Poker is a hard way to make an easy living.
This perfectly sums up life as a professional poker player. On paper, though, making a living playing poker shouldn’t be so difficult.
Granted, the games are tougher now than they have ever been, but I personally still see plenty of “dead money” in every tournament I play. So, I’m surprised that few of us who really try to make a lasting career of playing poker actually succeed.
I’ve seen countless aspiring pros fall short of success–so many, in fact, that I’ve noticed a pattern of 4 mistakes made time and again. In this article, I’ll break down those mistakes and discuss why they might prevent you from making it as a professional tournament player.
1. Aggressive Bankroll Decisions
Let’s start with an obvious point: If you don’t have a deep enough bankroll, you are at risk of going broke.
Variance is an inherent part of playing tournaments for a living, and 100+ buy-in free falls are not uncommon for tournament professionals. Your long-term success depends on having a bankroll that can withstand this. If you choose to play under-rolled, chances are you will end up busto sooner or later.
My personal recommendation is to have a bankroll 500 times the amount your average buy-in. Of course, you can be more liberal with your bankroll if you play in very soft games or if you just play for fun.
(Some coaches recommend having a 1000+ buy-in bankroll, but I think that’s unnecessary so long as you practice good game selection. More on this point later.)
Keep in mind that if poker is your main income, going broke could potentially set off a chain reaction of more serious problems in other aspects of your life. For this reason alone I cannot stress enough how important bankroll management is.
The Psychological Effects of Playing Tournaments Under-Rolled
There are many poker books and articles that preach basic bankroll management, but they usually overlook a critical variable: life away from the felt.
For instance, some books suggest keeping two separate bankrolls, a ‘life bankroll’ and a ‘poker bankroll’, without commingling funds between them. However, this isn’t feasible for those who aren’t particularly well off, or who are just getting a poker career started.
Let’s say you have $10,000 total. You allocate $5,000 as your poker bankroll, $5,000 as your life bankroll, and hope to build both with poker winnings.
Question: How is this any different from simply just having $10,000 to your name?
Well, it isn’t.
We’re fooling ourselves if we only pay attention to how many buy-ins we have in our poker bankroll and ignore our overall situation. We all need to pay rent, bills, buy food, etc. This means that your life bankroll is always smaller than the amount you have in the bank, because you already know that every day of life is going to cost you a portion of it.
Playing $20 average buy-in tournaments on PokerStars with a bankroll of $10,000 would be fine if you somehow had no life expenses and/or a great backup plan. But in real life, many of us are just a single breakeven month away from losing a third of our bankroll to life’s daily expenses. Follow that up with one more breakeven month and you’re near-busto.
Being aware of this will lead to anxiety about wining consistently, which is a terrible state of mind to be in while playing a game with no guarantees.
For tournament players in particular, that anxiety can have several dangerous consequences:
- Passive, suboptimal play in important situations (e.g., near final tables).
- Stress on a regular basis, under otherwise normal playing conditions.
- Other, less noticeable effects to your game/decision making that culminate in bad play.
That said, if you have a comfortable backup plan, then it really doesn’t matter much whether you have 500 or 1000 buy-ins. If, for example, you can easily find a fulfilling job should poker not work out, or if your life expenses are nominal, then more aggressive bankroll management is probably fine.
Underrated Option: Poker as a Side Job
In my opinion, playing poker as a side job–at least at first–is a dramatically underrated option for aspiring professionals.
Everybody wants to be a professional because of the freedom, the travel, because it sounds cool to say “I’m play professionally full-time,” and so on. But being your own boss stressful and requires an inordinate amount of self-dicipline.
Consider that with a ‘real-world’ job that pays the bills, you’re better situated to achieve a successful poker career than full-time professionals who struggle to make ends meet.
For one thing, never having to withdraw from your poker bankroll to cover living expenses will help it grow, which in turn means you could more quickly play higher buy-in tournaments, or out in more volume. Sure, with a job you might not find yourself alongside the best players in the world right away, but you have a much better chance of getting somewhere than those who can’t afford to have a losing month.
Seeking a Backer is Not the Solution
Many players seek a backer in order to have play with bankroll that’s not affected by living expenses. This may sound like a good idea, but I think in most cases it is not.
