Editor's Note: This article was originally written in October of 2017, but the subject matter is just as applicable to poker players today.
1. You can lose everything
As modern scientific research shows, about 1% (and no less than 0.7%) of people are potentially incurable gambling addicts – gamblers who are unable to stop. These people pull the slot machine until they run out of money in their pockets and sell their apartments to buy lottery tickets. When they get involved in the game, they completely lose control of themselves.
All mentally normal people are gambling to one degree or another. We are programmed by nature to fight for life and territory, so when we start to lose, we fully mobilize to win back. In addition, losing hurts our pride, and lowers our sense of self-importance, and this is an additional motivation to avoid defeat at all costs. Any player – not only in poker, but also in preference, chess, Hearthstone, Counter-Strike, and so on – can remember days (more often, of course, nights – self-control weakens after being away for long hours) when he waged a desperate struggle with a superior opponent, hopelessly I was losing, but I couldn't stop. But still, in the lives of 99% of people, such cases are rare, and memories of them frighten, not inspire.
If you are unlucky and genetics puts you in the 1%, your best bet is not to play at all. Nothing.
2. You can't learn to win
Poker is a difficult profession, requiring a rather complex combination of intellectual and emotional skills. Deep knowledge of the technical intricacies of the game itself, the ability to build balanced strategies and deviate from them, taking into account the weaknesses of opponents, the ability to manage your bankroll, complete control over emotions both in case of successes and failures, strong will – not the most complete, but that's already a daunting list of job requirements. To become a good hairdresser, you need significantly less.
Not everyone can master poker enough to start winning consistently. Analysis of large amounts of statistics shows that about 60-65% of all players in poker rooms play in the red. Among those who play regularly, the winning percentage is above 50%, but not by much.
In the community of successful players, there is an opinion that at low limits, that is, in games with small bets, winning is easy and simple (“even a monkey can teach how to beat NL25”). In the same way, a candidate for chess master does not believe that an adult cannot play at least because of the first category, and a seventh grader looks down on the sixth-grade program. Gamers with an APM of under 300 simply don’t understand people playing with an APM of 90 – they think what’s so difficult about quickly clicking on the keys? But a person is a rather complex system, and it would be a big mistake to compare everyone to oneself.
On poker forums, there are many examples of people with an excellent education, obvious mathematical abilities, nerves of steel, and iron self-discipline who have not been able to pass the initial poker limits for years. Perhaps they lack the motivation to work on their game, some empathy that allows them to predict the actions of their opponents, or they do not know how to “grind” – play many hours of monotonous sessions.
There are extremely motivated people, natural grinders, who willingly study, take lessons, work independently – and also cannot make a profit. To explain their failures, one can blame poor learning or forgetfulness – knowledge is not absorbed or retained, and a month after eliminating one or another error, the player again slips into the old pattern. Or maybe their emotional control isn't as good as they think...
Finally, in any large enough group of people, there will always be a person who regularly plays drunk and has never taken lessons, who started winning as soon as he became familiar with the rules, and continues to make money like a slot machine. There are two options: either he was lucky with some other qualities (maybe he unconsciously reads his opponents brilliantly, or the game strategy that is naturally natural for him is ideal against the field at the current moment) or he... just lucky. And this brings us to the third reason.
3. You may have bad luck all your life.
Poker is a game with an element of luck. Mathematics says that over a long enough distance, the share of luck in your final result will be reduced to an extremely small value – everything will depend only on the strength of the game. But not everyone knows how to determine this fairly long distance and how long it really is.
About ten years ago, reputable professionals believed that it was enough to play 30-40,000 hands to draw final conclusions. Since then, more information has become available, and we now know that even very successful players regularly went through periods of 400-500,000 hands played to zero or a loss, simply because they were unlucky. To better understand the large numbers, let’s add that an amateur who plays poker online on PokerStars for 2-3 hours on weekends, and plays less than 10,000 hands in a month.
The most meticulous can open a variance calculator, for example, this one, enter into it the win rate (the rate at which a player wins over an infinite distance, that is, without the influence of luck) and standard deviation (this is different for different types of poker and essentially means how much pressure factors not related to your ability to play, in individual sessions) and see how long periods in the red a world-class player can produce.
The statistics are inexorable – you may be the fatally unlucky person who will do everything right and leave the table without money for years. If you are not a gambling addict, you will get tired of it much sooner. It is no coincidence that almost all the stories of successful poker players began with periods (or episodes) of amazing, almost incredible luck.
4. Income instability and lack of prospects
Let's say you are not a gambler, have the necessary skills to win money in poker, and are not among the fatal losers. Once you've chosen your brand of poker, you've taken lessons from a good coach, learned the basic principles of strategy and bankroll management, and started playing professionally. The first month brought you, say, $10,000 after 100 hours of play. Does this mean you can target this amount of income each month? Or that your salary is $100 per hour?
