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7 Steps to Play Poker for a Living

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Have you ever thought about quitting your day job and playing poker for a living? Have you spent hours dreaming about how much fun it’d be to play poker every day and the glory of winning a big poker tournament?

Most poker players wish they could play for a living at least once or twice in their life. You see other people doing it, so why can’t you do it? After all, the pros you see on television seem to have it made. They have the money to enter big poker tournaments, sometimes with buy in amounts of $10,000 and more.

If they have this kind of money to enter tournaments, they must be doing pretty good in the money department. You probably also see some lower level professional players if you play in a regular poker room. These players might not be good enough to make millions on television, but they’re able to grind out a profit hour after hour while staying under the radar.

Employment data for professional poker players isn’t available, but you know that many people are able to do it. This means that you might have a realistic opportunity to play poker for a living.

Here are seven steps you need to use if you want to play poker for a living. You need to learn how to play poker well enough to be profitable, but almost anyone can do this if they do enough research and use the tools available to them.

It’s not easy to be a professional poker player, but it can be done if you’re willing to do the work. Sadly, if you’re able to play well enough to quit your regular job, you might find that poker isn’t fun anymore. It’s still better than working for a living, but most people who play for a living are grinding out small profits every day.

Poker is just like most professions in a couple ways. The first way is that a few people are able to reach the top and make huge amounts of money. But most people are somewhere between just barely scrapping by and making a comfortable living.

The other similarity is you have to put in the time and work to have the chance to reach the top. Some winning players are never able to break out of barely surviving on what they make at the poker tables, no matter how long they play and how hard they work.

Playing poker for a living isn’t for everyone, but if you want to give it a try, just follow the seven steps below. Even if you’re not a winning player yet, if you work the steps, you have a good chance of succeeding.

1 – Decide How Much You Need to Make

The first step is to determine how much you need to make. It’s easy to assume that you just need to make the same amount of money that you make in your current job, but this doesn’t always give you an accurate picture of what you need.

Does your current job offer paid time off, health insurance, and retirement benefits? Fewer and fewer jobs offer these benefits, but many still do. If you have to buy your own health insurance it can be a large monthly expense.

The only retirement benefits a poker player has are the ones that they develop themselves. You need to make enough money playing poker to cover your current bills, support your current lifestyle, and have some left over to invest for your retirement.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re just going to play poker until you die. Some players do this, but you can’t predict the future. You might not be able to physically and mentally play at a winning level in your later years. The game also changes over the years, and sometimes players can’t keep up with new strategies and younger players.

Once you figure out how much you need to make playing poker you can get a good idea of how big your bankroll needs to be, how much you have to play, and what levels you need to be able to win at.

Here’s an example:

You currently work a normal job and make $40,000 a year. You’re able to keep the bills paid, but you aren’t getting ahead. You hate your job and decide you want to play poker for a living. Your current job doesn’t have any retirement benefits, but it does offer a basic health insurance plan.

You want to replace your current income, start investing some money for retirement, and you need to find replacement health insurance. After doing some research, you find that you can buy insurance for $500 a month, so you now have to make at least $46,000 a year.

In addition, you want to invest at least $500 a month your first year playing. Your plan is to invest more every year, as your poker results improve, but you know you need to get started now. This is another $6,000 a year for investing, so you need to make $52,000 your first year playing.

Here’s where most players make a big mistake.

They decide that they’re going to play 60 or 80 hours a week. While this is possible, it can be hard to do. You need to keep your mental focus sharp to be a winning player, so you need to make sure you have time to rest both your body and mind.

I recommend using no more than 50 hours a week in your estimates. If you find a couple good games that you don’t want to leave you might play more hours some weeks, but playing poker more than 50 hours a week on a regular basis can take its toll on you.

At this point you start running the numbers. $52,000 a year is $1,000 a week, if you play every week. I recommend taking at least a couple weeks off every year to recharge your batteries, so you need to adjust your numbers a little. $52,000 a year divided by 50 weeks is $1,040 a week.

If you play 50 hours a week, this means that you have to average $20.80 an hour in profit to reach your yearly income goal.

