Poker Pros – How Much Do They REALLY Make?

by Henry Jablonski
on May 24, 2017

Poker is one of the fastest growing crazes in the gaming market today. It used to be a game that was just enjoyed by friends in a backroom or unbeknownst to most of the world in the dark corners of casinos and card rooms. Thanks to the internet, TV, and the media, this all has changed. The game has exploded over the past 10-15 years with thousands and thousands of new players flocking to the game for their chance at fame, fortune, and the glory. This influx of new players has resulted in cash games exploding in size and stakes and tournament prize pools hitting limits never conceived before. Basically, there is a TON of money in the industry now up for grabs on a daily basis. This money has to go somewhere and to someone.

For those not involved in the poker industry, the professional player’s life is glorified. People imagine that everyone who is a professional makes millions of dollars, lives in a mansion, and takes showers in money three times a day. TV and media outlets boast about the money that players make and accompany those stories with pictures of lavish lifestyles. But is this perception true? How much are these professional players actually making? The short answers are no this perception is not true, and they are not making nearly as much as you may think they are. As a professional player myself, I’d like to walk you through some of the misconceptions and pull back the curtain on exactly how much players are making and what you can and can’t believe.

This Has to be Said First

Before we go any further, we want to make sure to point this out. There are a lot of players making a lot of money playing poker professionally. This article is going to point out a lot of reasons that the perception that everyone is crushing the world is incorrect and how the numbers are being fudged. Before we do that, though, we want to make sure that we point out there are actually players that are making millions and millions of dollars playing poker and may actually be taking baths in money. Hopefully, for sanitary reasons, they aren’t actually doing so, but we want to point out that they are fully capable of it if they really wanted to.

Profit vs. Winnings

This is probably the biggest misconception and biggest misleading statistic that is used to gauge how much poker players are actually making. This misconception pertains specifically to tournament poker players. Most tournament players will announce their success in terms of their winnings. Most media outlets and TV programs will also announce a player’s success in terms of their winnings. For you to understand why this is a problem, we need to define winnings and profit.

  • Winnings are the total amount that the casino has paid a player out on the tournament wins.
  • Profit is the total amount that the casino has paid a player our on their tournament wins MINUS the amount that they have spent on buy-ins.

It’s also important to point out that profit is only a more accurate number when it is in regards to long-term profit, not just profit for that one tournament. Let’s walk you through an example of a tournament player’s financial numbers and look at presenting the data in three ways – as winnings, as profit, and as long-term profit. This should make everything crystal clear.

Example

John Doe is a professional poker player who plans to play in five tournaments in the month of January. Here are the five tournaments:

  • Tournament 1 -$10,000 Buy-in
  • Tournament 2 -$10,000 Buy-in
  • Tournament 3 -$5,000 Buy-in
  • Tournament 4 -$10,000 Buy-in
  • Tournament 5 -$10,000 Buy-in

John ends up losing in the first four tournaments and not making the money but cashes in the fifth tournament for $38,000. Here is that data presented in the three manners we talked about. (Yes, one month isn’t technically long-term regarding poker, but will still work to prove this point).

  • John Doe’s Winnings are $38,000 for the month of January. Wow, John must be an incredible player.
  • John Doe’s profit on his last tournament was $28,000 ($38,000 payout minus $10,000 buy in). Wow, John made almost $30k; he must be really good.
  • John Doe’s long-term profit for January is ($7,000). John lost $7k in the month of January. He must not be that great of a player.

As you can see, how a tournament players results are represented makes a HUGE impact on how they are perceived. In this example, John is a losing player and is either having a bad month or is not that great of a player. Typically, you would never look at this small of a sample size for long-term results, but you can imagine this same example extrapolated out over a year or a higher sample size of tournaments.

The first method of reporting results is how all TV and media sources and a lot of players report their results. TV and media do this because it looks a lot cooler and is much more appealing to a viewer. Some players do this because they think it makes them look cooler as well and also hides if they are more of a gambling problem than an unsuccessful player. The remaining players end up classifying their results the same way because it has become the industry standard. It has only become the industry standard because it makes players look more profitable and successful than they actually are. It is, in fact, the least correct and least accurate way of reporting poker success.

Accountability

The second cause for incorrect perceptions of how successful poker players are financially is a lack of accountability. If you ask a basketball player how successful they are, they can’t lie if they play in an established league as statistics are taken.

For tournament poker players, statistics are taken and recorded, but as we discussed earlier, they are usually skewed and often completely inaccurate.