Alas, everything is much more complicated. Good luck and bad luck have too much influence on the results in such a short period of time as one month to seriously plan something in your life based on this ephemeral “salary”. At this job, you can be paid a large bonus in March, and in April they not only don’t pay you but also take away half of all the money from your bank account. And there’s no one to complain to – that’s the nature of the game. In this sense, a poker player is similar to a businessman: a hired worker is guaranteed to receive his salary, but his employer can easily work for a month at a loss.
From a distance, such instability does not seem to be a problem. It seems that it makes no difference how exactly these thousands of dollars of mathematical expectation will be given to us – in equal parts every month or $50,000 in January and November. But in reality, we are not robots. Income instability affects our mood, self-confidence, and confidence in the future, and worsens the quality of our lives in general.
By the way, about tomorrow. Every year it becomes more and more difficult for poker rooms to contain the pressure of scammers who use computer tips when playing on the Internet. In some individual disciplines, the computer is already stronger than any human, in others it lags only behind the strongest, and will inevitably overtake even those in the coming years. And this is just one of the problems facing online poker. Many believe that the game on the Internet will die over time, and professionals will have to change their field of activity or go to live games, that is, to casino poker clubs. This is in many ways a less attractive job with its own complex specifics, which are beyond the scope of this article. Let's just say that many strong players from the Internet cannot stand and will never play live.
But let’s assume that everything is fine with poker on the Internet – the use of computer tips is suppressed, there are no government prohibitions, and there are no scammers or idiots in the management of poker rooms (we’re just daydreaming, but oh well). In general, everything is fine, only our future has one more problem: lack of guarantees. A poker player is a freelancer who can lose income at any time when a more competent competitor is found. And competitors, as you know, rock while we sleep.
Ten years of impeccable service is a good argument for promotion of the deputy head of the department. A ten-year successful career as a poker player means nothing. Every time you sit down at the poker table, you will have to prove your competence from scratch. And be responsible for it with your own money.
They don’t play “on old baggage” on the Internet – you will have to constantly study in order to keep up with the theory. Even small periods of relaxation can kill a successful career. A popular player told how, having climbed to the very top stakes in one of the disciplines, he went on vacation to Thailand for three months, and when he returned, not only could he not enter the top games, but even gain a foothold on the approaches, because his competitors had gone too far ahead of him. It’s easier on the lower stakes, but even there you can’t do without regular study. And over the years it has become more and more difficult to study...
It is no coincidence that almost all online poker stars limit the peaks of their careers to three to five years in interviews. They are in a hurry to win here and now, knowing that tomorrow everything could end – no matter for all colleagues or for them personally.
5. Limited freedom
As you already understand, you need to play and work on the game without interruption. This imposes serious restrictions on players. If you are tired of winter in Russia, you cannot go to Italy for a month – only its citizens can play on the Internet from this country. France, Spain, Australia, the USA, and a number of other countries are also cut off from the international market. The unfortunate poker player will have to fly to Montenegro or Mexico and rent a house there in order to provide himself with stable and high-quality Internet access...
The daily routine is also no longer in your control. No, you can try to play in the morning or afternoon, but... There may simply not be a game, or there will be too little of it. Peak activity on the Internet is evening and night. Professional players, especially those who choose tournament poker, often go to bed at 9-10 AM. Evening and night tournaments are simply much more profitable.
And, of course, the weekend. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings are the peak of gaming activity. Your school friends are going to the pub or karaoke, and you have to choose – go have fun with them or lose a lot of money, missing the sweet game on Friday and playing with a heavy head on Saturday.
They say that poker is freedom. In fact, this is just another facet of unfreedom.
6. Social problems
So, you will have to play a lot in the evenings and on weekends. When to chat with friends? Meet girls? Never really. In any case, you will do this much less often than people with a normal work schedule “from nine to six.”
You will inevitably begin to move away from old friends. Poker success will only speed up this process. Many will become jealous or try to manipulate you to solve their financial problems. Even for true friendship, your complaints that “I won 70 thousand dollars in a month and now it’s unclear in which bank to keep it” or “Last week I flew to Buenos Aires for fun, and now I discovered that steaks at home are completely inedible." Your new social circle will be other successful gamers, many of whom suffer from autism or severe narcissism. But at least you can talk poker with them.
About poker, because you simply won’t have time or energy left for anything else. As studies by Swedish neurophysiologists have shown, intense intellectual load in a narrow field of activity allows you to quickly build up gray matter in the corresponding area of the cerebral cortex but accelerates the degradation of gray matter in other areas compared to people living in idleness.
