The girls, the parties, the sports cars – the life of a top poker pro is pretty good, but how much graft is really involved?
Quick pub quiz question for you: Which sporting event last year paid out $8 million to the winner?
If you guessed Wimbledon, the F1 Championship or golf’s US Masters, think again.
In fact, by winning the World Series of Poker Main Event for $8,531,853 (and yep, there’s a push for poker to be regarded as a sport), American Greg Merson took down the biggest haul of his career: about $7 million more than Andy Murray won for sulking his way to a first Wimbledon last summer, about 6 mill more than Bubba Watson’s won for his final US Masters putt, and about $8.5 million more than Sebastian Vettel took for winning the F1 champs the same year (technically you don’t win ANY money for winning the F1 champs, but who are we bloody kidding here?).
When it comes to sheer bang for your buck, they’ don’t come bigger than the World Series of Poker. Yet you’ll struggle to find a headline or front page in the newspaper about it. Pitbull-wielding lumps from Essex who’ve won £10 million on the Lotto, yes, but bona fide poker pros who’ve grafted for 14 days in a sweaty poker room? Not a sausage.
In fact, in terms of personal riches, few games come close to poker in terms of the potential winnings on offer.
THE WORLD SERIES – A MECCA FOR POKER PLAYERS
Played out at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas every summer, the World Series of Poker is the pinnacle of a poker player’s year. Over 55 tournaments were played at last year’s festival, with entries ranging from $500 to $111,111, with the showpiece tournament – the WSOP Main Event – carrying a buy-in of $10,000. In total, some $900 million in prize money was divided up.
And if you thought Greg Merson’s win was impressive, consider the Big One for One Drop, a charity event at the WSOP that carried that $111,111 entry fee. Last year it was won by the seasoned pro, Iranian-born American, Antonio Esfandiari, who took home an $18 million first prize.
Thousands of the world’s best poker players –and a lot of the worst– descend on the WSOP, every one of them looking to etch their name in the history books. There’s no restriction from playing against the multi-millionaires – all you need is the entry fee. You can even qualify for the WSOP on any number of online poker sites in ‘satellites’ – small buy-in qualifiers – for just a few dollars. Simply, poker is simply the most inclusive sport out there.
POKER IS FOR EVERYONE – AS LONG AS YOU HAVE THE DOSH
And that’s what the really talented pros count on, that the terrible poker ‘tourists’ will turn up in their thousands to take their one shot at the big time. Some may make into the money, or ‘min-cash’, for a little return on their investment. Most, however, leave empty-handed, except for a few stories about how they rubbed shoulders with their big-name heroes who they’ve seen on TV.
BUSTOUTS AND BLOWOUTS
The excessive blowouts of pros with cash to splash are legendary. Esfandiari’s bar bill for that Big One was rumoured to have gone into the thousands, and if you think a night on the town with some rich poker pros is for you, be prepared to spend. Don’t, for God’s sake, bring your credit card, unless you want to be involved in a game of ‘Credit Card Roulette’ where everyone sat at a meal will chuck their plastic in a bowl, get the waiter to pick one out at random, with the unlucky credit card owner forced to pay for the entire meal.
A VERY BRITISH GAME
Stuart Rutter is an experienced British pro and Vegas veteran. Part of an established British crew of pros who make the annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the World Series, he’s seen it all. And some of the money and parties involved would put a City banker to shame.
This summer, his pal, the British pro, Matt “Pez” Perrins, won his second WSOP bracelet in a game of No Limit Hold’em. Perrins won almost $800,000 in prize money, taking his career haul to over $1.6 million, but it’s the now-legendary parties that mark the Brits out from the rest.
“When he won the bracelet, Pez jumped into a fountain at the Mirage and got arrested by the cops,” explains Stuart. “When he finally got released he’d missed his bracelet presentation ceremony!”
When Perrins got out it was time for a proper celebration, so he and a large group of fellow British poker pros decided to go for a drink – or 15 – at a large nightclub on the Vegas Strip.
“When we got the bill, it came to $27,000. We were convinced they’d pulled the “Zero Trick” on us, where bars add a nought to the drinks bill,” adds Stuart. “We were sure it was only $2,700, and we argued and argued until the manager got fed up and just wiped the whole bill. We later found out that the drinks bill was actually $28,000!”
LEARNING THE HARD WAY
The life of a poker pro seems fantastic to anyone who’s never lived it: jet around the world to tournaments as far afield as Macau, the Caribbean, Paris and Las Vegas, get up when you want, stay up all night, thinking of new ways to spend all that cash in the bank. Will it be the new Ferrari? A condo in New York with its own slide (step forward millionaire online pro, Phil Galfond, who recently sold his NY apartment for $2.4 million)? Or perhaps buy your own private jet to take you from Las Vegas to Monte Carlo to play in a tournament, as the world’s greatest and richest pro, Phil Ivey, reportedly did a few years ago?
But wait – there’s a catch. Poker is hard. In fact, it’s bloody hard, especially to get to the level where Esfandiari and Merson are today. Both those players started playing No Limit Texas Hold’em – the easiest to learn and most popular variant of poker – in small home games and casino cash games before migrating up to the big time. In between, however, came years of graft, some epic swings in fortune (poker, even played by skilful players, has huge elements of luck) and the inevitable periods of being stony broke.
MINUTES TO LEARN, A BLOODY LIFETIME TO MASTER
Even if you’re a bad player, you can “luckbox” your way through a tourney and make it out with some readies, but to become a pro, even one who’s earning a mere living wage, you’re going to have to put the hours in.
The beauty of Hold’em, however, is that you’re always learning. In fact, there’s so much to learn, even the top pros are learning new skills all the time – new ways of aggression, understanding other players’ behaviour, and how to seek out value. And that’s where the online game comes in, for it’s in the online game where the real money is made.