This becomes even worse of a problem for cash game players because there are no stats to work off of. The only way you can tell how well a cash game player is doing is by either stalking them 24/7 (which is near impossible) or taking their word for how they are doing.

This wouldn’t really be a problem except these numbers are hardly ever accurate. Frankly, their numbers are usually not even close to correct. Let’s take a look at why these numbers are not going to be correct.

Players keep terrible records or no records at all
I’d venture to say that a very large number of players that claim to be winners (that are not) actually believe they are winning players. This isn’t because they are clinically insane or delusional, but merely because they have no actual idea of how well or how poorly they are doing in poker. People, in general, have selective memories and tend to only remember their good sessions when they want to reflect on good results and tend only to remember their bad sessions when they want to reflect on being unlucky. Not to mention, most professional players play hundreds of sessions a month and tons of tournaments. No matter how good your memory is, you won’t be able to remember all your sessions and properly calculate and analyze your win rates.

Some players do try and keep some records of their sessions. Some of these players are able to keep good records, but for the most part, the records are not well kept and have a tendency to omit forgotten sessions by accident. Incomplete records are just as bad, if not worse than no records at all.

Players like to feel cool
No one likes feeling like a loser. This couldn’t be truer than it is in the poker world. It’s a world glamourized by money and your status in the industry is almost completely based on how much money you are making. There are a lot of similarities with other industries like sales and investment banking. These industries also pick their winners and losers based on how much money they are making. This social pressure pushes a lot of players to lie about how much they are making or losing because they don’t want to feel outside of the circle. “All the cool kids are winning, and if you want to be cool, you have to be winning too.” That is sadly the motto of an industry that needs a reality check and a mirror more than anything.

Protect future backing deals
There’s a process in poker called backing that we will discuss in more detail later because it pertains heavily to how much players are actually profiting. For now, the short definition of backing is when someone else puts up money or part of the money for a player to play in a tournament or cash game in return for a percentage of the profits. These deals allow players to play in bigger games and bigger tournaments than their current bankroll would properly allow for much less risk.

These sort of deals aren’t given to every player, but much like any investment, they are given to the players that others think will be profitable. What we mean is that no one is going to back a player unless they think they stand a great chance to win and make them some money. For this reason, you can see why it is so important for struggling players to have the rest of the industry think they are winners.

If the entire industry thinks that a player is terrible, they will never receive any backing deals unless they get them from someone outside the industry or someone who is not doing their homework.

This can entice a lot of players to lie about their results and try and make themselves look much more profitable and successful than they actually are.

Incorrect metrics
As smart as some poker players are, this one is still a bit surprising to us. Sometimes poker players will use incorrect metrics either out of ignorance or on purpose to misrepresent their success. For example, if a player told you that they won nine out of their last ten cash game sessions, would you think that player is a winning player? If you answered yes or no, you are incorrect. What they forgot to mention was they made $20 in each of their winning sessions and lost $800 in the one losing session. We could give you a million examples of this, but the bottom line here is that you need to have complete information, it must be accurate, and most importantly it must be the correct metrics. Without these three you are really just getting worthless information and an inaccurate picture of how successful a poker player really is.

Bank Roll vs. Life Roll

One of the reasons that a lot of people think that poker players are all rolling in the dough is that they see them a lot with tons of cash on them. We can definitely see how this is logical, but it still paints an incorrect picture of the situation. Here’s why. Poker players require a large amount of cash to play the games they play. This is known as a bankroll. The amount of money you see on the table should only be a fraction of the money that the player has set aside to play with. This is because poker is a long-term game and there will be swings up and down that they need to be able to withstand. Also, the reason we say that it should be a fraction is that sometimes poker players are extremely reckless and will play in games that are too big for their bankroll. For example, if a poker player is playing 2-5 No Limit Hold’em full ring, they are recommended to have on average about 40 times the buy-in set aside in money that is ONLY for poker. This means about $20,000 that needs to be dedicated for playing with and cannot be used for life purchases.

A lot of times players will flaunt this bankroll when it is money they, in fact, can’t spend if they are playing intelligently. Deviating from this plan can result in the player going on a bad run and ending up bankrupt or busto. At this point, they will be out of money and have to try and find a backing deal or start selling their body on the corner. Ok, maybe that’s extreme, but they will have to do something.

The point here is that a lot of the money that poker players have has to be separated from their living money, which is known at times as their life roll. Like with a business, the bankroll serves as operating capital that has to stay in the business for it to function properly. This means that if the player is a 2/5 grinder and has $21,000 to their name, they really only have $1000 of money that they can buy things with if they want to stay within smart bankroll rules. Technically the money is still theirs, but it’s more like a non-liquid asset that can only be liquidated if they quit their job.

