What's It Like To Earn a Living Through Poker?

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Feb. 15 2014 7:06 AM

What's It Like to Earn a Living Through Poker?

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The final table at the 2009 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Michael Shinzaki, former professional poker player:

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I have played poker on the professional level for the better part of the past seven years. I have pursued other endeavors (an undergraduate degree, writing a book and various columns, pursuing an acting career, consulting a few online startups, traveling to 45 countries, among other things), but poker was basically my main source of income in terms of net hours as well as absolute dollar terms. For better or for worse, when someone asked what I "did for a living," the genuine answer was "play poker."

In that time, I rode through extravagant highs and abysmal lows, financially and emotionally. Some parts of the ride were pretty inadvisable for a young twentysomething. I was thrust headfirst through a unique range of stupidly fun times and odd situations and expanded my palate of life experiences in short order during my crucial early adult years. And it was all thanks to poker.

When the cards start flying and money starts changing hands, anything seems possible. I have seen nearly every human emotion played out in its purest natural form over a game of cards. I myself have felt like I was on cloud nine and rock bottom at various points. I have seen people so euphoric they have cried tears of joy at the poker table. I have seen people go from the verge of homelessness to paying six figures in taxes per annum. I have seen people crash and burn, crumble in defeat, go into debt, and look back on the whole thing as an ephemeral dream. Playing poker for a living is a roller coaster in every metaphorical way. It has provided me with raw elation and sheer depression. There is a sincere form of human nature that is brought out in every person when they engage in a game of poker. A part of you is bared for all to see. It brings out the very best and absolute worst in everybody. It's just crazy.

As a profession, poker is odd. You are inherently trying to augur an income out of an old Western leisurely pastime. Poker was not invented as an occupation. At times, it felt like I was trying to bend the laws of physics. Sometimes, I felt like a visionary, and sometimes I felt delusional. Poker income has that "turning water to wine" feel to it. There is no set wage, so playing for a living does have logistical concerns, too. You cannot just interview for a position and start on a Monday; there is an exorbitant amount of groundwork required to even try playing poker for a living and have any glimmer of hope of coming out ahead. A beginning poker player is terrible for a long, long time (sometimes, forever) before seeing any progress. The difficulty level of poker oscillates too, and not always as a function of time. It can run the gamut from "seemingly impossible" to "Midas Touch." You can make a year's worth of rent in a few hours (I've done this many times), or you can go months of full-time play and break even, or even lose (I've done this many times as well).

When I began, I never expected to make a livelihood out of poker. Who would? It is meant for socializing. It's a game. For me, I was 18 and in college, and it represented a boggling and captivating challenge. Poker had intriguing tactics that I was largely unacquainted with, and I wanted to unveil it all. I enjoyed the competitive nature and the creativity required to play, just like Scrabble or chess or a reasonably fun video game but with layers upon layers of further elements. I liked the rush of triumph. I loved the mind games. I even loved the torture of not knowing what to do in a certain spot and fruitlessly contemplating the strategy for hours and hours. It gave me the same rush akin to competing in athletics but without having to sign up for a league or do any cardio. Back then, that's all it was, just simply a game.

Eventually, after losing small sums here and there, cutting my teeth at the lowest limits available online, I eventually started making a concerted effort to learn from my mistakes. This primarily involved going to Borders and reading poker strategy books, watching poker on ESPN, looking at hands I played, and really trying to figure out how, why, and where I was messing up. One must keep up with the curve if they wish to succeed at poker long-term. You may think you are ingenious and crafty, but for every you, there are a thousand other guys out there crunching numbers on software and discussing strategy 10 hours a day. Unlike a game such as checkers, trends and tactics fluctuate fast. One must constantly adapt. You can't just get it down pat one day and profit off your knowledge ad infinitum. Best believe that when money is at stake, your opponents will be evolving rapidly. Opponents from all over the world who hail from a variety of backgrounds.

After several $100 deposits into online poker with my (then dad's) debit card, and many sleepless nights just enthralled with the inner gears of the game, playing for hours on end, I found myself ... suddenly doing well!

