How to Become a Professional Poker Player (And Avoid the Most Common Mistakes)

How to Become a Professional Poker Player (And Avoid the Most Common Mistakes)

TL;DR: 1. Pick your poker game and stick to it. 2. Learn it inside out. 3. Put money and time into improving continuously, and take care of your soft skills.

What’s included:
My story and what I learned on the way
Step 1: Pick Your Poker Game and Be Consistent
Step 2: Master Your Game & Know Your Odds
Step 3: Invest in Your Education
Step 4: Keep Learning
Step 5: Take Care of Your Soft Skills to Stay on Top of Your Game
Step 6: Manage Your Money Carefully
Pros and Cons of Being a Professional Poker Player
Becoming A Professional Poker Player – Is It For You?

Do not fool yourself: becoming a professional poker player in today’s competitive environment is not easy, but if you take it seriously, it can be well worth the efforts.

I had many ups and downs over the years, but playing poker professionally was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life, and I never regret choosing this path.

However, if I had to start all over again, I would do many things differently to save years of wasted time and a ton of lost money on the way.

I am sure that you can easily avoid many of the mistakes that I made and speed up your progress. So, if you have a couple of minutes to read it through, I will be happy to share how I became a professional player and what I learned on the road.

Image: ‘Paf Poker Challenge 2013: Day Two’ by Flickr/Pafgamessportcasino is licensed under CC BY 2.0

My story and what I learned on the way

I started playing poker around 2008 when I was introduced to the game by my friends. At that time, it was hard to imagine how big the poker world really was, and that it offered much more than my home games with buddies.

But even that was enough for me. I fell in love with this game and never looked back.

Of course, there is no need to say that the beginning of my career was far from optimal. I played random sessions of Multi-Table Tournaments (MTTs) and Sit-and-Go Tournaments (SNGs) online, plenty of cash games with my friends, and was not studying the game at all.

In the beginning, I loved competing with others and enjoyed the feeling of winning. With all honesty, it was not about the money.

However, very soon, I realized that I could easily make much more playing poker than in a part-time job during my study years, and this idea fascinated me a lot.

At the time, I was struggling both financially and mentally because my father has just passed away. Poker helped take my thoughts off my situation, so I started grinding through days.

The more I played, the more I liked the game. Unlike the “real” life, poker gave me control of everything. I could play when I wanted, what I wanted, for as long as I wanted – and I loved it.

When I look back, I think that I was incredibly lucky to discover this game. I am a very competitive person, and the ability to play with different players, adjust my strategy, and overcome them was very pleasing, probably even more so than money.

However, I have to confess that the beginning of my career was basically a gamble.

I had a very narrow understanding of the game and was not spending much time learning the strategy. Luckily for me, players weren’t that good back in those days, and I was making a very decent living even playing poorly.

And then I got lucky! One day changed my whole career.

In one of the live tournaments, I got to meet a professional poker player, and it changed my whole view of the game. He was talking in terms of ranges, breaking down math and other concepts I barely knew existed.

That was the moment when I realized that there is so much more to the game. After that, I started studying like never before and rapidly improved my game.

I joined a group of professional players, and we started traveling the world playing live cash games and occasional tournaments.

We visited WSOP in Las Vegas, many European Poker Tour stops, and other destinations in poker circuit. Now, I can easily say: meeting that PRO at the tournament was the best thing that ever happened to me in regards to poker.

I started getting coaching from one of the best players in my country, and my development boosted even more. We touched not only the strategy part, but also topics such as concentration, controlling emotions, and other areas of the mental game, which once again made me realize how much I didn’t know.

After a year of traveling around and playing through the night in various casinos, I decided that I didn’t want to do it anymore. Thus, I left the live games circuit and concentrated on playing online.

This is my path, but you can make much better decisions with a wide range of information available today.

If you want to play poker professionally, you can avoid a lot of my mistakes and speed this process by years. So what should you do? Let me try to answer this question by listing five steps that can drastically help you on your journey.

