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Is being a pro poker player glamorous and carefree, or is it a hard way to make an easy living? Julian Rogers investigates…
It’s a dank Monday morning in London’s Shoreditch and the natives, including those notorious hipsters, are still tucked up in their beds ahead of the recurring rat race in the capital. Team PKR Pro Simon Hemsworth isn’t unconscious in the land of Nod, however. His eyeballs and fingers are working overtime on his iPhone as he tussles heads-up for a first prize of $10,432 in the PKR Masters – a $150 tournament that attracted 377 hopefuls. His on-screen avatar ‘Rhymenoceros’ has his short-stacked opponent, ‘bleff123’, all-in and he smells blood.
Hemsworth’s holding pocket Sevens. His foe flips over Sixes. Hemsworth, who has won this tournament twice before, is an 80.32% favourite to prevail again. It’s in the bag… Until the random number generator spits out a dastardly Six on the flop. Bleff123 survives and manages to claw his way back from the abyss to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. After over nine hours of mental toil that began at 6.30pm the previous evening, it’s a satisfying payout of $7,302 for Hemsworth, even if his opponent’s decisive all-in suck-out cost him over $3k.
However, the bespectacled 30-year-old is philosophical about not being able to inflict the coup de grâce. ‘It was a $3k heads-up match and would have been nice to win that one, but hey, that’s okay,’ he shrugs. Hemsworth, who has played full-time since graduating with a sociology degree six years ago, accepts that luck is an inherent aspect of this business, but that doesn’t make crushing bad beats any easier to swallow. ‘Even now, it never ceases to amaze me how brutal the game can be. You would have thought after all these years you’ve seen everything, but you haven’t.’
Welcome to the precarious and unforgiving world of professional poker; a job where you can end the day, or night, with less money than when you started. It takes skill, mental fortitude and bankroll management to survive in today’s shark-infested waters, but you do get to eschew all that irritating stuff alongside the actual graft of a regular job: the mind-numbing commute, clocking in and out at set hours, and megalomaniac managers. Instead, you’re the boss and you work to your own timetable, be it sat at home clicking buttons or ensconced in a plush casino.
The timing of the bigger online tourneys, usually from teatime onwards, means a dedicated European player leads a nocturnal existence. ‘The life of an MTT player in this country is a tough one,’ says UK pro Craig McCorkell. Three years ago, this WSOP bracelet winner’s routine was to grind online until 3am most mornings, hit the hay at 5am, wake up around 2pm, and fire his PC back up in the early evening. He had the topsy-turvy body clock of a nightshift worker. But his consistent success online, coupled with significant live scores of late (13th in this year’s WSOP Main Event for $442k and third in EPT London’s High Roller for £178k), has allowed him to take his foot off the gas. ‘With success, I like to take a bit of time off. This year I have made much more effort towards healthy eating, going to the gym and not playing every single day. But I know people who still play every night, five days a week. they barely go out.’
Fellow pro Sam Grafton reveals he played online ‘until the sun came up’ most days during his formative years as a pro after finishing an internship at a left-wing pressure group. ‘I definitely didn’t have my work-life balance right, but any profession requires a huge amount of effort at the beginning.’ Nowadays, the 34-year-old, who has won over $3m in online tournaments, typically plays four nights a week on an assortment of sites. However, staying alert whilst multi-tabling into the early hours clogs the brain and inhibits the capacity to unwind after a session, he says.
‘On a Sunday you might play 35 tournaments, thousands of hands, make huge decisions, and have wins and bad beats for thousands of dollars of equity. Afterwards, certain hands will be running through your head – a lot of players can’t sleep. I’m sure scientists would say that staring at quickly flashing lights on a computer screen for 12 hours is not the ideal preparation for switching off.’
View from America
A key reason Grafton and others grinded cash games until dawn was because that’s when the swathes of Americans logged on (prior to Black Friday). One of those players was Mike Schneider of Minneapolis. The Cardrunners pro still plays online at the few brazen sites continuing to serve US players and also regularly drives the half-hour trip to his choice of two casinos. He plays between 15 and 60 hours a week, chiefly between 10pm and 4am. ‘I’ve never been someone who grinds until their eyes bleed.’
Even after ten years plying his trade as a pro, he still relishes the perks. ‘I love the freedom of choosing my own schedule and being able to live my life by my own rules.’ And the downsides? ‘The stress and unhealthy lifestyle, the odd sleep schedule, long hours sitting in solitary, and falling into the trap of eating unhealthy due to being in casinos a lot.’
On top of this, he says, tough stretches can prove ‘inconceivably draining’. Indeed, life as pro would appear to be a parlous rollercoaster ride of euphoric highs and despairing lows where both hubris and self-doubt can derail your ability to earn.
Tournament poker requires particular mental strength, Grafton suggests. ‘You are beholden to the poker gods in a way that cash game players just aren’t, and it can be very mentally challenging. The amount of luck needed makes your head spin and yet you see recreational players moan on Facebook about one bad beat!’