It felt like when you string together a few sessions at the driving range and your golf swing starts shaping back up. You start hitting the sweet spot more often. Your shots have the loft they are supposed to; they draw or fade in the wind as intended and fall gracefully back down to Earth and it just feels great. Something similar can and does happen when you start with poker. You start forming plans during hands, against certain opponents, and they start panning out more often. You start noticing what worked or didn't work the last times. You start identifying certain situations coming up again and again and they don't surprise you as much. You start noticing differences between your approach and your opponents. It's like most things in this life: if you want to get better—really, really, genuinely want to—and you work towards it, then, to a certain degree, you probably will. Of course, this was after countless days failing miserably on the virtual felt, with no clue what I was doing wrong or how I should be playing differently. It takes time.

So eventually, I started winning. With the boost in confidence, and a curiosity in how far I could progress, I dedicated more hours and energy to improving and moving up in stakes. When I was 19, I approached a six-figure annual salary playing more than part-time hours but less than full-time hours per week. I was juggling university life with what was transforming into a full-fledged career. When I graduated from UCLA, I had to decide between taking an entry-level job at a severe pay cut or continue forth with the poker venture. I decided that the opportunity was too unique and invigorating to pass up and that I wanted to ride it out as long as I felt competitive and enjoyed the game. It was really fascinating, and a $40,000 per year job in a cubicle didn't seem appealing when I was making multiple hundred dollars per hour playing online poker in my pajamas from my apartment in between episodes of Entourage and happy hour with pals. It wasn't the most fulfilling work, I wasn't providing medical aid to the Third World, but how can you expect a 21-year-old to forgo a no-strings-attached six-figure salary?

For the most part, I focused on cash games, as they are a more consistent influx of winnings than are tournaments, which are volatile in results and laden with variance. What online cash game poker entailed was me playing on a large, secondary monitor to my laptop with multiple poker table windows cascaded and tiled on the screen. I got scarily adept at clicking a mouse accurately and quickly. Sometimes I would play something like two to four tables, which is obviously more than you can play at once in Vegas. But most of the time I would play somewhere between 12 to 16 tables at once. Each table may harbor between 1 to 5 percent of my total bankroll. This kept my "risk of ruin" to a minimum. The most I ever played was 28 tables simultaneously. If it sounds hectic, it's because it was. There isn't much time to mull over decisions. But it's purely a business tactic for me: The marginal loss of thinking time on each decision was less than the marginal gain in volume, and thus profit, of getting more hands in per hour. This is especially true once you get comfortable enough with the game that maybe 90 percent of all decisions would file under the classification of "standard." A guy at the casino can see maybe 30-40 hands per hour in the flesh if they are lucky. At my peak I was easily seeing 2,000-plus hands per hour. So even if I am making less-optimal decisions here and there, so long as I am not sinking to negative expected value, I am largely increasing my profits over a constant time frame. It was legitimately exhausting on the brain.

I focused on cash games for many years, playing when I felt like it and not playing when I didn't feel like it. This was one of the more profound benefits of playing poker professionally: no set hours. Some days I would wake up and want to play all day, and so I did. Other times I would go a week without wanting to even get dealt one hand. And so I didn't. It is hard to schedule your work like this in a traditional American corporate career. Similarly, I could play for a few hours, go to the gym, grab a bite with friends, then play again later in the day. I used to go visit my friends on their work lunch break all the time. Also, when on a downswing, I could take a few days off and purposely not think about poker at all, so that I could come back refreshed and ideally play better upon my return.

And of course, I could then craft my personal schedule however I deemed necessary. Aside from the competitive salary, this two-tailed flexibility was worth a lot to me, as it would be to anyone. It's hard to appraise a dollar value to time, but it goes without saying that it's very crucial. They say that between time, energy, and money, you can select any two in life. With poker, I felt like I had an abundance of all three at all times. I felt devoid of life's many constraints. I could see my family at will. I could pick up friends at the airport. I could stay out until 2 a.m. partying any day of the week. I never had to decline friends' invites or plans. I could lay at the beach on any given afternoon. When I called my dentist or hair stylist and they asked me when I could come in, I could tell them that any good time for them was fine for me. Small things like these make you happy.

I personally began using this flexibility to start traveling, something I had largely neglected in my younger years. It was a no-brainer since I could play online poker from anywhere in the world with Internet. It felt weird being able to be so mobile. I started following live poker tournament stops throughout the world, places such as Auckland, N.Z.; Melbourne, Australia; Las Vegas of course; Vancouver, Canada; Los Angeles; and many other cities. I played in Macau while hopping around Asia. I played in random major cities in Europe. I went to South America for no reason. My passport went from empty to full in a 33-month span.

