If you want to know how to become a professional poker player, you’ve probably just got started with the game and think it will be something fun to learn. If you’ve spent a little time at the tables, you already know how fun it can be to win money. As Fast Eddie Felson once said, “Money won is twice as sweet as money earned.”
You’ll find plenty of pages about playing Texas Holdem and other games as a pro that offer lame advice like, “practice, practice.”
I hope to offer you 7 steps to becoming a professional that will take you from talented amateur to professional poker player without too much nonsense.
Here are the 7 steps I suggest you start with, in order:
1- Read The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky
You can (and should) read multiple books about poker if you want to be a pro.
But the first and most important book on poker you should read is The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky.
The Theory of Poker is so important because you need to understand the concepts and theories behind every version of the game, and Sklansky’s book is the most readable and comprehensive guide to those ideas you’ll find.
The Fundamental Theorem of Poker, for example, is one of the critical concepts that every professional player must know to win consistently. Here it is, in brief:
“Every time you play a hand differently from the way you would have played it if you could see all your opponents’ cards, they gain; and every time you play your hand the same way you would have played it if you could see all their cards, they lose. Conversely, every time opponents play their hands differently from the way they would have if they could see all your cards, you gain; and every time they play their hands the same way they would have played if they could see all your cards, you lose.”
But just reading that isn’t enough, you also need the analysis provided in this book.
Deception is another big topic, of which bluffing and semi-bluffing are only subtopics. For example, bluffing is necessary, but semi-bluffing is better. It’s also a concept I’ve never seen covered this well anywhere else.
The Theory of Poker is so good that if you’re smart and dedicated, you can read no other poker book and probably become a pro player on the strength of these ideas alone.
2- Build Your Bankroll
Trying to be a professional poker player without a sufficient bankroll is like being a soldier trying to go to war without enough bullets for their gun.
No matter how good you are, you’re not good enough to overcome the vagaries of luck in the short run. Short term variance has broken many a skilled poker player.
How much of a bankroll do you need?
That depends, in large part, to how good you are at the game.
For example, if you’re a losing player, you need an infinite bankroll to stay in the game. Also, you’ll lose consistently, which means you’ll never achieve your goal of being a professional poker player. (Pros win.)
If you’re a winning player, you should have 20X the size of your buy-in for any game you play in. If you’re new to the game and less confident, you might even double that amount.
When your bankroll gets bigger, you can play in bigger games.
But keep up with your records, because if you start losing in the higher stakes games, you might need to go back down in stakes and face weaker opponents before trying again at the higher stakes.
How you build that bankroll is up to you, but it’s important that it be money you don’t need for any other purposes. If you’re gambling with money you need for rent or a car payment, you’ll make less-than-optimal decisions.
You can’t be a professional poker player unless you’re going to make optimal decisions almost 100% of the time.
You can, of course, start with a much smaller bankroll and “take a shot.”
You just need to stay with your day job until your bankroll is big enough to play professionally.
You’ll find some great stories on the internet about Chris (Jesus) Ferguson starting with absolutely nothing and working his bankroll up to $10,000.
He started out by playing in freerolls, then gradually moved up in stakes over the course of several months. This means a lot of time spent playing penny poker.
There’s nothing wrong with that if you have the time and are patient.
Another option to get into bigger games is to sell some of your action. I have a buddy who was selling part of his World Series of Poker action at $125 for 1%.
The buy-in was $10,000, so he made his expectation more valuable just by what he was charging to get a piece of his action.
You can do the same thing. You can even find sites where poker players regularly sell pieces of their action.
3- You Need a Mission
Daniel Negreanu is one of the best poker pros I know, and he suggests that one of the first steps a pro poker player should take is to treat his poker career like a small business.
And every small business needs a mission statement or a vision statement.
Your goals are subtopics, if you will, of your mission statement.
For example, your vision statement might be to retire with $2 million in the bank at the age of 50.
You can set goals for how much you need to earn each year, each month, each week, each day, and each hour based on that overarching vision.
I had a boss who insisted that you can’t hit a target you cannot see.
I loved that.
Imagine being a marksman or an archer who had to shoot blindfolded.
Don’t intentionally blindfold yourself by not setting goals.
4- Start Tracking Your Results
Can you imagine trying to run a business without doing any kind of accounting work?
Bookkeeping might not be your favorite activity, but it’s impossible to run a business without it.
How you track your results is up to you. I’m not a professional poker player – not even close – but I keep up with my results in an Excel spreadsheet. I used to track my results in a spiral notebook.
Not only must you keep track of what you’re playing, for how long, and how much you’ve won and/or lost, you need lots of data.
You can’t assume that after 10 hours of winning poker that you’re good enough to be a professional.
After all, poker’s a game of luck, and in the short run, anything can happen.
It takes at least 1000 hours of recorded results to get a feel for your long-term expectation. The closer you get to an infinite number of hands, the closer you get to the actual mathematical expectation of your play.
I think, before going pro, you should make sure you have enough data that you can be confident that you’re a winning player.
5- Scout Some Games
You not only need to get really good at poker, set goals, track your results, and build a bankroll.
You also need to find a place where you can play and win consistently.
Maybe you can, but maybe you can’t.
The level of competition varies based on where you play.
This includes online, too. Some cardrooms have tougher competition than others.
The only way to figure this out is to be savvy enough to recognize the sharks (and the guppies) and stay away from the former while seeking out the latter.
My best place to find weak competition?
Home poker games.
And the great thing about most home games is that they don’t require you to pay a rake.
6- Start Getting Involved in the Big Poker Tournaments
As soon as you’re good enough (and can afford it), start taking some shots at the bigger poker tournaments – like the World Series of Poker. In these tournaments, you can change your life and possibly even retire after a single win.
This year, if you made the final table at the WSOP, you won $1 million.
The competition is stiff, and the field is large, so be sure you have the bankroll to tolerate this.
You’ll also find out how good you really are.
You thought I was serious when I said I wasn’t going to offer lame advice like, “Practice, practice, practice.”
But let’s face it.
You can’t seriously expect to become a professional poker player without practicing.
And not everyone has the skill to make it as a pro poker player. It requires talent, too.
Think about being a professional poker player the way you would think about becoming a pro at any other sport.
Let’s say you’re a pretty good hitter in your college intermural baseball game.
How well do you think you’ll do against even the worst professional hitter in the big league?
If you think you stand a chance, you’re delusional.
If you want to win the World Series of Poker, you’ve got to be good enough.
And there’s no way to become good enough that doesn’t involve practice and lots of it.
There’s my 7-step process for becoming a professional poker player.
If you’re already a pro and reading this, I’d enjoy hearing your feedback in the comments.
If you’re an aspiring pro, are you going to do anything different based on these suggestions?