Hemsworth, who admits he’s smashed his fair share of desktop mice in frustration over the years, says the bad beats and downswings affect everyone. ‘Poker can drive everyone a bit mad at times, and, in some ways, it can’t be that bad to release stress on an inanimate object.’
So, what do you do?
There’s no escaping the fact that preconceptions and stereotypes are attached to the words ‘pro poker player’. Divulge to a new acquaintance that you earn a living playing cards and he or she will probably gaze quizzically at you through narrowing eyes. Either they’ll peg you as some hapless gambler or assume your lifestyle mirrors that of poker-playing playboy Dan Bilzerian with his hedonistic Craig McCorkell finished 13th in last year’s Main Event for a career-best score of $442k accessories of firearms, private jets and interchangeable harems of nubile ladies. It’s usually the former. ‘Most people have a negative impression,’ says Grafton. ‘they perceive poker to be like blackjack and don’t understand the skill element.’
It can also be hard for parents to accept and few fathers would gladly welcome their daughter dating a poker player. Indeed, McCorkell’s parents harboured major concerns about their gifted son turning pro. He was studying pharmacology at portsmouth university when, on the eve of his second-year exams, he qualified via a satellite for the Sunday Million on PokerStars and ended up finishing seventh for $21k. This result, added to an already swelling poker bankroll, encouraged him to ditch drug research for poker. ‘It was hard for them to hear,’ he recalls. ‘Their understanding of poker was non-existent so I had to explain what it was and that I thought I could be successful at the game.’
Society tends to view the job with suspicion, too. Go cap-in-hand to the banks for a mortgage and the bean counters will adjudge you to be about as creditworthy as Greece. Likewise, landlords can be reluctant to let accommodation to those lacking a salaried job. It means that Hemsworth acquiesces to his landlord’s demands to cough up 12 months’ rent for his room in a house share off Brick Lane in one lump sum.
Hemsworth, who is sponsored by PKR, plays online most evenings with a patchwork of up to 12 tables blanketing his dual, 24-inch monitors. The cash game specialist plays $5/$10 but recently accepted an opponent’s invitation to go mano-a-mano in a $25/$50 heads-up match because Hemsworth felt he had an edge. He wound up losing $25k. ‘Before, you could grind over the next month to win it back. Now just winning that [loss] back is so much more difficult because there are fewer bad players and whales. The weak regulars just can’t survive anymore because they have become the targets. The only people left are the good players.’
In stark contrast to the halcyon days of six or seven years ago, edges over opponents have shrunk, win-rates are less and sponsorship deals are becoming as rare as Royal Flushes.
Back in 2010, Grafton had $6k to his name when he finished third in an online tournament for $82k (he had 90% of himself). ‘I just spent the money and enjoyed myself.’ Grafton says he’d be more frugal with another big payday. ‘That comes with maturity and understanding the nature of variance. When you’re climbing the ranks so quickly you think it’s never going to end.’
Hemsworth echoes the sentiments about money management: ‘I sometimes look at my database to see how I’ve done over the years and wonder where all that money has gone, but I suppose it’s just too easy to fritter money away when you’re young.’
Raise your game
With the game becoming exponentially tougher and the pool of weak players dwindling, many full-timers are studying even harder to improve their game and plug leaks. They’re generally adopting a more professional approach to the job, including being less frivolous with expenses on the live circuit. ‘We aren’t staying in the most fancy hotels and eating out every single night anymore,’ McCorkell reveals. ‘For the [December] trip to Prague, four of us got an apartment together, whereas a few years ago we would have probably just booked a hotel at the last minute. We do treat this as more of a job now than we did.’
But what about the future? After all, the longer they play, the wider the chasm of nothingness on their CVs expands. The pros here aren’t short of a few quid so don’t need to become wage slaves, and as Hemsworth puts it, diving back into a traditional work environment would be ‘a shock’.
Nevertheless, McCorkell is studying for his football coaching badges, while Hemsworth envisages exploring ‘other avenues’ as he gets older. For Schneider and Grafton, poker will remain their main income for the foreseeable future, with the latter looking to back more players, or ‘horses’. None, it seems, have a desire to pack in the game. They all still enjoy playing for a living and the lifestyle benefits this entails. ‘And at the end of the year you’ve earned a pretty good [tax-free] salary,’ Hemsworth smiles.
One man who has given it up is Sam Holden. The Brit won $782k in the 2011 WSOP Main Event, and looked set to become the next big thing in UK poker. But Holden had other plans away from the table.
‘Poker was never a long-term plan. My goal was always to build a nest-egg so that I wouldn’t have to worry about money as much when choosing a career. Although I loved the game, I ran out of drive to push myself further and felt it was time to look for a new challenge.’
‘I always thought that playing poker professionally was a vulnerable position in the long-term. Online poker is still such a new industry, and it has always been tough to predict what is going to happen. I still think there is plenty of money to be made at the moment, but you have to be very professional in choosing the right games and knowing your own ability. There certainly isn’t as much easy money around anymore.’
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