I suspect there are many more broke backed players in the poker world than there are broke players who are on their own. Here are the main issues with having a backer:
- You only keep a portion (usually 50%) of your winnings, which makes it tough to save money.
- Every backed player will end up in makeup at some point–a situation that can be tough to get out of. Many players have been known to get stuck in deep makeup for a very long time. It’s therefore possible for a staked player to go without a paycheck for months, or even years, which is demoralizing.
(I wrote about staking in more detail in this article: The Ugly Truth About Staking in Poker. I urge you to read it before considering a staking deal.)
2. Playing in the Wrong Tournaments
I know a ton of great players who are absolutely brilliant at everything poker, except when it comes to making money. I also know a similar amount of players who can barely calculate pot odds but make six figures most years.
In most cases, the discrepancy between these two groups is due to game selection.
Game selection isn’t just about registering in the softest tournaments. There are several other things to consider in order to figure out what tournaments fit your game best.
In order to game select optimally, you need to ask yourself a few questions:
- What am I trying to achieve short-term?
- What am I trying to achieve long-term?
- How much variance can I withstand?
Consider again the example from the previous section: a $20 average buy-in with a $10,000 bankroll.
There are hundreds of $20 buy-in freeze-outs running online at any given moment. Some of them are small, attracting just 100 players or so, and some are huge, with $10,000+ payouts for first place.
How do you decide which ones are best to play? Let’s start by playing around with a tournament variance calculator, which displays a range of outcomes with different colored lines on a graph.
Here’s are two tournament variance simulations, both run with the same assumptions:
- $22 buy-in
- 30% Return On Investment (ROI) after paying rake (EV of $6,600)
- 1,000 tournaments played (which is pretty close to one month’s volume for your average tourney reg)
Tournament (A) has an average field size of 100 players.
The standard deviation is $2,552, and we’re having a winning month virtually every time.
According to the variance simulation, 95% of the time our end result over these 1,000 MTTs will land between +$1,790 and +$11,640, and we end up between +$3,800 and +$9,100 70% of the time.
In other words, we are making a somewhat steady living. Our risk of ruin, according to the simulator, is exactly 0.
Now let’s see what the same simulation looks like in Tournament (B), with an average field size of 2,000 players:
The standard deviation is $8,378, and our probability of losing money over the 1,000 tournament sample is 23%. Additionally, we end up near breakeven often.
(Remember: if you have life expenses, a breakeven month is as good as a losing month.)
We don’t really have certainty, here–the variance simulator is 99.7%, certain only of that we’ll end up between -$10,800 and +$34,188, which comes out to an ROI ranging from -49% and +155%.
In other words, selecting large fields will offer you no certainty of anything at all.
Alternative: Take Your Shots at Small Field Tourneys
There are a couple hidden benefits to playing smaller field tournaments:
- You make final tables more often.
Playing at small final tables allows you to practice for the big one(s) that you’ll eventually reach. The more final table play experience you have, the better you will do when you’re lucky enough to play for really big money.
By contrast, inexperience will be a major problem for someone who plays only large field tournaments (such as the Big $22 on PokerStars) and rarely plays a final table.
- The emotional swings aren’t as big.
Avoiding emotional swings is another underrated benefit of playing small field tournaments.
A deep run in that just misses the money in a tourney with a massive field can have a significant emotional impact on you.You won’t necessarily go on monkey tilt and light your bankroll on fire, but a near miss will impact you. You’ll inevitably dwell at how close you were, how much time you invested for nothing, etc. And immediately afterward it will be hard to hop in a fresh tournament to start the grind all over again with another 2,000 players. But if you take a day off to cool down, that’s EV lost.
If you only play smaller fields, however, you will care a less about what happens– even at a final table. As a result, you’ll not only gain experience playing but you’ll become used to the emotional ups and downs of tournament play, without ever risking the fallout of coming up short in a huge tournament.
When you play games with very little variance, it’s easy to shrug off a gross beat in a big spot. It just doesn’t matter, because the “paycheck” will be in the mail at the end of the month, anyway.
How Much Money Am I Making?!
