I’ve been doing a lot of light reading lately and nearly every poker magazine article is written by “a professional poker player.” Likewise, watching many of the televised poker events the commentators will often identify a player as a “professional poker player.”
But just what the heck is a professional poker player?
Is it someone who makes their living playing poker? That would be my definition. But how many supposedly professional poker players derive all or most of their income from actually playing poker?
I mean, if you’re a sponsored pro making $20,000 a month in endorsements and coaching and then losing it all on the poker tables are you really a professional poker player?
Or, what if you’re grinding out $40,000 a year playing poker. Are you more or less of a professional poker player than someone who has a full-time job but consistently wins $80,000 a year playing part-time?
It just seems as if the title gets thrown around pretty easily these days. As far as I can tell, the generally accepted definition is, “someone who plays poker and doesn’t have another job.”
Over the years I’ve been contacted on numerous occasions by self-billed professional poker players who want an in on some entry level job in online poker. I also know of a few “pros” that have done multiple tours of duty in the customer support departments of online poker sites. They stick around long enough to fund a bankroll and then quit and come back six months later looking for work again.
Or how about the poker pro who has $1.2 million in career tournament cashes but it’s over a 10 or 15 year period? That’s only $80,000 – $120,000 per year when you average it out. Granted, that’s still good money but it doesn’t count buy-ins and how much they’ve spent in tournaments where they didn’t cash. Nor does it indicate how much of it they actually saw. If they sold a piece of themselves or took backing then they may have only seen a fraction of that.
That’s sort of like looking only at a company’s gross income without knowing the cost of sales. It gives you a very distorted picture.
Company A has $10,000,000 in revenue but only makes $500,000 in profit. Company B has $5,000,000 in revenue but has a $1,000,000 profit. If we were to judge companies like we do poker players, Company A would be considered the better company to own because we’re only looking at gross revenue.
Of course, I’m not counting cash games and such but the point is that many of the people who are considered professional poker players aren’t exactly living the balla lifestyle.
In fact, back in 2004 I wrote about this when Fortune Small Business ran a piece on Annie Duke. After all of the backing, cash game wins, appearance fees, sponsorships, etc she was clearing $228,000 a year.
Again, $228,000 isn’t exactly chump change but it’s not really big money. Especially when you consider the risk involved. And $86,000 of that total was for consulting and appearances so her take at the poker tables was only $142,000.
Several years ago someone asked me whether or not I was a professional poker player. I laughed and said, “Well, maybe a semi-professional. I never quit my day job.” He responded, “Semi-professional? To me that means that you’re not good enough.”
It was a fair take on the difference between professional and semi-professional but only if you look at it on the surface. Let’s say that you’re a college student or just out of college or working some low-wage job. Making $50,000 a year playing poker might sound like a dream job if you’re slaving away for $25,000 a year bagging groceries or flipping burgers. But if you’re making $50,000 a year in a 9-5’er it’s a questionable decision as the $50,000 from your job is somewhat reliable income (far more reliable than what you make at the tables).
In poker, you could win $100,000 this year and nothing next year and average out to $50,000 a year. I prefer not to live like that. I like having a reliable source of income (strangely, my creditors prefer that as well).
Plus there’s no medical, matching 401K, paid vacation, annual bonuses, annual wage increases, etc, in poker. So your $50K a year also pays for many things that are considered benefits by an employer. So really, after you pay for all of those things you might only be making $35K – $40K.
I was just reading a blog post and the author started off saying, “As a former professional poker player . . .” I wanted to laugh a bit because I know that writing blog posts isn’t exactly lucrative. How much money could he have been making as a “professional poker player” if hacking out articles for poker blogs seemed like a step up?
You see this on the affiliate forums as well. A self-proclaimed poker pro will offer to write poker strategy articles for $20 a 600 word article. Twenty bucks!!
I have a friend of mine who got a cushy consulting gig where he cranked out a report every couple of weeks and they sent him what most people make working all month. He called himself a professional poker player because he played poker online. When the company cancelled his gig he sent me a frantic email saying he needed to find a job asap. Why? Because he was never really making much playing poker. He was funding his break-even/losing poker playing with income from his consulting gig.
Professional seems like it should be an indication of whether or not you possess the skills to earn a living doing something. If I quit my job tomorrow and start playing bingo and eventually bleed away my savings and have to take a job in six months, was I really a professional bingo player?
Or how would this apply in other sports? If I retire, start collecting a pension, and start playing in golf tournaments but only earn a few thousand a year, am I professional golfer?
To be honest, I don’t know what constitutes a professional poker player. I do know that a large percentage of the people who claim to be professional poker players need more than one source of income in order to be a professional poker player which doesn’t sound like a professional at all.