What’s the difference between a professional poker player and an amateur?
You can come up with many different answers to this question. A pro might be defined simply as someone who’s good enough to make a living playing poker. An amateur player might be defined as one who plays for fun.
But the truth is, if you’re reading this, you’re probably an amateur.
The good news is you can learn how to start playing like a professional poker player by learning about things they do that you don’t.
Here’s a list of 7 things professional poker players do that amateur players don’t:
1 – Don’t Leave Profitable Games
Finding profitable poker games can be challenging, but with patience and determination it’s possible. You can learn more about finding profitable tables below. When you find a profitable game, be prepared to stay in the game for as long as it remains profitable.
Amateur poker players tend to play for a few hours at a time. A playing session of six to eight hours is a long one. But a professional player might play 12, or even 24, straight hours in a profitable game. A professional poker player takes advantage of every possible profitable situation.
To be able to keep your mind sharp so you can play well, practice and keep your body in good shape. When you start getting tired and make mistakes, any game can quickly become unprofitable.
Other reasons a game can change from profitable to neutral or unprofitable include poor players leaving or busting out and players tightening up their starting hand requirements.
When you find a profitable game, plan to play for as long as it remains profitable.
But be aware of when you start getting tired. Start building your stamina, improve your diet, and exercise more so you can take advantage of profitable situations as long as you can.
2 – Treat Poker as a Job, Not a Hobby
If you want to be a professional poker player start thinking of it as a job, not a hobby. If you’re not willing to dedicate 100% of your energy to becoming the best player you can, the odds of being a long term winner are almost nonexistent.
Amateur players play whenever the mood strikes them and often have their mind on something else while playing. A professional poker player plays when they have a profitable opportunity, whether or not they feel like playing.
Amateur players don’t track their progress or their opponents and don’t study the game to improve. A pro poker player constantly studies the game, their opponents, and everything else that can give them an edge.
If you haven’t read the top books on poker strategy, read the leading online resources, and don’t learn something about multiple opponents each time you play, you’re never going to be a pro.
The good news is this is an area where you can start acting like a professional player today. Starting right now, dedicate a set amount of time each day to improving your game. Read books and find some good online resources you can use and follow.
Every time you play poker, pay attention to what’s going on every second. Even when you aren’t involved in the hand, try to learn something about your opponents. Start tracking your play, including time, location, and results.
Treating poker like a job instead of a hobby is as much about your mindset as your actions. Once you decide to do it, get started immediately.
3 – Understand and Protect Their Bankroll
Amateur players rarely have a set bankroll for poker. They take money from their pocket and start playing. If they bust out they take more money from their pocket. When they run out of money, they wait until they get paid again so they can play more poker.
When an amateur has a winning poker session, they just put the money back into their pocket and spend it like the rest of their money. They also don’t consider the level they should be playing at based on their bankroll.
Professional poker players have a poker bankroll and understand what risk of ruin means. The simplified concept behind risk of ruin is this:
Even if you’re a winning poker player, short term variance will create fluctuations in your bankroll. If you risk too much of your bankroll in one game, you have a chance to go broke.
Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:
“Risk of ruin is a concept in gambling, insurance, and finance relating to the likelihood of losing all one’s investment capital or extinguishing one’s bankroll below the minimum for further play. For instance, if someone bets all their money on a simple coin toss, the risk of ruin is 50%. In a multiple-bet scenario, risk of ruin accumulates with the number of bets: each repeated play increases the risk, and persistent play ultimately yields the stochastic certainty of gambler’s ruin.”
If you have a total bankroll of $10,000 and enter two tournaments, each with a buy-in of $5,000, you have a much higher chance of going broke than if you enter 10 tournaments, each with a buy-in of $1,000.
Your risk of ruin is even lower if you enter 100 tournaments each with a buy-in of $100. When you think this through, it makes perfect sense.
But many players play in tournaments or cash games with a large percentage of their available funds.
If you want to be a professional poker player, you need to set aside a bankroll and only play in games or tournaments using a small percentage of your total.
Your playing ability and your ability to add funds to your bankroll from outside sources comes into play, but here are a few rough guidelines to help you:
Never enter a tournament or buy into a cash game with more than 5% of your bankroll. 2.5% is better, but until you grow your bankroll to a large amount, 2.5% may keep you from playing at a large enough buy-in level to grow quickly.
I sometimes play in a larger game–with up to 10% of my bankroll–and many professional players do as well. As you improve as a player, you’re probably going to do the same. This is called “taking a shot.”
But I follow a few guidelines when I take a shot at a higher buy-in.
- The game has to offer a high chance at profit. A table with many players I’m familiar with and who aren’t as good as me is an example.
- I never risk more than 20%, including buying back in if I take a bad beat. Even if the game is profitable in the long run, I won’t risk too much of my bankroll. I know short term variance can go against me no matter how good the game is.
- I only play my strongest game in these situations. My best game is pot limit Omaha, so I won’t play Texas holdem above my bankroll.
Here are some specific numbers to help you understand what 5% of your bankroll means:
For cash games, if your bankroll is $2,000, you should play in games with a $100 buy-in or lower. The same is true for tournaments; buy-ins of $100 or less with a $2,000 bankroll.
With a bankroll of $10,000, you can buy-in to cash games or tournaments for $500 or less.