As my income rose, so too did my expenditures across the board. I updated my wardrobe. I bought a car new and paid it off. I treated my friends well and ate at nice places. I spent time with my mom and dad while my friends were at work. Sometimes, poker winnings didn't always feel "earned" (even though I was cognizant of the work I had put in to become a world-class player and knew the earnings to be in fact earned) so spending was easier. It really didn't feel like parting ways with hard-earned money at times. This happens to many poker players even without much external influence. A Wall Street banker may shed frugality through peer pressure, but even a poker player with no social circle will probably still spend much more over time. This is a trap many poker players fall into and can be a very vicious cycle. I tried my best to balance it all out and both treat myself but also try to stay grounded, and think I did a pretty fine job. There were times where I definitely splurged way too much, occasions which I may not have had if I had felt like I was actually working "harder," but I generally kept my buyer's remorse to a minimum and this is something I am proud of. I don't have many regrets in general. I have seen many players go broke because they can't manage their finances. It's sad but it happens.

Most poker players are quick to accentuate or focus on their wins but rarely talk about their losses. So I may as well discuss losses for a moment. Even when I was at the peak of my career, playing my absolute best, putting the most time in, playing the highest stakes, I still had many horrendous downswings. I had countless break-even months. I had what felt like a million losing days. Sometimes the graph of your bankroll just looks like a stock market crash, and it's not always entirely your fault. It's hard to accept at times. I once lost $8,000 in 15 minutes in my third year of college and punched a door in anger, which was uncharacteristic of me. I would win $40,000 in a week and then drop much of it the next week. Swings happened. The concept of a "paycheck" is roughly the opposite of poker income. And at 21 years old, I felt that all this was somehow routine.

My worst session ever was six hours, and I dropped about $25,000 dollars to one guy. (I think I was still lifetime up versus him, though.) I didn't even feel like I played poorly. Sometimes, variance rears its ugly head. Sometimes, you play badly but don't realize it. Either way, times like those are pretty crushing. I remember my first thought was that I could have bought a car off the lot and given it to a homeless guy. I remember it to this day. I went to grab sushi with a friend that night and she lamented that the bill at $40 was absurdly high. I abstained from describing to her the poker doom session I had endured earlier that afternoon. Losing sucks, but it is an inevitable part of the game. Nobody can just win every time. And nobody wants to hear about it when things go south. People like to hear the glory stories and revel in the good times, but few are there to cheer you up when the woeful stories come out. Part of the social contract of doing this type of thing for a living was understanding these tenets and trying to just stay level-headed. It's what we sign up for. Sometimes, you have to just trick yourself into saying that money isn't a real thing. This rubs off on every action you make during daily life though.

Times like those can be very testing. Most people can only relate to what it feels like to lose $10 on a hand of blackjack or playing a scratch lotto ticket for $1. But it's not just the money factor, although it is a big one. It's just simply the constant scrutiny and constant setbacks. Most people's jobs don't involve continuous failure, where you just get kicked to the curb over and over. Most professions don't have inflection points where one minor mistake can erase hours and days of acute focus. But if you are to accept the long-run nature of poker statistics, you are going to lose quite often if you play a lot. There is no other feeling than to lose an exorbitant sum here and there or suffer prolonged downswings. Most people simply can't handle it. I can't say I am a Zen master of my emotions or anything, but I was certainly better than most and that's a large part of why I had prolonged success. It's not that I possess far superior card-playing acumen to even the elite players. Losing is crappy. Losing money is crappier. But in many ways, this is the temporary price you pay for a good return on investment in the long run. I can't complain on the macro level, for anything in my poker career. Sometimes though, you occasionally envy the people who can just clock in and clock out of work and take on little responsibility and suffer little duress and receive the same paycheck each week.

Of course, this may be true, but it is absolutely the wrong way to approach the game of poker mentally. And so people who cannot harness their emotions usually end up having a tough time coping with the downs in poker and ultimately do fail. Poker as a profession is not for people who need constant reassurance or encouragement. Actually, it's almost really not for anybody. You really have to be brutally honest with your performance. You have to be very hard on yourself, and you have to grow calloused to the cutthroat nature you voluntarily step into. Some people estimate that 80 percent lose in the long run in poker, but I think a more accurate statistical guess is that only 5 percent win at poker in the long run. Some have postulated that out of those, only 5 percent of them can live off their winnings. Moral of the story is that very few people have the capacity to beat poker over a large sample size and make a living. It takes a great deal of mental determination, not to mention a very distinct quirky type of personality, to persist through the trials and tribulations and taxing nature of poker.

