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Poker Players Don’t Make as Much as You Think

poker player with money
Rockstars…movie stars…poker players… As a professional poker player for over twelve years, it seems strange to me that much of the world thinks that all of these groups of people fit in the same category. It’s true, though. Much of the world views poker players as rock stars who wipe their butts with $100 bills and bathe in swimming pools of gold.

If you’re a poker player that’s been playing up this persona to your friends and family, I’m sorry; I’m about to blow your cover. Poker players TYPICALLY do not make as much money or have as glamorous of lifestyles as you may think.

Now, before I go any further, I want to point out something important. I said TYPICALLY, which means that there are exceptions to everything I’m about to say. There are some poker players that make gagillions of dollars and live rock star lifestyles. However, they are not the majority, as pop culture might have you believe.

I’m not writing this post to insult poker players or to trash the lifestyle. I mean, it’s something I did as my sole source of income for over twelve years, and I loved every second of it. The reason I’m writing this is to give you a more realistic look into the profits and lifestyle, and to discuss a few reasons why you may have been misled in the past.

Winnings Versus Profit

One of the biggest reasons that there is a misconception about how much poker players make has to do with word choice. Poker players, specifically tournament players, always announce and record their success in terms of winnings and not profit. This is a big deal. If that confuses you, let me give you an example that will show you what I’m talking about.

Let me introduce you to our new make-believe friend, Pauly Pokerton. Pauly is a professional poker player who received $250,000 in winnings this year! Is Pauly rolling in the dough? If you answered yes, then you need to pay attention. $250k is Pauly’s winnings, NOT his profit.

Winnings only count how much was paid out to the player, and does not take their buy-ins into account. What you didn’t know is that Pauly played twenty $10k buy-ins to get that $250k in winnings. This means that he spent $200k to win $250k. So his actual take-home pay is only $50k.

$50k is still a decent year for a lot of people, but it’s not a quarter of a million dollars like many believe it is when they hear $250k in winnings. If you were trying to get an accurate picture of how much a tournament player makes, it would be impossible without getting more information from them. There is nothing that lists who entered a tournament, unless they cashed. You also have no idea how many times a player reentered, and let me tell you, sometimes that number is high, even in the $10k and bigger events.

A LOT of professional poker players that the general public thinks are crushing the world are actually losing players. Back in the heyday of online poker, I can say with certainty that, at one point, the online player of the year was a losing player. The player that people regarded as the best online was LOSING money.

Technically, they’re not lying, as the media likes to portray things this way. It’s much more glamorous and makes for better TV. I’ll talk later about why this also benefits the players and why they have an incentive to present their success (or lack thereof) this way.

Selective Memory

Probably the biggest reason why people have an incorrect perception of how well poker players do financially is what I have kindly named “selective memory.” Basically, poker players tend to only remember and share the wins, and are quick to forget or not share the losses. You’ll often see posts using a dollar amount to brag about a big win, but you’ll rarely see posts with dollar amounts if they’re about a big loss.

You’ll see, “Just got 4th in a tourney at XYZ casino for $42k!” But you won’t usually see, “Just played cash for 5 hours and lost $600 bucks.” You might see people share bad beat bust-out stories, but they’ll never remind you or draw attention to how much money they lost with the buy-in.

I feel like a lot of this has to do with egos and the social media-driven society we have created. People long for approval of others, and that certainly is the case when it comes to poker. They want their friends and family to think they’re the best and wildly successful. They long for the recognition and “atta boy” that comes with posting and sharing successful wins.

When they share losses or failures in the game, the response is not what they desire. If a spouse shares a lot of loss stories, their spouse might ask them to stop playing or to play less. A lot of times, this is incentive enough to only report the wins. Happy wife, happy life, right?

While some players are just selective about what they share, some flat-out lie. On way more occasions that I would like to admit, I have witnessed players flat-out lying about their results. They’ll make themselves out to sound like they are crushing the world, when in fact they are getting crushed by the game. How do they keep funding their losing habits? Well, the next section is going to cover that extensively.

The Incentives to Lie

I’ve already talked about the main reasons that I think people are inclined to misrepresent themselves regarding their poker successes. Their egos and desire for approval drive them to blow their successes out of proportion and downplay or completely dismiss their losses.

But what if I told you there was an even bigger reason for poker players to either lie or misrepresent themselves? Well, I am telling you that, and I’d like to dig into it today. Behind the scenes of all levels of poker is the world of staking. A large portion of poker players are not playing tournaments or cash games on their own dime.

They’re given money to play with by investors looking to cash in on a successful poker player. Many players without adequate bankrolls or on downswings rely on these investors to make money and be able to play in the games and tournaments that they need to.

Some of you may be starting to draw the connection here. Many times, the investors that are buying pieces of or staking poker players are not players themselves. They’re wealthy business folk looking to cash in. Because of this, their knowledge base on how to determine the successfulness of a player is limited. They’re stuck with going off of the information that is provided to them by the prospective player, and that’s usually about it, outside of maybe some references and industry reputation.

If I came to you and offered a chance to buy a piece of me, and I told you I had $250k in winnings this year, would you stake me? What if I came to you and said I had $50k in profit this year? People who aren’t aware of everything we’ve discussed today would be much more likely to back me if I represented myself only in terms of winnings.

What about if I only posted my big wins on Facebook instead of posting all of the times that I busted out of tournaments? Whether subconscious or not, you’d probably think I was doing much better than I actually was.

As you can see, there is a financial incentive to misrepresenting how well or how poorly you are doing. Making yourself look as successful as possible will help you to more easily get staking and possibly negotiate better terms and percentages on those deals.

This begs the next big question: is this ethical? If you asked a bunch of poker players, you are most likely going to get a bunch of different answers. What do I think? I think it’s fine if it’s something being printed in the media, but not fine if you’re using the data to get staking. I actually think it’s pretty scummy to misrepresent yourself in hopes of financial gains to someone who doesn’t fully understand the game.

Why NONE of This and ALL of This Matters

I’m not sure if I could have come up with a more confusing title if I tried. I promise it will all make sense in a moment. Does any of this money stuff matter at all? The answer is definitely yes and no. It should not matter to you at all how successful someone else is at the game. The only time that should cross your mind is when you are evaluating them for scouting purposes. It helps to know if you are playing against someone who is a good player or someone who is just masquerading as one.

But outside of that, why do you care how successful someone else is? It’s an unhealthy practice to be comparing yourself to other people. Don’t measure your successes by how you match up with other people. Set your own goals and aim to achieve them. I know I sound like a motivational speaker right now, but I think it’s important.

There is one instance where all this does matter, though. If you are looking to stake someone or buy a piece of their tournament action, you need to have a clear and accurate picture of how successful that player is. Sadly, outside of the winnings, there aren’t a lot of ways to validate things, but you should try and do your best.

If the person you are looking to stake does not have any idea what their profit is, you may want to take that as a red flag. Someone committed to their game will have a great idea of their level of profit.

The bottom line is this: poker players do well, but most of them don’t do as well as you think they do. Poker players have an incentive to misrepresent themselves, and the media does not help. How others are doing is not important unless you are looking to stake them.