make concessions on these fronts. To do my job well I need to be accountable to myself, and oftentimes make concessions to the people who’ve hired me.

I have deadlines. I have content thresholds I need to cross. If Massachusetts is holding an important gaming hearing at 9 AM I need to be up for that, and I need to sit through it. If California is hosting a hearing I need to work well past 5 PM, sometimes as late as 10 or 11 PM, which is a long day when you start at 8 AM. Basically what I’m saying is, I get the long days argument, but at the same time, as Hyman Roth said, “this is the business we’ve chosen.”

But to do my job well, this is simply what I have to do, and if I want to make money I have to do my job. So yes, my job has freedom, but it doesn’t have Ayn Rand freedom.

The same can be said for poker players; your job offers plenty of freedom, but only to a certain extent, assuming you want to excel. Most poker players like to list the freedom the job offers as one of the key reasons they got into poker:

“I can make my own hours.”

“I don’t have a boss.”

“I can go on vacation and work whenever I feel like it.”

For the most part this is true. For the most part.

As much as they might deny it, like me, poker players don’t have Ayn Rand freedom. There are certain constraints imposed upon them by their chosen profession.

Most poker players  learn very early on that while you can “play whenever you want,” and “go on vacation whenever you damn well please,” you also have to play during the hours that the games are good (which explains poker players third-shift sleeping habits), and when you decide not to play for a few days you’re not making money.

You also learn really fast that if you play poker you do have a boss, and sometimes concessions need to be made. If you decide to be a poker player your boss is the casino or card room. This is even more so the case for tournament players, where on top of deciding how much you have to pay (rake) for the privilege of playing, they get to make the rules about when you start playing and how long you might have to play for.

And as some people have pointed out (mostly cash-game players who have far more, but not universal freedom), you can be a poker player and skip the WSOP. If you don’t like something about it, don’t play it.

Bottom line: If you’re serious about poker it is very much a real job, and you need to treat it as such. And that means when the “boss” changes your schedule you have to accept it or find a new job – which in poker means finding a different tournament, switching to cash games, or playing online.