This isn’t outside of the realm of possibilities if you’re a good player. A good player at the 10/20 limit table can do this, and you shouldn’t have a terrible time finding games if you’re close to a big poker room.

A good no limit poker player can do this in no limit cash games at the $500 buy in limit, and some can even do it at the $200 buy in tables.

The math is a little different for tournament players, but the concept is the same. Winning tournament poker players tend to finish in the cash enough to keep them playing until they can break through and finish at the final table or win at a big tournament.

If you’re a tournament poker player, most of your yearly profit may come from just a small handful of tournaments. In this case, you need to stay in the game long enough to make a big score.

You can use the amount you need to win per hour to give you an idea of how big your bankroll needs to be to reach your goals. Even if you’re a winning player, you need enough money behind you to ride out the down swings that you’re going to face.

If you’re a no limit player in this example, you should have at least 20 buy in amounts for your regular game. To be safe, you should have more than 20. I recommend 30 times your normal buy in.

This means that if you play $500 buy in no limit cash games, you need between $10,000 and $15,000. If you’re going to try to play at the $200 buy in tables, you should defiantly go with 30 times your buy in, so you need at least $6,000.

If you’re going to play at the limit tables you should have 200 to 300 times the big bet. This means that if you play 10/20 you should have between $4,000 and $6,000, and if you play 20/40 you need between $8,000 and $12,000.

If you have the bankroll and are a winning player, it’s usually easier to reach your hourly goal at a higher limit table. It’s easier to make $20 an hour on average playing $500 buy in no limit or 20/40 limit in many cases.

But a great deal of the profitability of a game comes from your ability to beat the other players. This means that you might make more profit at a smaller buy in table, so keep an open mind.

What do you do if you don’t have a big enough bankroll to get started at the level you need to play to reach your goals?

If you’re making $40,000 a year, you probably don’t have an extra $10,000 to dedicate to your bankroll yet. The answer is to start playing part time and grow your bankroll as fast as you can. Don’t quit your job and start playing poker full time until you save enough for a proper bankroll.

2 – Pick a Specialization

If you want to give yourself the best chance to succeed in your quest for a professional poker playing career, you need to start by specializing in one thing. Texas holdem games are the easiest to find, so many players start playing it.

This doesn’t mean that you have to specialize in Texas holdem. If you’re better at stud or Omaha and can find enough games, you should specialize in the game that you play best.

You also should stick to one format. Decide if you want to play cash games, small tournaments like single table ones, or big tournaments. Once you make a decision, stick with it until you surpass your hourly goals on a consistent basis.

While Texas holdem is mostly the same in cash games and tournaments, there are a few differences. A great player can be profitable in both formats, but if you specialize you can maximize your returns.

If you’re a beginning player who’s still learning how to be a consistent winner, I suggest focusing on limit play. If you’re more experienced, no limit games offer higher hourly win rates for most players.

I know that the televised poker you see is usually tournament poker, but I recommend starting at the cash tables. This isn’t because cash games are necessarily more profitable than tournaments. The main reason is because your profit will probably be more consistent in cash games. You might go several tournaments before making a profit, and this can be hard on your bankroll and hard on your mental game.

3 – Segregate a Bankroll

When you work a regular job and play poker on the side, you probably mix your poker bankroll with your regular money. When you start playing poker for a living you need to set aside your poker bankroll and keep it separate at all times.

By keeping your poker bankroll separate, it’s easier to track your progress. It also helps you see if you have a leak in your game that you need to identify and fix.

You can handle your profits in a couple different ways, but here’s a simple system that you can use.

Going back to the example in the first section, you need to make $1,040 a week. Pick a day and take out this amount every week on that day, just like a salary. Leave everything else in your bankroll, and evaluate where you’re at on a regular basis.

If you’re able to reach your goal every week, your bankroll will stay fairly consistent throughout the year. But if you’re able to win more than your goal, this system builds your bankroll with the extra money.

As your bankroll grows, you might be able to play at a higher level. But don’t move up too fast. It’s better to have an extra cushion than to start running short.