Let’s talk about how making money playing online really works.
Ask yourself this question: Which of the following metrics is the best way to track net profits in poker tournaments?
- $ per game
- Hourly win-rate
Click “Show” below when you’re ready for the answer
For example: Luke plays 10 tables of $22 tournaments at a time and his long-term ROI is 50% (because he beasts everything). That means Luke is making $11 per game.
But, his hourly win-rate depends on a third variable: how long the tournaments last. If Luke is playing hyper-turbos with this ROI, he’s going to be rich, but if his average tournament lasts 10 hours, then he won’t be able to stay afloat.
A big part of a professional tournament player’s job is selecting games that maximize their hourly rate. This often involves more than just registering in the softest tournaments.
Another example: Which of these games has the higher money making potential?
$22 hyper-turbo, average duration 15 minutes, your ROI is 10%.
$22 deep stack, average duration 5 hours, your ROI is 50%.
If you spend five hours playing that deep stack tournament, you’ll make $11 on average. But in the same period you could’ve played 20 hyper-turbos, netting $44– four times as much money!
Note that I’m not advocating playing a large amount of turbos. I just want encourage you to be more mindful with game selection.
Make sure you aren’t registering too many games that clot screen space without much of an hourly rate. Every click should have a good reason, especially when it’s on the “Register” button.
Moving Up In Stakes
If you play cash games, moving up in stakes is simple. You just grind a blind level until you have enough money to move up to the next one.
Tournaments are not so simple.
Let’s say you’re adhering to the 500 buy-in bankroll rule. You have $6,000 in your bankroll, making you eligible for buy-ins $11 and below.
Now let’s say you win one of those $11 tournaments and your bankroll jumps all the way to $12,000. That’s 500 buy-ins for $22s.
So, is it time to move up?
The answer is no. At least not right away.
You may now have the funds to play $22s, according to your rule, but that doesn’t mean that you have the skills needed to play $22s successfully.
This is an extreme example, but think about Guy Laliberté, the billionaire founder of Cirque du Soleil and poker enthusiast. Guy is so wealthy he couldn’t go broke if he tried.
With Guy’s nearly unlimited bankroll, do you think it’s a smart financial decision for him to play $300,000 buy-in tournaments? Of course not, because he won’t be a winning player!
Remember, it’s all about maximizing hourly rate. The best thing you can do after binking that $11 tournament is to keep playing at that level.
You can gradually take shots at $22s, and even phase them in if you feel comfortable against the competition, but you shouldn’t move up to $22s just because you won one tournament.
This will become more evident as you move up because the jump from $22s to $55s is big, and the jump from $55s to $109s is even bigger.
My Own Experience: How I Discover That Smaller is Often Better
The image above shows my statistics in $11–$33 buy-in tournaments. I used to ignore these, always keeping them in the far corner of my screen because they were smaller than my main games. What a mistake!
I’d have 10–15 tables of $55–$215 MTTs, and a few $22s open that I couldn’t care less about (until I was deep in one). Although they accounted for around 25% of my overall volume, I probably gave them less than 5% of my attention.
Then one day I realized that, despite my lack of effort, I was making $11 per game in these tournaments, without ever having a losing month! At the same time, I experienced variance in my regular games over a period of just a couple of months. It looked like this:
Pure pain. And how much was I was making per game at the $55+ buy-in level? $11!
I was making the same amount, regardless of whether I registered a mindless $22 or a tough $109 that took up most of my focus. Yet only the $22s yielded a steady income without much stress or variance.
If I busted a $22, I rarely cared, whereas final table bubbling a $109 with $20k up top stuck with me for hours or even days afterward.
That said, it’s still good to register large-field tournaments when they are worth it, and when you can withstand the variance.
As an MTT player, it’s natural to be a bit of a dreamer. We all want that big score. We all want to make that big final table. But there’s absolutely no harm in registering 80% small fields and 20% large fields. Just make sure the majority of your games provide relatively steady income.
3. Ineffective Studying
Poker can be an anti-social game, yet it’s tough to find success alone.
There’s a ton of study material out there nowadays, and you need to take advantage of it. You need to rely on training sites, articles, forums, advice from poker friends and anything else to make it in poker.
