How many people actually make a living -- even a modest one -- playing poker?
What percentage of "serious" players show a profit -- even a minuscule one -- for their careers?
You'd think a guy (that would be moi) would ask himself those two questions before he embarked on a year-long odyssey as a "high-stakes poker pro." Well, what can I say ... sometimes, people are irrational.
But, as it turns out, it wouldn't have mattered if I had asked myself those questions, because there is no reliable research on either subject -- at least, nothing since the poker explosion of a few years ago, the one started by the Card Cam (the TV camera which allows audiences to see the players' hold cards during the hand), fueled by ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker and the Travel Channel's broadcasts of the World Poker Tour, and topped off by the $2.5 million lamb-defeats-wolf victory of online amateur Chris Moneymaker over cunning pro Sam Farha in the 2003 WSOP.
The only somewhat scholarly attempt to answer the second question that I've heard about is a piece by Nolan Dalla that appeared in Card Player magazine back in 1995, long before poker's big breakout. Dalla, a long-time writer/thinker about poker issues -- he's something of a specialist on questions of poker ethics -- teamed up with Jeff Goldberg, a math professor from Arizona State.
"We calculated that about 15,000-to-20,000 players were winners in any given year, U.S. cardroom figures only," Dalla tells me. "This amounted to about 10-to-12 percent of the U.S. poker base, estimated roughly at 200,000, which we defined as the number of players who play in a public cardroom two-plus times in a calendar year."
However, as Dalla points out, "these figures are grossly outdated" because this came before the expansion of gambling, the explosion of interest in poker, and, perhaps most importantly, the advent of online poker.
I also asked Dalla how many people he thinks make a "decent living" from poker, which I define as $50,000-to-$100,000 per year, after deducting poker-playing expenses like the cost of traveling to and from casinos, food and lodging, dealers' tips, etc.
"Well, 'decent living' means something beyond those parameters," Dalla says. "I suggest you define a 'professional,' as opposed to a semi-professional or part-timer, as anyone who makes a subsistence income or more, as long as those winnings go for living expenses. For instance, there are quite a few semi-retired players who grind out $20,000-to-$30,000 a year playing in small limit games. Also, you can't include a person with a full-time job who gets lucky and wins $200,000 in a tournament somewhere, which might account for four times his regular salary. By my definition, I would estimate the number of semi-professionals in the U.S. to be in the 30,000 range, if you define a semi-professional as a part-timer who makes some money playing poker. The number of full-time professionals, I would estimate, is a small fraction of that -- about 3,000 or so. I think 60 percent of those are online players."
Greg Raymer, the winner of last year's WSOP (and a life-changing $5 million which allowed him to quit his job as a patent attorney), pretty much agrees with Dalla's educated guesses, though his evidence is mostly anecdotal and personal.
"I've often heard people say that about 10 percent of poker players in any room are long-term winners," he says. "But many of those are not winning enough to support themselves. For example, I've never had a losing year; but until last year's WSOP, I also never had a year where I won anywhere near as much as my job paid, and there were only a couple of years where I won enough to call it 'a decent living'."
As usual, Matt Matros, my fellow contrarian thinker and mentor/teacher (which means, like it or not, that he has to take some responsibility for my miserable performance of recent months), questions my questions themselves.
"If the question is, 'What percentage of people who play poker in casinos and/or online are winners?', then the answer is probably somewhere around 5 percent, or even lower," he says. "A lot of people will try poker once in a casino without knowing how to play, and the vast majority will go home broke. The same is true -- though to a lesser degree -- online.
"But if the question is, 'What percentage of people who take the game seriously are winners?', then that's tougher. Of course, we'd have to define what it means to take the game seriously. You could say, 'anybody who has read one poker book,' but that would exclude guys like Paul Darden, who has never read a poker book. So, leaving it as a subjective definition, I would guess 25-to-30 percent of people who take the game seriously are winners.
"This brings us to the question, 'How many players actually win enough every year to earn at least $50,000 per?' I would say, very few. There are a bunch of pros playing the Vegas $30-60 games and higher, and most of them probably qualify. Ditto for the scene in L.A. Then there are the online pros -- like me, sort of. Most of them are young guys who started playing online really young and became good enough so they didn't start looking for real jobs. I would guess that, all in all, there were probably 600 people who play poker for a living and who made $50,000 or more last year.
"But this is a highly unscientific guess. As you suggested, there really is no reliable 'information' on this, because this stuff obviously isn't documented anywhere."
Well, this raises another question: Why not? How is it that, in an activity where every possible result is calibrated to an infinite number of decimal places, nobody can answer basic questions about how many poker players are "successful" on any level?
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Poker players lie.
(Though we insiders like to think of it as "bluffing.")
As Ashley Adams, author of "Winning 7-Card Stud" (Lyle Stuart/Kensington), points out, it comes with the territory. "It's like driving," he says. "The AAA surveyed drivers, asking people to rate their own driving skills. Something like 90 percent said they were above average! Poker players are the same way. Most keep shoddy records, if any, and greatly overestimate how they have done. So even if someone took the time to do a thorough survey, the participants are apt to misrepresent their results."