So in a sense, you will become obsessed.
7. Predominance of negative emotions
Don’t think that if you start winning big money, you will become happier. First, the correlation between subjective happiness and financial health quickly weakens as income increases. Roughly speaking, people who earn twice the national average salary are one and a half times happier than those who live on the average salary, but almost as happy as those who earn ten average salaries. Secondly, making a profit in poker is very different from receiving a salary.
In poker, you win and lose all the time. And evolution has built into us a mechanism that reacts much more sharply to failures. Losing money is more frustrating than the joy of winning it is. This is true for the vast majority of people. Therefore, poker itself is almost guaranteed to reduce your enjoyment of life.
In addition, it is no coincidence that professionals call the gameplay a grind. This is a routine, tedious, uncreative activity, much like working on a Ford assembly line. Surveys of professionals show that few of them, after many years in this job, continue to enjoy the gaming process. They endure the need to play 150 hours a month just so that they can continue to fly to Argentina every time they want to eat a normal steak.
8. Ethical and religious considerations
You will win most of the money from people who are in a bad emotional state, or even sick gambling addicts. Of course, some of your poker income comes from battling other professionals who are skilled, but inferior to you in understanding the game or ability to read your opponent's strategy. Such victories will bring you moral satisfaction. But the expectation from playing with people who, for whatever reason, have “gone wild” this evening is infinitely higher. So very often in this job, you will have to “beat the man down”.
A fairly well-known professional player, who wrote a fascinating and instructive autobiography last year, specialized in a variant of poker played heads-up. Having reached certain heights in it, at some point, he began to leave the table, as soon as he realized that his opponent was playing too weakly. He was not interested in taking money from defenseless people; he wanted to solve more complex problems and defeat other professionals. In less than a year, he lost everything.
Without a killer instinct, there is nothing to do in this business. Being bloodthirsty and merciless is quite useful. Of course, this applies not only to poker, and poker is much less evil than a lot of other well-paid activities. (Probably few people in childhood dream of a career as a professional killer, a used car dealer, or an appraiser in a pawn shop.) Still, everyone has their own ethical side, and poker may well be too evil for you.
Or not for you, but for the person you care about. It is amazing how much the moral principles of educated, rational, and kind people can diverge. Quitting poker can cost friendships and ruin love.
Of course, it is worth mentioning that in many religions, poker is classified as gambling and is prohibited. If you are religious or someone close to you attaches great importance to religious dogma, this can also become a serious problem.
9. A comprehensive change in your personality
Years of playing poker regularly will turn you into a different person. What if you don't like it?
First of all, control over your emotions – an urgent need when playing poker – will lead to the dominance of rationalism, which will begin to manifest itself in everything. Your mood swings will decrease several times. It will be difficult for you to sincerely rejoice at the goals of your favorite team (goals are a derivative of the number of chances created, which can be reduced to a function of the difference in the salaries of the players of the playing teams) and other random events that are an outlier of variance. You will stop worrying about the unlikely – for example, you will forget how to be afraid of flying on airplanes. Statistics, probabilities, and Bayes' theorem will enter your life and dominate it much more than you might want. Dopamine and oxytocin will destroy the mystery of love and pleasure, just as Watson and Crick destroyed the mystery of blood.
Your thinking will become probabilistic rather than outcome-oriented. You will begin to think in terms of mathematical expectations. Poker will rewire your brain on a physical level. It will have new highways and highways made of neural connections, and many of the old ones will turn into abandoned paths. Maybe even too many. You will definitely become a different person.
10. Even if you reach the top, you will not improve your life.
The most successful Russian poker player, known under the nickname "forhayley", spoke in May of this year about the extent to which happiness cannot be found in money and how illusory the joy of achieving a goal is.
I remember very well my expectations regarding conquering the poker Olympus. In my mind, this magical moment was supposed to solve all my problems and adversities, plunging me into a state of permanent pleasure and peace. And, unfortunately, I remember very well my feelings from the onset of this moment...
I felt... nothing. And this “nothing” was the best emotion of that month, because then it grew into... panic, smoothly turning into permanent horror and fear of life. As counterintuitive as it may sound, the most successful month of my poker career turned out to be my worst emotional experience. I opened the envelope with the answer to my life, but inside there was only a blank piece of paper.
The money that poker will bring if you, having made every effort, sacrificing your environment and current personality, achieve your goal, will only remain money that will solve some problems and bring others, nothing more. For that matter, regular meditation increases subjective happiness much more effectively than income growth and is great for developing the brain (reliable facts from peer-reviewed scientific periodicals, like much else in this article). And the desire for intellectual competition can be satisfied with much less complications, say, in the city club “What? Where? When?" or in computer games.