The 5 Well-Kept Secrets of Profitable, Professional Poker Players

Do you want to know how many poker players:

  • Consistently make a full-time living ($30,000 and above)?
  • Manage to win enough hands (and games) to support themselves?
  • Stay in the game without burnout or giving up early?

Experts estimate the number is anywhere between 300 and 6,000 people in the United States (out of 50 million players)

There isn’t any reliable research on this topic at the moment. There are multiple variables to account for, and nobody has extensively studied the subject. Combined with the fact that poker players often lie about their true earnings, and you have a long-standing question that’s very difficult to answer.

However, we believe the experts aren’t too far off from the true answer.

A high-risk high-reward game like poker naturally leads to dis-proportionate outcomes. The overwhelmingly majority of players fail, while a select handful will come out on top.

At SA Poker, we have seen the rise and fall of hundreds – if not thousands – of poker players who aspire to make a professional living from the game.

What is it that allows a few individuals to learn the game and stay in the game for many years? Why do some players “stay” successful while others seen to magically fall out of success?

We’ve broken the answer down into 5 secrets that are common within the 1-5% of professional poker players who are consistently profitable.

SECRET #1: They have a reliable working definition of what “success” means to them

If you talk to professional poker players from different backgrounds, you will find that they have their own unique definition of what being successful means to them.

With that said, there is one element that is ALWAYS in each and every definition:

Lifetime NET earnings are the most important element of long-term success in poker

Anyone who has paid their dues in the trenches knows that making a lot of money is not the same thing as keeping a lot of money. Don’t be fooled by the guy you saw on TV who won a whopping six-figure prize reward!

There are many variables to account for: Taxes, tournament buy-ins, number of hands played, win rates and lose rates, travelling expenses, and more.

So if you’re on a hot winning streak, but crunch the numbers and realize that you don’t have a whole lot of money left over…

…it is worth your while to re-examine your overall poker strategy and see where you can make improvements.

Based on our experience with operating a highly-visited San Antonio card room for years, we’ve noticed that return on investment (ROI) is another reliable way to measure success.

While people may disagree on how to calculate ROI, an easy way to view it would be the ratio of tournament buy-ins to net profit.

If you put in 2 dollars into tournament buy-ins and you made a dollar in net profit, your ROI would be 50%.

Think that’s an easy ROI to maintain? Not so fast!

Take a look at Bryan Devonshire, a 13-year veteran of Texas Hold’em Poker with $2.5 million in lifetime earnings. He is one of the BEST players out there, and yet his expected annual ROI is just 25%.

Do the math, and you’ll see that being profitable in poker is notoriously difficult:

“So lets say you’re almost as good as Chris Moorman, and that your expected annual ROI is 25%…If you want to make $10,000 (in the long run), you need to play $40,000 worth of tournaments. Of course, $10,000 isn’t really enough to live on. Maybe you’d be more comfortable with $60,000…

To make $60K with a 25% ROI, you need to play tournaments with a combined buy-in of $240,000. Nearly a quarter of a million dollars of buy-ins each year in order to make what is a little above average income in the US.

If that sounds like a lot of money, it is. It’s also a lot of poker playing. $240,000 of tournament entries per year is $20,000 of tournament entries each month, or about $5,000 per week for 48 weeks of the year (with four weeks off for good behavior). $1,000 per day, five days a week, if you want a weekend.

The problem with that, as Devonshire alludes to, is that even Vegas doesn’t have a daily schedule where you can seriously play $1,000 of tournaments.”

With that in mind, the end game is clear: A professional poker player’s primary goal is to make money, nothing more or less.

Winners will play tens of thousands of hands, putting aside selfish emotions and vanity in order to achieve what matters most.

Instead of getting bitter, they get better at the game. Period.

SECRET #2: Professional poker players understand that it’s not about winning 100% of the time

Here’s a rarely-discussed lesson that poker players learn after years of invaluable, first-hand experience with playing poker at very high stakes:

You can spend your entire career being wildly profitable while having extraordinary poker abilities…and yet NEVER win a single major event

But you don’t need to have 20 years of experience to find that out for yourself. A quick look at the hard numbers will show you (literally) that it’s not always about winning.

According to The Hendon Mob, the world’s largest live poker database, Daniel Negreanu is presently the highest-earning Canadian poker player of all-time at the time of writing.

Nearly $40 million in lifetime earnings accumulated over 21 years. You’d think that he was a big-shot winner who always took 1st place!

Nope!

Run the numbers with any other top-tier poker player, and you will see the same phenomena.

This happens because tournaments, whether online or live in-person, are wildly unpredictable. Despite the incredible skill and knowledge possessed by the world’s top players, lady luck has its way of changing the odds at any given moment in time.

Here’s an easy, mathematical way to understand just how difficult it is to win a single poker tournament in the span of a career that lasts several decades:

“If you’re playing an average World Series of Poker or World Poker Tour event, with 500 players, the probability that any one person will win is 1/500 or 0.02%.

Even if you consider yourself the best player in the world, your chances of winning are certainly no more than 5x the average player or 1%.

Not only can a player easily go 100 events without winning—because of the laws of mathematics and standard deviation—she could play 1,000 tournaments and never cash a 1st place victory.

In practical terms, if you play a tournament once a week, you can go 20 years without winning a single one.”

SECRET #3: Professional poker players treat their profession like a full-time business (because it is)

When it comes to day trading stocks, professional traders put hard limits on how much money they are willing to lose (or even gain).

If they manage to meet their daily income goal before the day is over, they take their profits and they stop trading. Even if there’s a golden opportunity lying right in front of them, they do not take it.