But there are some common mistakes players make when it comes to training and studying.
Don’t Buy (Most) Poker Books
I bet a common headline for new threads on TwoPlusTwo forums is something like, “What’s the best book for tournaments?”
Threads get started every day on that question, but my answer is always the same: none of them.
I’m saying this as a lover of books, and as a writer myself. There’s nothing I’d like to do more than promote written work. But as a poker learning tool, books are the nut worst option.
It takes 10–20 times as long to read a long book than it takes to watch a 60-minute training video. Worse, the information in poker books is almost always going to be outdated because of how rapidly the game changes.
Not only does a poker book take a long time to write, but the advice therein will be noticeably behind the curve by the time the book is actually published a year or two later.
Nearly all of the best poker instructors make videos for training sites instead of writing books. Think about it: it takes a pro two hours to produce a one-hour video, and he gets paid good money to do it. Compare that the year or more it takes to write a book.
Players who write books are almost always the washed-up ones that are looking for a way to make some money*.
How to Watch Training Videos (and Actually Learn Something)
Back when I started playing, there was only one poker training video site. A year later, another popped up. And then another. And another.
In 2017, there are many great options *cough* The Lab *cough* out there, but sorting through them can get overwhelming.
Wherever you decide sign up, there’s one big mistake to avoid: watching training videos too quickly.
Watching a 60-minute training video should take 120 minutes, minimum.
You’re not watching a TV show. You’re not watching to be entertained. You’re watching to learn. And to learn as effectively as possible you need to pause the video regularly to take notes and absorb the information being presented.
That’s why they made us write down everything at school, even though all the information was available in books. You learn by writing things down and rehashing information. That’s how our brains work. If you’re not taking notes, most of the information won’t stick.
Along with taking notes, I also recommend repeatedly hitting the pause button whenever the instructor faces a decision. My personal process goes like this:
Step 1. Watch a re-player video of an instructor deep in WCOOP.
Step 2. Observe the following action:
PokerStars WCOOP High Roller, 26BB Effective Stacks
Hero is in the small blind with
CO raises to 2BB, btn folds, Hero-
Step 3. Pause the video.
Step 4. Ask what I would do in this situation. (Use calculators and range software as needed.)
Step 5. Play the video and see if the instructor agrees.
Repeat this process.
That, my friends, is effective studying. You simply won’t absorb as much information by watching the video while eating and playing Candy Crush.
Do you think you have a good handle on push/fold ranges, ICM, and balancing ranges? Think again.
These aren’t skills that you learn once and then remember forever, like riding a bike. You need to practice with software like HoldemResources Calculator, ICMizer, Equilab, Flopzilla and the like as much as possible.
Even if you think you’re doing well, your game isn’t going to stay sharp unless you constantly practice. Running lots of simulations and playing around with ranges is an easy way to do that.
Admittedly, this is the annoying ‘work’ of being a poker professional, but there’s no way around it.
4. Missing the Psychology and Misapplying GTO
It’s a common belief that cash game players are so far ahead of the curve that any of them could crush tournaments, if only they’d bother to play them.
In practice, this happens much less than you’d think.
I’ve won more than $600,000 playing MTTs and have no problem admitting that I might not be able to beat $0.25/$0.50 NL 6-max online.
Even most mediocre cash game regs are probably better than me at poker. Yet, most of them aren’t able to translate that poker expertise to success in tournaments.
The main reason why, however, has nothing to with understanding push/fold ranges, ICM, or other tourney-specific concepts, but rather a lack of understanding of human psychology.
The crux of cash games is pushing the similar edges over and over and over. You 3-bet range X from position Y against player Z, you choose a check-raising range on a certain board texture, and so on.
When I see cash game players in tournaments, they largely stick to a cash-game mindset. And while there’s nothing wrong with playing theoretically sound poker and having sophisticated ranges in every situation, it’s not the best way to maximize the amount of money you make playing tournaments.
Emotions play a far greater role in tournaments, which is why it helps to understand how other players feel.
When you play cash games, the stakes are always the same. A $2/$4 game will still be a $2/$4 game no matter how long your session lasts.
