Becoming a Professional Poker Player

By Tom "TIME" Leonard | December 11, 2009

There is a phenomenon that occurs frequently among amateur poker players. A recreational player starts running well and winning consistently and comes to the conclusion that playing poker for a living makes a lot of sense. Hey, what’s not to like? It’s fun, it’s profitable, you can make your own hours, you are your own boss, quit when you want, play as long as you like, sleep till noon and the list goes on. Our winning recreational poker player’s only query at this point in his analysis is, “Why didn’t I think of this sooner”?

Assuming you’re not already a full time pro, have you ever thought of poker as a career path? I mean, really – how difficult can it be? You see these youngsters on TV that deposit $20 in an online poker account, begin winning, never look back and are now millionaires! While there certainly have been a couple of mind boggling success stories, when poker becomes your sole source of income the following cliché becomes very true; poker is a tough way to make an easy living.

I’m not saying becoming a poker pro can’t be done or is a foolhardy endeavor – after all many have made a successful crossover to professional poker and prospered. I am saying it takes some thought, introspection and honest evaluation of your talents, motives and determination to assess whether you are resilient enough to succeed in this unusual life style. Let’s examine some of the criteria that one should be focused to before making the plunge.

Are You a Winning Poker Player?

The real question is are you a winning player at stakes high enough to support the life style you demand? Two key criteria need to be addressed. First, you must know you are a winning player not just believe it because of anecdotal evidence. You must keep meticulous and honest records of your sessions to prove to yourself that over time you are a winning player. Keeping honest records is a must. I know some players tend to fudge the records slightly to make their statistics look better. This is nonsense of the highest order as lying to yourself can only be self defeating. I also think that you need a minimum of a thousand hours and, more realistically, two thousand to have a database of any relevance. So, if you’ve just won your last four sessions in a row for a total of fifteen hours and think you’re ready to turn pro – think again!

The second part of the proof is the stakes that you have been beating on a regular basis. Remember, if you’re playing low stakes and beating them like a drum those winnings will probably not be able to support you. You need to determine how much money you will need to earn in order to support yourself and, if not single, your family. If you have been keeping solid records, then you know your hourly earn rate over a thousand or more hours. You can then compute that against how many hours per week you plan to play and determine if the thought to turn pro is just a fantasy or could actually work. Here is a sobering fact – if you determine that you will need to play higher stakes to earn enough money to live on then the competition just became stronger and you will need to prove that you can still win against stronger opposition. Notice how the fanciful thought of being your own boss and earning a living while having fun at the poker table has begun to sound like a real job?

Bankroll Requirements

You also need to consider how large a poker bankroll you will need to survive the inevitable downswings that will occur. Every business needs working capital and if you are considering turning professional you will be starting your own business. The first step is determining what stakes you will be playing as discussed above. There have been many different bankroll requirements espoused in the poker literature. Let’s look at two versions, one for limit hold’em and another for no-limit hold’em.

Limit Poker Bankroll Requirements

The most common number used for limit is 300 big bets. That means, once you determine what stakes you need to play, anticipating an earn rate of one big bet an hour, you would multiply the big bet times 300. If you need to play $20-$40, which would yield (at 40 hours per week) $1,600, then you would require a bankroll of $12,000. The reader must also understand that this represents a very simplistic rule of thumb and there are many other variables that are beyond the scope of this article.

No-Limit Poker Bankroll Requirements

The bankroll swings that can occur in no-limit are far steeper than those of limit. Assuming we are addressing the current method of limiting the size of one’s buy-in, then a good rule of thumb is 20 to 25 maximum buy-ins. If you have determined you need to be playing in a $500 max buy-in game then you should have a $12,500 bankroll.

Amassing a Bankroll

If you are contemplating quitting your day job in pursuit of a career in poker, take the precaution of proving to yourself you can swim with the sharks and prevail while at the same time putting together the necessary bankroll to assist in a smooth transition. The best way to accomplish this is to identify the stakes you will need to win at in order to live well and begin playing while you still have an income stream. After each winning session, put half of your new found wealth in a locked up kitty until you have the requisite bankroll to start your business. Using the above bankroll examples should mean that by saving just half your wins you should be able to amass a $12,000 bankroll in about four months. Using a factor of $20 per hour when you really need $40 per hour is just prudent to build a bankroll before jumping into the deep end of the pool and turning your life upside down.

In addition to having the necessary bankroll to start your business you must also have a minimum of six months worth of expense money put aside because you can’t withdraw your expenses from your bankroll. If you do have what it takes, at the end of six months, your bankroll should have grown and you can begin to use profit for expenses.