How To Become A Professional Poker Player

Step 1: Pick Your Poker Game and Be Consistent

At the beginning of my career, I tried playing different games simultaneously. I was launching MTTs and cash games at the same time, or even playing live cash and a table or two on my laptop.

Obviously, all of this looks ridiculous when I look back, and I believe it was one of the biggest roadblocks for improving as a player.

If you jump from one game to another, most likely, you will never become very good at either of it.

Therefore, your primary job is to decide what you want to play and stick with that decision.

That being said, it does not mean that you can’t play cash games with your friends if you chose to play MTTs. Not at all, but you have to stick with one format as your main game and put all your concentration to it.

So how do you choose the game? Well, surely not based on possible income! You should pick the game which suits your situation and one you actually enjoy.

  • If you do not want to play extremely long sessions or do not have the luxury to sit in front of your PC for hours without taking a break, MTTs are probably not for you.
  • However, if you love the changing environment, different dynamics, and have all the time for playing – tournaments are a great choice.
  • If you require the flexibility to manage your time, then you should probably choose cash games.

All of the formats have pros and cons. So do your homework, choose what works for you and most importantly, stick with it.

For example, if you decide to play tournaments and spend time to study ICM strategies, learn optimal approach on the bubble, master different stack depth play and vital adjustments for different situations, jumping to cash games would not be very wise.

Sticking to one game will help you improve much faster because you can concentrate on learning what matters the most and gather your experience at a much better pace.

If you gain an edge in one format, it is much easier to keep it than learn a different game.

This is where I struggled a lot. I was jumping from one format to another for a couple of years, and it was holding me back.

Now, I can easily say that the moment I chose my game and put all the effort to improve in that area, my results skyrocketed, and you likely should follow this path as well.

Image: ‘Dealer’ by Flickr/hareshd5000 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Step 2: Master Your Game & Know Your Odds

When you know what you’re going to play, concentrate all your efforts into mastering it.

Obviously, you should start by learning the rules if it’s is a new game, but soon after that, your next step should be conquering the math.

No matter what you play, poker is a game of math, and if you do not know your numbers it will be very hard to reach any kind of success, maybe even impossible.

How to become a professional poker player – five essentials you need to know about your chosen game:

  • Learn the odds of hitting a winning hand when you are behind.
  • Figure out how to compare it against pot odds you are getting so you can make an educated decision if you need to continue with your holdings.
  • Understand how implied odds work and the extra value they can add to your hand.
  • Learn to count combos and frequencies so you can put your opponent on a range.
  • And most importantly: learn to think in terms of ranges, not specific hands.

Assigning your opponent a specific hand instead of a range of cards is one of the biggest mistakes you can make, and one that almost everyone makes at the beginning.

When you understand frequencies and know how likely your opponent is to have one holding or another, you will be able to assign them a realistic range of cards and avoid the most common mistake.

You can easily do that if you observe all the action.

Start by analyzing the preflop situation and assign your opponent a specific range based on their position, the action they took, and bet sizing. Don’t worry if you struggle at the beginning, the more you play, the better you get at figuring out the exact holdings each of your opponents are likely to have.

After that, narrow down that range based on every action they take on following streets. If you do that correctly, at the end of the hand, you will always know where you stand.

You either have to call or raise their bet if your hand is ahead of their range, or fold if you are behind. As simple as that.

This is where I made my second mistake, which wasted a lot of time and money.

I was simply playing and sticking with my assumptions without analyzing other players, or trying to put them on a range. So please, do not repeat my mistakes.

Never underestimate the value of fundamental knowledge, since it will always be your bread and butter when making decisions  – and the most reliable source of information.

WSOP Bracelet [Image Credit: cbssports.com]

Step 3: Invest in Your Education

When you know your odds and the game inside-out, you should easily be winning in lower stakes games and can practice a lot without burning your bankroll.

However, if you’re looking for how to become a professional player, I guess you have much higher goals than that. This is great because your ambitions and goals will help you reach long-term success.

To boost this process, you have to invest in your education. I mean it literally.