If you’re going to use this system, it helps if you start with a cushion. If you determine that you need a $10,000 bankroll, if you can start with $12,000 or $15,000 it takes some of the pressure off. When you take regular payments out of your bankroll it can create a great deal of pressure when you’re on a downswing.

Another system is to only take the bare minimum needed for survival out of your bankroll every week, and then evaluate where you’re at when you get to the end of the month. You might only need to take $500 a week out to survive, and then you can take the rest of the profit, or some of it out, once a month.

4 – Start below Your Bankroll

I mentioned a little bit about this in the last section, but you should start playing below your bankroll. This protects your bankroll and helps you learn if you can make what you need to. If you determine that you need $10,000 to $15,000 to play at the $500 buy in no limit tables, start playing at the $200 buy in tables.

Now you have 50 to 75 buy in amounts, so a downswing takes a smaller percentage of your bankroll. You can still reach your hourly goals at this level, but you reduce the pressure a great deal.

If you’re starting out playing part time trying to build your bankroll up so you can quit your job and start playing full time, don’t be ashamed of playing at the smallest tables. Buying in at the $100 level gives you a chance to build your bankroll just as well at higher levels, it just takes more time.

Though it’s dangerous because a downswing can wipe you out, if you’re taking money from your current income to try to build a bankroll, you can play at lower buy in levels with a smaller multiple for your bankroll.

You can play $100 buy in no limit with a $500 bankroll. If you’re good and have just a little bit of luck, you can build your bankroll from this point without busting out. This is even truer as you play at smaller stakes. You can start playing online at the micro limit tables with a buy in of $10 or less.

5 – Identify Profitable Opportunities

Winning poker players know that their profit is tied to how well they play and how poorly their opponents play. Not only do you need to learn how to be the best player you can be, you also need to learn how to find the games that are the most profitable.

When you walk into the poker room, look at the players at the tables below and above you normal game. See if you can find a table that’s more profitable than your normal game. To do this, you need to learn about the other players and what kind of things to look for.

Even when you’re profitable at one level, you might be able to actually make more per hour at a lower level.

Here’s an example:

You usually play $500 buy in no limit and know many of the normal players. You walk into the poker room and see your normal game running and you see a couple $200 games running. One of the $200 tables seems to be a wild game, with lots of betting and raising before the flop, and your normal game looks tighter than usual.

The wild $200 game is probably going to be more profitable than your normal game, so you take a seat. You can always move to your normal table later, but you want to take advantage of the situation while you can.

You need to always look for opportunities for more profitable games. Sometimes you can find a private game that’s more profitable than your normal game. If you can figure out how to find and get invited to a private game filled with lawyers, doctors, business owners, and maybe judges, you might find that it’ more profitable.

6 – Put in the Time

It’s easy to learn how to play poker, but if you want to be the best player possible there’s no substitution for putting in time playing. You need to study, read, and learn as much as possible, but some things can only improve so much without practice and play.

If you want to play poker for a living, it’s best to play on a part time basis for as long as you can. Track all of your play and results, and continuously work on improving your game.

The more you play, the better you play. This might sound simple, but there’s a great deal of truth in it. Realize that you have to put in the time if you want to play poker for a living.

7 – Work Hard

Playing poker for a living sounds like a dream job. But once you start actually doing it, you quickly learn that it’s much more like a job than a dream. It can still be fun, and it’s better than being stuck in a cubicle, but winning poker players have to work hard.

If you want to play poker for a living because you think it’s easy, you should just keep your day job. You have to work hard to be a winning poker player. It’s hard work to reach your goals.

You also need to set higher goals each year. If your goal the first year is to make $52,000, do everything in your power to reach the goal. But set your second year goal higher. Set your second year goal at $60,000 or $75,000. Make a five year goal of $100,000 a year by the end of five years.

Then make a plan of how you’re going to do it and get to work. With the right goal, the right plan, and the right amount of work you can reach your goals playing poker.


If you want to play poker for a living you can get started today by following the seven steps listed above. The most important step is making sure you have a big enough bankroll to safely start. But even if you don’t have enough to quit your job yet, you can still get started today. Start where you are, and use these seven steps to reach your goal.