Society’s Fault

We’ve been pretty harsh on poker players so far in this article, and that’s not really fair. We really are only talking about some of the players that misrepresent how successful they are. For the most part, these players are heavily motivated by society to fabricate their successes. Let’s talk about how normal interactions go between professional poker players and “other folks.” This will make it real clear where a lot of the pressure is coming from.

The first time you meet someone and they hear that you play poker professionally, they immediately start asking you questions. Have you been on TV? Do you travel a lot? Regardless of how successful of a player you are, you usually answer yes to a lot of these questions. The person you are talking with immediately starts building their own image of you, and they’re like a speeding freight train of excitement about it. The further along their mental image goes, the harder it is to stop and correct them on the realities of what it actually is like in your world. The best analogy we can think of is trying to tell an imaginative kid that they need to slow down. Sometimes it’s easier or less exhausting just to let their imaginations run.

People also love to ask you exactly how much money you make. Frankly, this is probably a little rude and out of line but not surprising in today’s world. You’d never ask anyone in any other profession how much they make so why is it suddenly acceptable in the poker world?

Regardless of that, most players aren’t going to want to just shout out to the world exactly how much they make, but they also don’t want to sound like they’re terrible. The common response we hear is, “I do pretty well.”

This is a completely reasonable response and a great way to deflect the question while still preserving that you are successful. The problem is that when the imaginative “children” that ask this question hear this, they automatically just insert their own number and treat it like it is a fact. Spoiler, that number usually has a lot of unnecessary and incorrect zeros after it. As they don’t vocalize their prediction, this incorrect image never gets corrected, and the falsities perpetuate on and on.

It’s important to point out that no one is really at fault here. The players are just trying to get through the questions they get asked a million times a day without having to get involved in intensive, detail-rich discussions. The other folks, though inappropriate at times, are just excited and think it’s really cool to meet someone in such an odd and alluring profession.

Backing

We touched on this topic earlier, but we wanted to go a little deeper into how this can affect actual profitability and if that is important to you or not. Let’s look at another scenario and then we will ask you two questions (that are of course trick questions again.)

John Doe is a poker player. Mr. Doe plays in five poker tournaments.

  • Tournament 1 -$10,000 Buy-in
  • Tournament 2 -$10,000 Buy-in
  • Tournament 3 -$5,000 Buy-in
  • Tournament 4 -$10,000 Buy-in
  • Tournament 5 -$10,000 Buy-in

John does terribly in the first four, but does really well in the fifth tournament and cashes for $150,000. Now for your two trick, we mean, regular questions.

  • Is John profitable?
  • Did John make more than $100k in these five tournaments?

The answer to the first question is yes, John was profitable for these tournaments. The answer to the second question is where the trick comes in. You might think that John mad $150k minus $45k for the buy-ins for a profit of $105k. The problem is we forgot to mention (or you forgot to ask) if John had 100% of his action in these tournaments. John actually had a financial backer that was paying his buy-ins in return for 50% of his profit.

If that’s the case, then John made $150k on the fifth tournament minus $10k for the buy-in which equals $140k. Divide that in half, and you get that John made $70k, right? Not quite. Typically, in an arrangement like this, there will be something called makeup that John is responsible for before collecting any profits. If John were to play all five tournaments and lose and his backer decided he was done with John, John would owe the backer $0. The backer assumes the risk which is one of the big perks for John to accept this deal. However, if the backer decides to continue backing John, then John must first pay back previous losses before collecting on profit.

So, in the above example, John played $35k in tournaments before tournament five. You would say that John was $35k in makeup. When John starts the fifth tournament, the $10k buy-in is added to his makeup, and it is now at $45k. This means that the first $45k that is won goes directly to the backer to pay the makeup. The remaining profit is split 50/50.

In our above example, John is at $45k in makeup as the fifth tournament begins (this includes the buy-in for the fifth tournament). John cashes for $150k. So $150k minus the $45k in makeup leaves $105k. Divide this in half, and you get $52,500 which is the profit that John takes home for the month. As you can see, this is still a great payday but not the six-figures that you might have originally thought he had made. This data is usually never made public anywhere and can only be obtained if you know the player or the backer and they decide to share that information with you.

What’s important to note here is that this shouldn’t matter if you are trying to determine if a player is a winning player or not. Regardless of how much of their winnings they’ve given away to investors, they still profited $105k on the month as a player.