Likewise, if they lose a certain amount of money on any given day, they will simply stop trading and cut their losses. They understand that trying to “revenge trade” (i.e. aggressively make rapid-fire investing decisions to make up for the loss) will only make things worse.

Maintaining a successful career in playing poker over the long haul works in a very similar fashion.

Just like traders, poker players can make all of the right decisions and still lose vast amounts of money. Unlike a normal 9-to-5 job, you can easily win and lose large sums of money in the span of one hour.

In other words, the $100/hour you make from playing poker is less valuable than the $100/hour a consultant might make from a client strategy session.

To counteract the wild financial swings seen in poker, professional plays will set aside something called a bankroll.

A bankroll can be defined as the amount of money that is only used for playing poker and nothing else. It is completely separate from your other expenses – mortgage/rent, car payments, groceries, health insurance, and so on.

It doesn’t mean that you put every single penny saved for poker at risk every time you play a game. If you had $10,000 total in your bankroll, you may decide that you will only put in $1,000 at the table and leave the game when you no longer have any money left.

Keep in mind that your bankroll will change over time depending on multiple factors. The types of poker tournaments you play, the rules enforced, your personal comfort level, and your success rate will influence how much you set aside for poker.

Naturally, you should set your bankroll up in a way that allows you to easily cover your life expenses if you happened to lose all of it. While this situation is undesirable, it will prevent you from getting into financial trouble.

If you are a professional poker player, you are running a business. Full stop.

That means:

  • You need to track every single penny that enters and leaves your poker funds.
  • You need to set measurable goals that allow you to earn a set amount of money per month
  • You need to determine your strategy for achieving those goals – whether that’s playing more lower-stake games, or opting for higher-stake events, you must decide what will work best for you and your skill level
  • You must exercise discipline and adult responsibility in handling your finances and sticking to the rules you have set for yourself.

As owners of a SA card house, it’s become clear that people who are financially wise will generally make the best poker players.

SECRET #4: Intense, dedicated study of the game is a vital part of every professional poker player’s daily routine

Talk to any pro poker player, and you will be shocked at how much money and time is invested into improving their ability to play the game.

They are serious in their commitment towards getting better, each and every day, in some way.

Professional players will voraciously read books on poker theory and mathematical betting odds. They are never too good to learn how to calculate their odds and make better decisions at the table.

They’ll play thousands of games with an “outcome independent” mindset, eager to find the lesson in every win and every loss. Good poker players understand that it’s only through experience that you can learn important concepts and detect patterns.

Having good poker intuition is not something that can be taught. It must be acquired through encountering new and difficult situations that break your ego and force you to question your way of thinking.

This is indeed difficult. No questions asked. You’re putting your blood, sweat and tears into something that will keep you fed and provide a roof over your head for years to come.

However, you have to be willing to detach your self-worth from the outcome at the table. You have to hold the mindset that every loss in training will only make you smarter and more resilient when the big event arrives.

But above all else, you have to be willing to push past the emotional pain of feeling stupid (and looking stupid). Instead of viewing the learning process as torture, re-frame it in your mind as a positive sign of progress.

SECRET #5: Professional poker players are extremely healthy – both mentally and physically

Nobody will deny that having a thorough understanding of the poker fundamentals is crucial to success.

Finding a profitable playing style that allows you to maximize wins and minimize losses is a worthwhile aim that should be pursued. The better decisions you can make, and the more often you can make them, the more profitable you will be.

Yet, beyond the mathematical formulas and all the game theory, there’s something else that needs to be prioritized: Your health.

There is no getting around it – playing poker for long periods of time can be detrimental for your health if you don’t know what you’re doing.

On top of sitting down for 8-10 hours per day (which has been proven by multiple scientific studies to increase the risk of chronic diseases), you’re likely…

  • Eating unhealthy foods
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Unaware of mental strategies you can use to control high stress levels
  • Not engaging in regular physical activity

Above all else, you do not have a consistent routine that you live your life by. You don’t have a solid pre-game plan for getting yourself energized and ready. You might also be missing out on health strategies you can use DURING the game to maintain razor-sharp focus.

It’s no accident that the world’s top poker players are physically fit and mentally sharp. Team Poker Stars Pro Eugene Katchalov, who managed to shed 63 pounds in just 14 months, had this to say about the importance of health for peak poker performance:

“There is definitely a significant link between physical and mental health. I find myself more concentrated, full of energy and just generally in a better mood ever since I’ve embarked on this new lifestyle. Even when running bad or even making mistakes during play at tournaments, I feel like the new me has the ability to not get as upset about the situation as I used to get in the past and quickly move on.”

Some professionals have even gone out of their way to hire coaches and chefs who will personally optimize everything for them – their diets, their exercise routines, their state of mind, and so on.

While you don’t have to go to that extreme, you definitely want to ensure that the time you spend improving your poker skills doesn’t come at the expense of your own health.

Wrapping It All Up

As you can see, there aren’t millions of tiny secrets that you have to search far and wide for.

In fact, 90% of a professional poker player’s success can be explained by the fact that they consistently stick to a few vital principles, day in and day out.

In doing so, they are able to handle the ups and downs that come with the lifestyle of playing a card game where significant amounts of money can be lost in the blink of an eye.

As many in the industry like to put it: “It’s a hard way to make an easy living”.

If you’re looking for an San Antonio poker club that attracts professional players and offers a friendly environment, look no further than SA Poker!

You’ll get to learn from the pros through inexpensive daily cash games and weekly tournaments, while having the peace of mind of being in a location that is convenient, legal, and safe.

What are YOUR best-kept secrets for making a living out of playing poker professionally? Let us know in the comments below!