And this, says Adams, is a good thing. "If bad players knew how much they lost each year to their favorite hobby, they'd probably stop playing."
There are many reasons, beyond self-delusion, why poker players lie.
1.) To hide income from the IRS.
2.) To hide income/extravagant losses from their spouses/significant others.
3.) Table image. Losers don't scare anybody; big winners scare away the fish.
4.) Self-image. Some people can't play with confidence unless they feel like winners; others can't play their best unless driven by horrific visions of failure.
5.) Habit (see "joke" about bluffing, above).
Similarly, there are many reasons why few casino and online players can win, long-term, and why even fewer can make a "decent living" at the game.
1.) Lack of technical knowledge. Most players don't bother to learn how to play correctly in the first place. (To be fair, the real motivations for most players have little to do with making money. Most players are looking for one or more of the following: some fun, a distracting hobby, excitement, proof that God loves them.)
2.) Lack of self-knowledge. If you are unable to figure out, and accept, how good/not good you are, you will be unable to find the proper level of game in which to play (that is, a game you can regularly beat).
3.) Lack of discipline. Most players, even those who actually possess an "A" game, cannot maintain their "A" game when they are ...
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... on tilt.
4.) Major "leaks." To put it mildly, poker tends to attract people with addictive personalities. (Jackpot Jay reluctantly pleads guilty.) It is not uncommon, even at the Hall-of-Fame level, to find poker players who fritter away their bankrolls by indulging their addictive selves in loser gambling activities (sports betting, betting on horse racing, craps), alcoholic excess, cocaine, you name it. Most people are familiar with the story of how Stu Ungar, possibly the greatest poker player who ever lived, lost everything -- including his life -- to cocaine addiction. Even casual hangers-on can offer up a litany of many of the top players who are constantly in bankroll freefall thanks to their inability to resist the lure of bad bets, excessive drinking, unwise pharmaceutical indulgences, etc.
However, the main reason so few players will ever show a long-term profit -- minimal or enough to live on -- is ...
5.) The "rake" casinos and online sites charge, which is the money they take out of each pot (or the hourly seat fee some charge for no-limit games) that allows them to stay in business most profitably.
Consider the following typical example, and the inevitability that follows:
Generally speaking, most casinos and online sites will take $4 out of any reasonably-sized pot. If you play, say, 60 hands per hour in a 10-handed $10-20 game online, the site will wind up taking about $240 out of the game. So, in theory, if you play with the same 10 players for 40 hours over a week, and all the players are fairly evenly matched in ability, and all have a similar amount of luck -- good and bad -- during that time, the casino/site will have taken about $10,000 out of the game by the end of the week. This means that if each player starts with a $1,000 bankroll -- which is a reasonable amount to take part in a $10-20 game -- by the end of the week, everybody would be completely broke. (And if you play in two or more games simultaneously -- especially of they are six-handed games or, worse, high-speed games -- it might not take anywhere near a week.)
In other words, even if you are an average player in a game -- let alone a bad one -- you must lose money over a long period of time. The only way you can win any money at all is if you consistently play with people who are not as good as you are. And that is hard to do, because even if you can find such a game, and even if you are able to correctly evaluate your own talent level, and even if you are able to consistently play your patient "A" game without getting bored or going on tilt over a bad run, or getting too tired, or drinking too much, or not getting enough sleep, or just plain freaking out, the likelihood is that the players you are so much better than eventually will quit the game or go broke or both.
|Confused by some of the terms Jay uses in his poker columns? Get their definitions right here.|
This explains why so few people can hope to support themselves playing poker -- let's say, somewhere between Nolan Dalla's guess of 3,000 and Matros' estimate of 600, which isn't many when you consider that approximately 50 million people in the U.S. alone play the game (that's the New York Times' best guess).
Bottom line: Maybe it's time to cut ol' Jackpot Jay a little slack. I am, after all, on the plus side to the tune of almost $15,000, and I'm more than halfway through my year-long poker odyssey.
Second-thought bottom line: On the other hand, those who expect ol' JJ to earn a "decent living" playing poker -- including Mr. and Mrs. Jackpot Jay -- may be in for a bit of a disappointment.
NOTE TO THE READERS
If anyone knows of research pertinent to the chances of earning a living playing poker -- or even showing a small profit -- please let me know. I'd also like to hear from readers who want to make informed guesses on the correct percentages of real pros and in-the-black players (please include the whys and wherefores of your beliefs), and anybody who wants to describe the story of their own struggles in interesting and succinct ways.
NEXT WEEK'S COLUMN
A review of the poker soap opera "Tilt," which debuts Thursday night at 9 p.m. ET, on ESPN.
HEY, IRS: HOW JAY IS DOING IN HIS NEW CAREER
Last week: DNP
Career-to-date: plus $14,439
Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins.