Poker is a hard way to make an easy living.
This phrase sums up the life of a poker professional perfectly.
On paper, making a living playing poker still shouldn’t be that hard.
Sure, the games are tougher than they used to be, but I still see plenty of “dead money” in every tournament I play. Yet so few of us that try actually manage to make a lasting career out of poker.
I’ve seen countless aspiring pros fail throughout my years playing this game, so much so that I’ve started to notice a pattern: the same 4 mistakes made over and over again.
In this article, I’ll break down the 4 mistakes that are stopping you (or someone like you) from making it as a professional tournament player.
1. Aggressive Bankroll Decisions
Obvious statement alert: 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 you need a bankroll that can withstand the 100+ buy-in freefalls tournaments are known for. If you choose to play under-rolled, chances are you will be busto sooner or later.
My personal recommendation is to have a bankroll 500 times the amount your average buy-in. You can be more liberal with your bankroll if you play in very soft games or if you just play for fun.
(Some articles recommend having 1000+ buy-ins, but I think that’s unnecessary as long as you practice good game selection. More on that later.)
If poker is your main income and you play under-rolled, the risk of going broke is just the start of your problems.
The Psychological Effects of Playing Tournaments Under-Rolled
There are many poker books and article that preach basic bankroll management, but they usually overlook one critical variable: your life away from the felt.
Most books advise separating your life bankroll and poker bankroll, but that just isn’t realistic for those who aren’t particularly well off.
Let’s say you have $10,000, and you set aside $5,000 as your poker bankroll. You pay your bills out of your remaining $5,000, and hope to feed your life bankroll with your poker winnings.
How is this any different from simply just having $10,000 to your name? Well, it isn’t.
We’re all fooling ourselves if we only pay attention to how many buy-ins we have in our poker bankroll and not our overall situation. We all need to pay rent, bills, buy food, etc, every single month. 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 staying alive 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 completely fine if you magically had zero life expenses and/or a great backup plan…
…but in real life, you’re just a single breakeven month away from losing a third of your bankroll to expenses (assuming standard first world living expenses). Follow that up with one more breakeven month and you’re near-busto.
Being aware of this will lead to a fierce need to win consistently, which is a terrible need in a game where nothing is guaranteed.
Craving steady wins has a number of unintended consequences for a tournament player:
- Passive, suboptimal play in important situations (like near final tables).
- Immense stress on a regular basis…
- …and a number of smaller effects to your game and overall happiness that you may notice.
That said, if you have a comfortable backup plan, it really doesn’t matter all that much whether you have 500 or 1000 buy-ins.
If you can get a fulfilling job shall poker not work out for you, or if you have little to no life expenses, slightly more aggressive bankroll management is probably fine.
But if you have expenses to pay and those 300 to 500 buy-ins are all you have, you’re on thin ice.
Underrated Option: Poker as a Side Job
In my opinion, playing poker on the side is dramatically underrated.
Everybody wants to be a professional because of the freedom, the travel, it sounds cool, and so on. But being your own boss comes with a lot of stress and self-accountability.
If you have a real-life job that pays the bills, may it be part-time or full-time, your poker career is already much better off than most professionals who struggle to make ends meet.
If you never have to withdraw from your bankroll to cover living expenses, your bankroll is only going to grow. You might not reach the heights of fame and riches that the best players in the world do, or at least it might take you much longer to get there since you only have time to play a few nights a week, but you have a much better chance to get somewhere than those who can’t afford a losing month.
Seeking a Backer is Not the Solution
Many players seek backing to get a bankroll that’s not affected by living expenses. This may sound like a good idea, but in most cases it is not.
I can promise you that there are way more broke backed players in the poker world than there are broke players who are on their own. The main issues with backing are:
- You only get to keep a potion (usually 50%) of your winnings, which makes it tough to save money.
- Every backed player will end up in makeup at some point, and players have been known to get stuck in deep makeup for a long time. It’s possible for a stakes player to not see a paycheck for months or even years, which is a surefire way to reach bankruptcy.
I wrote about staking in more detail in a pas article (see: 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, besides one important thing: making money. I also know a similar amount of players who can barely calculate pot odds that make six figures most years.
In most cases, the discrepancy is because of their game selection.
Game selection isn’t just about registering in the softest tournament. There are several things to consider to figure out what tournaments fit you the 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?
Let’s go back to the example from the previous section, a $20 average buy-in with a $10,000 bankroll.
There are hundreds of $20 buy-in freezeouts running online at any given moment. Some of them are small, attracting only 100 players or so, and some of them are huge with $10,000+ payouts for first.
So, how do you decide which ones are best to play? Let’s start by playing around with a tournament variance calculator, which displays our 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 are end up near breakeven quite often.
(Remember, if you have life expenses like most of us do, a breakeven month is as good as a losing month.)
We don’t really have any sort of 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 these large field games will offer you no certainty of anything at all.
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 which will allow 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 during those few times over your career when you’re lucky enough to play for really big money.
Lack of final table experience will be a huge problem for someone only playing large field tournaments, such as the Big $22 on PokerStars. If you only make a final table once month, you are more likely to play sub-optimally when you get there.
- The emotional swings aren’t as big.
Avoiding emotional swings is another largely underrated aspect of small field tournaments.
When you play mass fields, having a deep run that just misses the big money is going to impact you. You won’t necessarily go on monkey tilt and light your bankroll on fire when you final table bubble the Big $22…
…but it will impact you. It’s going to be extremely hard to hop in a fresh tournament, starting the grind all over again with another 2,000 players. If you take a day off to cool down, that’s EV lost.