Obviously, you can get a lot of resources for free, but it will never be as good and most likely without any structure.

If you stick to reading random articles, watching Twitch streams or YouTube videos, it will probably never help you reach anything meaningful. I am not saying this just because I have a training site myself, but this proven to be true for many players, including myself.

My real progress started when I invested in my first coach, and big results came soon after that. I know plenty of such examples.

All top professional athletes and high performers require coaching and constant training. So, just like with anything else in life, you should not expect to reach exceptional results without investing in yourself at the beginning, and maybe even more so in poker.

A good course can help you save a lot of trials and errors time, and even money on the way. So I would recommend gathering as much information as possible, even if that means investing in several paid programs at the beginning.

Step 4: Keep Learning

When you start playing and winning in serious games, do not make the mistake of thinking you know it all. It will never be the case.

There is no such thing as “happily ever after” in poker. It is a very challenging and dynamic game, meaning that the moment you stop improving, you will be falling back – and others will be quick to catch up.

You have to understand that if you are beating the games today, it definitely does not mean you’ll be beating same games tomorrow if you stop where you are.

Poker changes all the time. With many learning resources becoming available every day, players are getting better and better, new ones are joining the action, and they are hungry for the win.

How to become a professional poker player by keeping your skills sharp:

  • Always analyze your game.
  • Observe other players when playing.
  • Mark hands that you are uncertain of how to play and discuss them with your friends or a coach.
  • Join a training site or get a coach if you want to take it seriously.
  • On top of that, work with poker solvers to learn game theory optimal (GTO) strategies.
  • Use trackers to high tune your play and identify population tendencies.
  • Figure out the most profitable adjustments versus different players.

This list goes on and on. Basically, just try to become the best version of yourself every single day, and you will become excellent.

Step 5: Take Care of Your Soft Skills to Stay on Top of Your Game

Many players lose a lot of money due to tilting, emotional decisions, or simply lack of concentration during the games. I like to call these “soft skills”.

You’re only human, so while it’s not possible to completely stop these issues from affecting your games, you have to make sure you do everything you can to reduce them.

If you end up spewing one buy-in every session because of sub-optimal play, the results at the end of the month will not be something you want to see.

Most of the time, this part could be a deciding factor between crushing the games and barely surviving.

Most players think that it is enough to prevent tilting or avoid playing when they’re feeling bad. While this is important, it is just a very small part of the whole picture.

To perform at your best, you need to have a lot of energy and concentration. Be sure to:

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Eat a healthy and well-balanced diet.
  • Prepare for your poker sessions.
  • Remove distractions when playing.
  • Observe all available information.
  • Know when it’s time to quit playing.
  • Stop chasing loses.

On top of that, never rush to make a decision.

Take your time and evaluate all available information, put your opponent on the range, and think through all the hand before making your final decision.

Remember that every time you make a sub-optimal play for any reason, you are simply leaving money at the table. And to be honest, I was struggling with this part long after I started playing poker.

The thing that helped me the most was realizing that I need to build structure into my life and grow habits that would help me along the way.

If you have to fight with yourself every time you need to study or play, your efforts will not last very long. So, do yourself a favor and think about how you can introduce some systems that will prevent you from playing when you shouldn’t, and help you perform at your best when you play.

Playing poker professionally is a long-term journey.

If you are better than your opponents, you will win in the end. Mastering the soft side of the game will help you do exactly that – become a better player than most of your opponents.

Step 6: Manage Your Money Carefully

It’s quite a self-explanatory topic, and everyone knows how vital it is to manage finances well. Yet MANY poker players fall short because of a lack of discipline in this area.

There are a few things I highly recommend for anyone looking play poker professionally:

  • Separate your poker bankroll from everyday cash.
  • Have enough buy-ins to outlive variance (based on the game that you play).
  • Do not withdraw money too often.
  • Have savings to cover living expenses for at least six months.
  • Be ready to move down the stakes if needed.

I know many good players who busted all their money just because they weren’t able to follow these simple tips – do not become one of them.