Protecting Your Bankroll

You must also think about protecting your bankroll. For example, if you begin to lose having played at stakes of $20-$40 then you must drop down to $15-$30 until you rebuild what you have lost. If you’re going to be successful then forget about a bruised ego that may occur as you envision others seeing you dropping down in stakes. So what, who cares – your business has to embrace a temporary austerity program.

Of course, while weathering the storm your earning capacity is reduced and that is why it was prudent to be building your bankroll. If your bankroll takes a hit during a losing streak, you must own up to the fact that you need to rebuild it. There are only two ways to do that – one is by cutting back on your expenses thereby adding to it weekly and/or by adding to it through another income stream. If you do not ardently protect your bankroll you ultimately will go broke and be out of business. It happens to businesses all the time and if you turn professional and are relying solely on poker as your source of income then you are a business.

Other Factors and Pitfalls

The Future

No one knows the long term future of poker except to guess, since it has been around forever, its popularity will continue. If we accept that on faith then the real long term concern is if the games will remain beatable. One thing you must accept is even if you are a long term winning player, you must continue to work on your game away from the table which means reading the current literature, interacting in poker forums and honestly evaluating your play after each and every session. Having an associate or coach who you can trust to honestly evaluate your play and help you with leaks and new evolving strategies so you can continue to beat the games is also essential. Businessmen take courses, attend seminars and regularly interact with colleagues to keep their competitive edge – poker is no different. Oops, starting to sound like a job again… sorry.

Social Life

Social life? Maybe I should say the lack of a social life. You will find that your life away from poker will mostly be with people that eat, sleep and dream abuot poker. First, you will be keeping odd hours or at least hours that the mainstream public does not keep. That fact in and of itself does not bode well as far as developing relationships outside and away from poker. Quite frankly, in my view, that isn’t the healthiest cocoon to live all your waking hours in. Secondly, your income will be somewhat on a rollercoaster ride which will tend to effect your moods. It will become a tedious chore to remain stoic in the face of soaring euphoria and plummeting despair. It can and is done but it will become a challenge.

Your Sense of Worth

Many people despise their jobs and just suffer through the hours to earn a paycheck. They dream of doing something that they would enjoy or would be inspiring such as becoming a doctor, social worker, teacher, soldier or a member of any number of other professions. One day they question what they do for a living, thinking it has no redeeming social value. They wonder how they became trapped in this job – and yes, it will be a job. Many play professional poker their whole lives, enjoy it immensely, cherish the friendships they have made through the game and never have a second thought. As they say, there ain’t no right or wrong here, it’s whatever floats your boat. The question you need to ask yourself before making the plunge is if you believe in your heart that you will enjoy playing cards for a living in five, ten, twenty or more years – or when it becomes evident that it is a job. You need to put in the hours just like a job. The difference is there are no paid vacations and it is one of the only jobs that you can go to work, put in a full day and come home with less in your wallet.


I’ve tried to offer up a fair and balanced view of becoming a professional poker player. There are many other elements which I haven’t delved into that are beyond the scope of this article such as – do you play just cash games or tournaments as well, paying taxes, age related considerations, funding benefits that an employer might offer and more. Suffice to say that if you really believe this is the life for you, have proved through record keeping and bankroll accumulation that you have what it takes, have satisfied yourself regarding the many other personal elements unique to your own situation, then go for it.

Let me close with a few suggestions if you’re on your way to professional poker. Continue to study and work on your game. Poker strategies are always changing as the game is fluid so don’t fall behind the curve. Learn all of the games as there may well be opportunities to play in a juicy seven card stud or Omaha game and if all you feel comfortable playing is hold’em, you’ll be at a disadvantage. Last and maybe most important – have a backup plan. Don’t allow poker to consume your life. If one day you do wake up and despise your current job you just might want to try something else – try and be prepared.

By Tom "TIME" Leonard

Tom has been writing about poker since 1994 and has played across the USA for over 40 years, playing every game in almost every card room in Atlantic City, California and Las Vegas.


3 Responses to “Becoming a Professional Poker Player”

  1. RyckyRych
    December 11, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    I think this is a solid article on the subject, TIME. Nice job!

    I’m a strong believer in paying yourself for your volume as opposed to doing so based on whether or not you win during that week or month. I had a post some time ago on a method that I was shown by Jennifear (of P5s fame) that works brilliantly. I’m sure the same method could be used by cash game pros as well.

  2. LilShark
    December 27, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Thank you Time this was a great read and very eye opening, Im with you 100%

  3. serj markarian
    February 26, 2013 at 6:59 am

    Thank you :TIME… was truely eye opening!!!!!! Your genuine wisdom is much appreciated. God Bless

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