THE RISE OF THE BEDROOM MILLIONAIRE
The biggest names these days are better known by their online handles than their real names.
British pro, Chris “moorman1” Moorman is one of the world’s leading online poker pros. He plays for mammoth sessions online in his Brighton pad, often playing up to 16 games at one time. To date Chris has made well over $7 million in online winnings.
Another well-established young online pro is Swedish phenomenon, Viktor “Isildur1″ Blom. Quiet and unassuming, Blom is typical of the new breed of fearless young Scandinavian pro, raised on a diet of long, dark nights stuck indoors during unforgiving Scandie winters. Blom can win or lose a million in a single session without raising an eyebrow.
Normal human beings would probably stop at being up $500,000, banking the cash and heading straight out the next day to the estate agent to invest their money.
But most poker pros aren’t normal human beings. Money comes and goes as quickly as the games. As long as they can beat the games, there’s always more money to be won, another sucker to take to the cleaners. The overheads are minimal, too. All you need is a laptop and a sweet internet connection, and there’s no need to spend thousands on international flights and expensive hotels. Many of the world’s richest online pros will even forego the World Series altogether to stay home and play online. With online poker currently pretty much banned in the US anyway, it makes good financial sense.
EASY COME, EASY GO
The life of a “baller” pro may sound great. Get up when you want, spend all night up, travel the world or sit in your bedroom in your pyjamas all day, only getting up to order another pizza – what could be better?
The problem is that everyone experiences downswings now and then, those periods when nothing seems to go right. Soon, before you know it, you can be flat broke, phoning up another poker pal to sponge another 10 grand off them.
It happens to the biggest winners. Just ask Jerry Yang, the amateur who won the World Series of Poker Main Event back in 2007 for $8.25 million. Earlier this year he declared bankruptcy and sold off his gold winner’s bracelet to raise some much-needed cash.
TAKING THE ROUGH WITH THE SMOOTH
Whether you’ve blown your money through bad bankroll management, unsound investments, gambling debts, or just a plain downswing, chances are most pros will go broke sooner or later. Before they know it they’re starting at the bottom all over again.
Stuart Rutter: “You have to understand that downswings are part of the game. Poker’s winners ultimately will be those that maximise the upswings and, perhaps most crucially, minimise downswings.”
ON THE EDGES OF SOCIETY
Despite being perfectly legal and regulated in the UK, and being plastered all over mainstream TV, being a poker pro is still seen in some quarters as being no better than a professional fruit machines player.
Just ask Sam Trickett. The archetypal British pro, Sam Trickett is a good-looking British pro with a model girlfriend and a bulging bank balance. A promising footballer before injury put paid to his career, he took up poker from his hospital bed to ease the boredom.
A few years on, Sam is one of the world’s most fearless pros. He’s won a staggering $20 million playing poker, mostly from tournaments, and that doesn’t even include his haul from the juicy cash games he plays in Macau. On any weeknight you’ll find Sam taking Chinese businessmen to the cleaners for thousands of dollars a hand.
Despite having won so much, Sam still finds it hard to get past his bank manager’s office door. Famously during one visit to his local bank, he was refused a mortgage due to his “gambling” habit. “I didn’t even bother trying to explain that poker was a game of skill,” Sam says. “It was easier to say I was a gambler and walk out the door.”
GRINDING IS MOST ‘PROS” BREAD AND BUTTER
The reality is that unless you’re able to put your hands in your pockets and fork out some massive wedge to jump straight into a big event like the $10,000 WSOP Main Event, you’ll be starting at the small stakes. That means playing a small £20 or £30 game at your local casino, or playing for small stakes online and building up a bankroll.
Oh, and here’s the best bit about it. Thanks to some friendly tax laws in the UK brought in by Gordon Brown a few years ago, poker winnings – like a win on the footie or gee-gees – are not subject to tax. Sweet!
COULD YOU DO IT?
Poker is certainly not your regular 9-to-5 job. It can be lonely, irregular, your bank manager will hate you, and your friends and girlfriend might lose their patience with your new lifestyle eventually. But that’s not to say for good players earning some serious bucks, it’s definitely a job that for skilled players is possible. It’s not for everyone, but if you show some skill – and a little ‘luckboxing’ – you could be rubbing shoulders with the big names in Vegas next summer and swigging champagne like it’s going out of fashion.
HOW DO I GET STARTED?
Stuart Rutter offers good advice for budding “ballers”.
“Poker isn’t just about playing, it is about learning. Always analyse your play after a game. The best way might be to have a group of mates with whom you can talk about poker strategy, rather than guys you just whinge to about bad beats. There are absolutely tons of coaching videos and articles available online too, and anyone serious about making it to the top should use them.”
So, what are the quick ways to poker success? Here are a few decent tips to get you started.
- First off, grind online for small stakes. Open an account at a popular site like PokerStars.co.uk and begin with the small cash games or single-table tournaments, and go from there.
- Find a local casino with low buy-in tournaments – most good local casinos will offer friendly-priced tournaments to play in, and nearly all will hold a big monthly tournament with added prize money.
- Sign up with an online poker forum like CardsChat.com. They have tonnes of great strategy discussions to help improve your game.
- Join a staking company so there’s no-risk to you playing online or live with your own money. There are lots of them about, all requiring you play a certain amount of games during the week, but if you’re decent it’s possible to earn a living wage.
- Take a shot – go to Vegas, plan on spending $2,000 of your own money qualifying for a big event like the WSOP. Better, if you qualify online with a major company like PokerStars, chances are you’ll be invited to exclusive VIP parties.