Also, never think that you can outsmart the variance or that it will not hit you. Based on your win rate, the variance can be huge, probably bigger than you ever imagined.

Image Credit: primedope.com

This graph is based on calculations of possible variance over 100,000 cash game hands where you have 2.5bb/100 win rate. Each of these lines represents a possible outcome, with different probabilities of happening.

You can see that after 100,000 hands you can be down a couple of hundred or thousands of big blinds, even if you should be winning. At the worst-case scenario, you can be down as many as 80 buy-ins.

The same can be said about tournaments, SNGs and other formats. If you’re a winning player, it doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed to win over a short period, so it’s better to be ready than sorry.

This is why it is vital to have funds to cover your living expenses and big bankroll to outlive the swings. Do not cut corners in this area.

Pros and Cons of Being a Professional Poker Player

We already covered how to become a professional poker player and avoid many mistakes on the road, but before making your final decision, you should understand what life in this line of work is really like.

Depending on your experience, you may think that winning in poker isn’t that hard. But to reach a high level of success, you need to devote a lot of time to playing and studying the game. As the saying goes:

“Poker is a hard way to make an easy living.”

I couldn’t agree with it more. From a distance, the life of a poker player may look like a dream, but no one sees how much effort goes into reaching that level.

Playing poker professionally is completely different from playing poker for fun, and you need to understand those differences.

The game is not about huge scores that you see on TV or in the movies, but much more about showing up every day and putting the grind on the tables.

Let me list what I consider to be the pros and cons of being a professional poker player:

PROS

  • Freedom.
    You can do what you love for a living, without anyone bossing you around. On top of that, you can be flexible with your schedule and build it around your life to fully enjoy it.
  • Competition.
    The game is very challenging and hugely exciting. You’ll be able to compete with other players and constantly improve, which is a good recipe for an interesting career.
  • Traveling.
    If you reach higher levels, you will have the opportunity to travel the world and enjoy all of the experiences without spending any of your money. How cool is that?
  • Money.
    Last but not least! Poker can give you the resources to live a wonderful life and offer almost unlimited earning potential. Moreover, you get to keep all the rewards to yourself, which is very unlikely to happen in other areas.

CONS

  • Mentally draining.
    Even though this game is really fun, it can quickly become emotionally taxing if you are not fully prepared in all parts of your game. Variance can be brutal, and it will likely hit you very hard at some point in your career.
  • Exhausting.
    It’s not as easy to consistently put long hours into playing and studying as it it may seem. Most likely, you will need to put in much more work than you think to succeed. On top of that, when you find yourself a longer downswing with breakeven stretch or even loosing for a couple of months, it can become very tiring. You need a lot of discipline to stay at the tables.
  • Social stigma.
    Poker can be seen as pure gambling by anyone outside the game, which is why it may not be accepted well by your friends and family. I had this problem at the beginning of my career, and it took years for my family to realize that it was a serious job – just like anything else.

So before making any decisions, be sure to weigh up all the pros and cons and see if it suits who you are, or who you want to become.

Becoming A Professional Poker Player – Is It For You?

Now you can decide for yourself if this is something you want to do for a living. Poker is not for everyone, and there is no shame to admit it. But if you choose to go down this path and commit yourself to the game, it can be very rewarding.

Obviously, you need to be very honest with yourself and understand why you want to pursue it.

Do you want to play just because you are tired of what you’re doing, or because you have a genuine passion for the game and want to become the best?

These are two completely different answers.

If your only goal is to make money, you will have a very hard time finding motivation when things don’t go your way.

I believe that it is close to impossible to reach long-term success in poker if you do not have the passion and commitment for the game. Either take it very seriously or look for other options.

But as long as you have the passion, are willing to put hard work and understand realistic expectations for the game, you will be fine!

If you love poker – just go for it, and you will learn everything else along the way.

About The Author:
Tadas Peckaitis is a professional poker player, published author and poker coach. He writes for a range of online publications and helps other poker players to excel. He can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.