If you only play smaller fields, however, you will care a lot less about anything that happens, even at final tables. The bigger fields you play, the more your monthly income and your entire livelihood depends on that one big score. This leads to stress, suboptimal play, and all kinds of potential mental issues.
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 at online poker really works.
Do me a favor and 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 these 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, he won’t be able to stay afloat.
A big part of a professional tournament players’ job is selecting the games that maximize their hourly rate. This is very often different from 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!
Keep in mind, I’m not advocating playing a large amount of turbos. I just want you to be more mindful with your 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. That guy has so much money that 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 be playing $300,000 buy-in tournaments? Of course not, because he won’t be a winning player!
Remember, it’s about maximizing your hourly rate. The best thing you can do after binking that $11 tournament is to keep playing those.
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 eventually 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 neglect these, always keeping them in the far corner of my screen because they were smaller than my main games.
I’d have 10-15 tables of $55-$215 MTTs, and a few $22s that I couldn’t care less about (until I was deep in one). All in all, although they made for around 25% of my overall volume, I probably gave them 5% of my attention.
Then one day I realized that, despite my lack of effort, I was making $11 per game in these tournaments, and without ever having a losing month. At the same time, I experienced variance like this in my regular games over a period of just a couple of months:
Pure pain. And guess how much I was making per game at the $55+ buy-in level…
Believe it or not, it was also $11.
I was making the same amount, regardless of whether I registered a variance-free $22 or a tough $109 that took up most of my focus. Yet only one of the two offered me 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 could easily ruin my mood for the session, day or even week.
That said, it’s still good to register large-field tournaments when they are worth it and you can withstand the variance.
It’s an inherent part of being an MTT player to be a bit of a dreamer. We all want that big score, we all want to make that big final table. There’s absolutely no harm in registering something like 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 a pretty anti-social game, but despite that, it’s really tough to find success alone.
There’s a ton of 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 the most common headline for new threads on TwoPlusTwo forums is something like “What’s the best book for tournaments?”
A thread like that gets started seemingly every single day, and my answer is always the same: none of them.
I’m saying this as a lover of books and a writer myself. There’s nothing I’d like to do more than to promote the beautiful craft of writing. But as a poker learning tool, books are the nut worst option.
It takes 10-20 times as long to read a book than it takes to watch a 60-minute training video. And what’s worse, the information presented in poker books is almost always going to be outdated because of how rapidly the game changes.
When a poker author starts writing his book in say, 2015, his words will be noticeably less relevant when the book actually prints in 2016 or 2017.
Also, almost all of the best poker instructors make videos for training sites rather than write. 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 with all the pros that feel like taking a year off their life 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 another. And another.
In 2017, there are so many great options *cough* The Lab *cough* out there that it can all get a little overwhelming…
…but wherever you sign up, there’s one really big mistake that you need to avoid: watching the video too quickly.
Watching a 60-minute training video should take 120 minutes, minimum.
You’re not watching a TV show. You’re not watching it to be entertained. You’re watching it to learn, and to learn as effectively as possible you need to pause it regularly to take notes and absorb the information.
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 making notes. That’s how our brains work. If you’re not taking notes, most of the information isn’t going to stick.
Along with taking notes, I also recommend repeatedly hitting the pause button whenever the instructor is facing a decision. My personal process goes like this:
Step 1. Watch a replayer 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 yourself what you would do in this situation. Use calculators and range software as needed.
Step 5. Play the video and see if the instructor agrees
Continue this process as much as needed.
That, my friends, is effective training. You simply won’t absorb as much information by watching the video while eating and playing Candy Crush at the same time.
You Have to Use Simulators
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 such as 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, and running lots of simulations and playing around with ranges is an easy way to do that. This is just a fact.
This is the annoying hard work part of the equation of being a poker professional, and 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…
…but in practice, this happens much less than you’d think.
I’ve won north of $600,000 playing MTTs, and I have no problem admitting that I might not be able to beat $0.25/$0.50 NL 6-max online these days.
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 in most cases isn’t their lack of understanding push/fold ranges, ICM, or other tourney-specific things, but rather their lack of understanding human psychology.
The crux of cash games is pushing the same/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 texture, and so on.
When I see cash game guys play tournaments, this is largely what they still try to do. And while there’s nothing wrong with playing theoretically sound poker and having sophisticated ranges in every situation, it’s not the way to maximize the amount of money you make playing tournaments.
Emotions play a far greater role in tournaments, which is why it really 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 at all true in tournaments – the chips feel almost worthless early on, and no matter how ridiculous of a bad beat you face at the second blind level, 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 extreme stress and varying emotions (winning that jacks against ace-king will trigger an emotion too!), and 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, which has primary role in the process of decision-making, emotional reactions, fear, and perhaps more interestingly; addictions such as alcohol and gambling addiction.
When you lose a huge all-in and feel the urge to chase your losses, that’s the amygdala talking.
When we’re at the final table of a huge tournament, our amygdalas talk to us to varying degrees, often telling 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 chipleader. 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 chipleader 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 bluffcatcher 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. Why? Because their opponents are acting on emotion and we need to adjust accordingly.
The amygdala doesn’t only put negative thoughts into your mind. When you’re the chip leader at the final table and thoughts enter your mind such as what you’re going to do with all the money if you win, that’s also the amygdala talking.
The amygdala is like some annoying guy seated next to you talking non-stop when you really, really need to concentrate.
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? It’s because of 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 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’s making that huge river shove.
If you can get these four areas right, I truly believe you can go a long way in this game. MTTs are still soft, and the skill aspect is quite overrated as opposed to having the big picture figured out.
I wish you the best of luck on your path, and I’d be happy to answer any questions below in the comments or 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