Don’t be too proud to play in smaller games. Playing at a $200 buy-in game may be more profitable than a $500 game, even if you have a $10,000 bankroll.
4 – Don’t Chase Unprofitable Draws
The biggest mistake I see amateur poker players make is playing too many hands. The professional player understands if they enter the pot with a better starting hand than their opponents they win more often. So they tend to play tighter than amateurs.
The second biggest mistake I see amateurs make is chasing unprofitable draws. I see them chase straight and flush draws when they aren’t getting profitable pot odds all the time. I even see them stay in hands with second pair or two pair when it’s obvious they’re beat.
Most of them are either too scared of math to learn simple pot odds, or they’re just too lazy to use pot odds.
Pot odds are easy to learn and use, even if you aren’t great at math.
And once you learn how to compute and use them, you’ll benefit for the rest of your life.
Let me share a big secret about pot odds that most amateur players don’t know. Once you learn how to use them, you’ll be amazed at how few times you actually need to make precise calculations at the table.
Many players think you need to figure out exact pot odds and probabilities on every hand.
But the truth is that many situations come up repeatedly, so once you know the odds, you don’t have to come up with them again.
I rarely need to actually compute pot odds while playing. I do make a rough calculation of the money in the pot compared to the bet, but because I’ve used the odds for so long, I usually know if a draw is profitable or not.
I flop an inside straight draw and face a bet. This is almost never a profitable draw. Unless the bet is extremely small in comparison to the pot, and we’re playing very deep stacks, the best play is to fold. I don’t need to determine the exact odds and pot odds here. I’ve done it so often in the past.
If you don’t know and use odds and pot odds, take the time to learn about them immediately. Most people can learn enough to use them in a couple hours or less. Even if it takes you three or four hours, the long term profit for a few hours of your time is well worth it.
5 – Understand the Long Run
Professional poker players understand that poker is a lifelong contest. No single playing session is more important than another, and as long as you make profitable plays, the cards always play out to the correct percentages over time.
You will lose on draws where you’re the favorite often.
But in the long run, you’re going to win the correct percentage of the time based on the cards and odds.
At the poker table, it’s rare to get into a situation where you have a 90% chance to win.
But even if you get into this situation 100 times, you’re still going to lose 10 out of 100 times. Amateur players often go on tilt and whine when they lose in a situation like this.
But a professional player understands that it doesn’t matter; in the long run the pro knows that they win money in this situation.
This leads to advice that sounds bad. Don’t focus on winning. Learn more about this in the next section.
6 – Don’t Focus on Winning
This might sound wrong, but winning professional poker players don’t focus on winning. They focus on getting their money in the pot in profitable situations. If you put money in the pot more often with positive expectation than negative expectation, it doesn’t matter what happens in the short term.
Simple math shows that getting money in the pot with a positive expectation leads to long term profit.
You get all in with a 60% chance to win the hand. When you lose, you lose $1,000. And when you win you get back $2,000. The outcome of the single hand doesn’t matter, because if you create this situation many times you lock in a long term profit.
If you play the hand 10 times, you lose $1,000 four times and win $2,000 six times. That’s a total profit of $2,000 over the 10 hands. You put a total of $10,000 in the 10 pots. The four times you lose, you don’t get anything back.
But the six times you win you get back $12,000. $12,000 minus $10,000 is a profit of $2,000.
Focus on creating and exploiting profitable situations and forget about short term results. If you’re playing at the proper levels for your bankroll, you don’t need to worry about going broke before the long term numbers work in your favor.
7 – Find Profitable Games
While each of the sections above are important and help you become a more profitable poker player, I’ve saved the most important section for last. Finding and playing in profitable games is the most important thing you can do to increase your profit.
Professional poker players understand that when they play against opponents who aren’t as good as they are, they have a higher win rate and profit rate. This sounds like common sense, but most amateur players ignore it or are too lazy to find good games.
In any single playing session, you might win or lose. This is true even if you’re playing against players who aren’t as good as you.
But in the long run, you’re going to win more often and win more money when your opponents aren’t good poker players.
How do you find profitable games?
- Keep track of poor players when you find them in your games. Consider keeping a small notebook so you can create a list of players you want in your game.
- Look for players who play too many hands. Playing too many hands reduces a player’s profit potential because they enter hands with a weaker starting hand on average than others.
- Look for players who chase unprofitable draws. This is most common with flush draws, but can also be other types, so watch for all poor decisions.
- Watch for players who drink too much alcohol when they play. Alcohol can lead to poor decision making.
- Compare the play at different blind levels. The table just below the top buy-in level in the room might be more profitable than the highest level.
- Learn to play both limit and no limit Texas holdem well. Once you do, master your Omaha skills. This gives you more options when you’re trying to find profitable games.
- Set up a private game where you control who gets invited. Build a network of players to draw from so you can make sure you’re the best player at the table.
Most poker players decide which buy-in level and game they’re going to play before they get to the poker room. When they get to the room they grab the first seat they can and start playing without considering their competition.
You need to remain patient and find the best game available. This might cost you a small amount of playing time, but it leads to more overall profit.
Starting on the path to being a professional poker player isn’t hard. It’s not easy to be a long term winning player, but the way to get started is by simply learning the differences between pros and amateurs. Use this list of 7 things professional poker players do that amateurs don’t to start acting more like a pro.