At its best though, poker as a profession is unbeatable. There is no better profession in terms of the capacity to bolster your quality of living with the least sacrifice or downside. Literally unbeatable, aside from inheriting a fortune or something, and even then there is the argument that poker is better because you are feeling competitive and can focus on a goal. Poker has the upsides of any dream job, and the downsides are often superficial mental ones. If you subscribe to the school of thought that we aren't even meant to "work" in a fundamental human sense, then it makes all the more sense.

Yes, many poker players are jaded and unhappy individuals, but many, too, are not. Many poker pros have essentially sought the industry as refuge from the harrowing, unforgiving, and somewhat disgusting work culture in corporate America, and abroad too, and are more or less demanding to take control of their life and live by their own terms. However, I don't have the same level of experience in the latter to quite know for myself; all I have are second-hand testimonials. Using your life situation (of which income and time are variables but not the entire equation) is a skill entirely separate from card-playing, and people's wellness acumens vary tremendously, too. You can make a lot of money playing poker but have the time and capability to do unique things with your life. You have to realize that most people in this world are condemned to pretty mundane lives. Countless millions of people will have to work retail, customer service, things like that for meager salaries for their entire lives with two weeks off a year, and even those individuals are luckier than an infinite amount of others. Poker is not a cake walk, and it's not a dream life devoid of all concern, but it can catalyze at a reasonable frequency a life that most people can only dream of (me included when I began).

You can be wherever you want for the most part. You can make time for your friends and family. You can sleep in. You can shape your schedule around your hobbies and outside interests. You can travel and take vacations basically whenever. These things are huge in the grand scheme of life and happiness and are things that most people in the workforce can only wonder about as some lofty, conjured, unattainable pipe dream. At its best, poker as a career didn't always feel like real life. It felt unfair, like some universal loophole that nobody else was seeing. I had my first six-figure year at 19, my first six-figure day at 21. Some people never make half that in a year. And what did I do to deserve it? Just some study here and there in a pedestrian game of cards. My previous job before poker was at Baskin Robbins, where I made $6.75 an hour. Suddenly, I found myself jetting all over the world for events, meeting interesting people, staying at nice hotels, eating at cool restaurants, buying whatever I felt like, and more importantly being able to pursue my hobbies and interests on the side, such as blogging, acting school, various sports, staying in great touch with all my best friends, and genuinely making family my top priority and actually being able to act on it.

I am not the poster child of poker. I didn't push myself to the nosebleed stakes and gain acclaim and sponsorships and the like. I didn't make multiple millions. But I am also not one of the forlorn tales of people who fizzled out or got hurt along the way, and they certainly exist. Many people have tried playing poker for a living with negative impacts on relationships, educational goals, and bank accounts. I am just a kid from a good family in a good neighborhood who found something unorthodox somewhere along the line that really, really intrigued me, and it took me for a crazy ride that I never could have foreseen. I can say that I am relatively bright and strong-willed, but I am not special in any spectacular way. But what I can say is that the entire lifespan of my poker career was thrilling, which already puts it ahead of 99 percent of other job opportunities. It let me travel. It let me wake up in the mornings feeling carefree. No boss. No commute. What more could I really ask for?

The largest downside to poker that I can vouch for is a lack of fulfillment when it comes to feeling constructive and productive. Some people gain fulfillment from the inherent challenge of playing the game, others not so much. Anybody who can battle the competitive arena of poker and come out ahead has to have some inherent creativity, creative energy, or just mental wherewithal in general. You can argue that there has to be some thing or some way in this world for that to be channeled for something bigger and greater than being good at a game. This last caveat is precisely the reason that my poker career is now over and I am looking on to the next chapter of life. But, when it lasted, and at its highs, poker taught me a vast array of life skills and mental strengths, things I will keep with me forever. It forced me to grow up at a young age and be involved with stressful, marginal decisions involving a lot of money against opponents who would leave me for dead if it was up to them. I am more attuned to social cues and ebbs and flows due to poker. I am more analytical and methodical when making decisions due to poker.

Poker as a job was stressful, but it prepared me to move forth, and while it lasted, it allowed me to fashion an extravagant and unique start to my adult life. Most importantly, it allowed me to have unbelievable amount of fun. It has strengthened my relationships with my loved ones and granted me boundless optimism toward life in general. Even if I never played a hand ever again, the game of poker will continue to positively influence my life well into the future.

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