This isn’t true in tournaments. The chips feel almost worthless early on, and so no matter how ridiculous of a bad beat you face at the at early blind levels, you don’t really care because you can always just fire another tournament.
But when you’re at the final table of a 2,000-player tournament, even losing a 52-48 with pocket jacks against ace-king feels like a great injustice. The deeper you go in a tournament, the more you and your opponents’ emotions are going to fluctuate.
Everyone has a unique way of responding to stress and varying emotions (winning that jacks against ace-king will trigger an emotion, too!). The key to succeeding at tournaments is being able to read and understand those emotional responses.
Got a Bad Temper? Blame The Amygdala!
The part of your brain that interprets stressful situations is called the amygdala. It’s responsible for decision-making, emotional reactions like fear and anxiety, and–perhaps most interestingly– addictions.
When you lose a huge all-in and feel the urge to chase your losses, that’s the amygdala working.
When we’re at the final table of a huge tournament, our amygdalae react in different ways, often causing us to do irrational things.
Because of the amygdala, humans who find themselves in extremely stressful situations do not act rationally. Is a GTO approach going to be the best option against players who don’t act rationally?
Let’s say that you’re at a big final table, and a recreational player is the chip leader. He’s going to have all kinds of thoughts in his mind, which may or may not be some of these:
- “I hope I don’t mess this up, this is such a big opportunity.”
- “I’m going to buy a new iPhone and a TV with all the money I’m going to win.”
- “I have so many chips and I’ve got them so effortlessly, damn I’m so good at poker, maybe I should quit my job.”
Then in one of the first hands, the chip leader loses a huge all-in with ace-king and falls into third place.
He still has a bunch of chips–the hand was a massive cooler, and he played it well. But now there will be thoughts racing in his mind, such as:
- “I swear this ALWAYS HAPPENS. Sure, I win a flip at level 200/400 when it doesn’t matter, but every single time when I make a big final table I always get screwed.”
- “I played so well, I owned these players so hard, only to have it all taken away with ace-king. Stupid ace-king.”
A few hands later, you end up in a big pot on the river against the same player. You have a pretty weak bluff-catcher that’s low in your range and he shoves all-in.
The GTO response would be to fold; you have plenty of better hands in your range that you can call with. Great tournament players will ditch GTO in spots like this, though. Why? Because it’s possible that the opponent is acting on emotion, and so an adjustment is needed.
The amygdala doesn’t just put negative thoughts into your mind. When you’re the chip leader at the final table, and thoughts about what you’re going to do with all the money if you win enter your mind, that’s also the amygdala talking.
The amygdala is like a guy seated next to you who talks non-stop during the moments you need to concentrate most.
The amygdala induces you to come up with an emotional response, and often creates an emotional response on its own whether you want it or not. From a poker perspective, it makes focusing on what’s actually important difficult. It makes things blurry.
Why are our brains like this? Evolution. Humans are programmed to come up with a quick, effective response when facing extreme danger (poker-wise, this would be simple, extreme things such as “all-in” or “fold”).
The last thing our brains are evolved to do is to calculate complex equations when facing an incredibly stressful situation (that’s more of a computer thing). Our brains interpret huge final tables (if we aren’t used to playing in them) as something comparable to extreme danger.
This is important to realize both in yourself–this will happen when you make your first big final table, and just being aware of that is going to help a little–but most importantly in our opponents.
Seasoned pros are going to be able to act rationally in most situations. But when you’re facing a recreational player who isn’t used to the pressure, it’s time to ditch GTO and understand what’s really going on in his head when he makes that huge river shove.
If you can avoid these 4 mistakes, I truly believe you can go a long way in this game. MTTs are still soft, and the skill aspect is overrated when comapred to having the big picture figured out.
I wish you the best of luck on your journey to success! As always, I’m happy to answer questions below in the comments, or you can find me on Twitter @chuckbasspoker.
Read more from Miikka and Upswing Poker:
- Get better, faster with How the Top Pros Analyze Poker Hands in 2017
- Do you believe any of these 5 Tournament Myths Way Too Many Player Believe?
- Learn Miikka’s strategy for How To Open-Raise in MTTs So The Big Blind Doesn’t Crush Your Soul