Travel and the Lifestyle

Something that is often forgotten as well is the cost of doing business as a poker player. Tournament players often are required to travel extensively to play in tournaments. Let’s look at a quick example again to show you what we mean. We will use our good friend Mr. Doe again.

  • John is playing in a $5,000 buy-in tournament.
  • John cashes and is paid out $8,000 for his efforts.
  • John has no backer and 100% of himself.
  • John profits $3,000, right?

As you expected, the answer here is a big no. We forgot to mention that the tournament was in Atlantic City and John lives in Atlanta. John had to pay $400 for flight, $175 a night for a hotel in the casino, and then had to buy his meals at the casino which was another $60 a day. The tournament lasted five days. John also had to pay $150 to change his flight because he was doing well in the tournament. His costs for the trip were:

  • $400 – Flight
  • $175 x 5 = $875 Hotel
  • $60 x 5 = $300 Food
  • $150 = Flight Change Fee
  • $80 = Transportation to and from the airport
  • Total Costs = $1,805

As you can see, Johns profit on this tournament is not $3,000, but is in fact $3,000 minus $1,805 which equals $1,195. Still a profitable trip but significantly less than we had originally thought John made. Imagine as well if John plays a bunch of tournaments and loses. Not only is he racking up lost wages from his buy-ins, but he is also racking up losses from the expenses he is forced to fork out to travel to where the tournaments and action are.

This is not uncommon and again, not reported anywhere or calculated in when the media or TV are depicting the financial success of players.

Best Metrics to Use

So we’ve all come to terms with the fact that what we thought we knew about the success of poker players is not quite so. For some players, they do ball out of control and take their cash baths. For the majority of successful players, it’s a much more normalized income that at times is on par with a lot of other “normal” professions. So what do we do if we want to know exactly how much a professional poker player is making?

First, figure out if this is any of your business. If you’re just being nosy, we recommend not being too aggressive or invasive looking up this data. This would be the exact same as someone trying to figure out exactly how much money you make at your job. Now, there are situations where you might need/want to figure out this information. If you’re looking to back a player, you’re going to want to have a complete picture of their success in the poker world. If you are looking to take advice or coaching from a professional player, I think it’s more than ok to research if they are actually successful and worthwhile to take advice from.

After you figure out that you want to find this data, you need to do your best to get as much data from other sources as possible. If they are a tournament player, there are a lot of online sites that track winnings. Remember, WINNINGS. Don’t forget that this does not include the losses in tournaments they did not cash in. One of the most inclusive websites that we have found to use for live tournaments is the Hendon Mob Database.

If they’re an online player, cash or tournaments, there are several tracking websites that are great to get actual profit results. Search for several sites to corroborate each other as sometimes the numbers may be off a little at a particular site. If the player is a live cash game player, there are going to be no records as to how that player is doing or has done in the past. The best that you can do it find out where they regularly play and ask any friends there if they see this player winning or losing a lot. Again, this is extremely far from accurate, but it’s the best you’re going to be able to do in that situation.

If your last ditch effort is to listen to the stats that the player gives you from their own records, do your best to ask the right questions and look at the results with a skeptic’s eye.

If the results seem too good to be true, they probably are.

The best way to test the validity of this is to see the actual records and see how in depth they are. A player who just has a win or loss number for the year is much less likely to have an accurate or truthful number. If the player provides you with a spreadsheet with hundreds of sessions logged out, it’s probably more likely that these numbers are accurate. Again, all of this can easily be fabricated, but this is the best you can do in some situations. It all just depends on the purpose of your inquiry and how much you are ethically able to pry. If you’re looking to back or invest, you get a crowbar. If you’re curious, do it from afar with binoculars.

The Wrap-Up

The bottom line here is that poker players do pretty well for themselves, but usually not as well as TV, the media, or a lot of players might like for you to believe. There are still plenty of poker rockstars that are making the big bucks that this article does not apply to at all. For the most part, though, professional poker players make significantly less than you probably imagined they did. There are also A TON more people that are claiming to be professional poker players today than there were 10 years ago. Back in the day if someone said they were a professional, they could already be considered somewhat vetted as being successful. Today, anyone and everyone claims they are a professional player. The term is extremely diluted and doesn’t carry anywhere near the weight that it used to. That being said, just like any profession, there are people that make very little, and there are people that make heaps. You may never know when talking to a player, but at least you can be more informed now and be able to sift through their claims with a bit more knowledge.

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