Should you go pro?

poker-ships-jonathan-littleEvery time I do a webinar where members of my training site,, can log in and ask me questions, I find myself answering one specific question: “When should I become a professional poker player?” To hopefully avoid re-answering the same question again in the future, here are my thoughts on the subject.

Let’s assume you play $2-$5 no-limit hold’em at a local card room, which is about the stakes most people play who ask the question. The reason this is the general stake is because it’s the highest level played at most local card rooms and most players who can beat this game feel like they are decently good at poker. Let’s assume you make $50 per hour. When I played $5-$10 at Bellagio five years ago, over the course of a summer playing about 50 hours per week, I made around $100 per hour. Since $2-$5 is half the size of $5-$10, we can assume $50 per hour is a decent, sustainable win rate (although it could be less in today’s environment). So, if you play 40 hours per week, you will make around $8,000 per month, which sounds great.

There are a few problems with this nice $96,000 per year salary. First, no one wants to play 40 hours per week. I found myself constantly wanting to take days off or cut sessions short because I simply didn’t enjoy sitting at the table for that many hours. Also, most players feel a desire to take time off when they are either winning or losing more often than expected. Because of this, you will probably only be able to average 30 hours per week. We’re now looking at $72,000 salary.

Next, you have to pay taxes. Assuming you pay your full 20 percent or so, you’ll actually bring home $57,600, which still isn’t too shabby. You’ll probably need to buy health insurance, which will cost around $250 per month, reducing your disposable income to $54,600 a year. While this doesn’t sound bad, you also need to set aside money for retirement, which will set you back around $10,000 per year, though you’ll eventually get that back at some point. You’ll be left with about $45,000 per year to live on while trying to grow your bankroll.

It should be noted that it is suicide to try to become a professional without at least a year’s worth of living expenses set aside and a nice bankroll, at least 5,000 big blinds for No-Limit Hold’em cash games. So, if you spend $3,000 per month, you need at least $61,000 before even considering becoming a $2/$5 pro.

There are numerous factors that should influence your decision to become a professional player. If you have a family, your expenses will be much more than a single person and will probably increase as time goes forward, especially if you have young children. You’ll also find it hard to justify putting in numerous hours at the table while you miss your child growing up. This will often result in playing during non-peak hours, which will dramatically cut your win rate. If you currently have a “normal” job that pays well, you’ll also have a tough time justifying the move to poker. If you make $40 per hour at your job, which provides a nice, secure paycheck, there is really no reason to rely on poker, even if your actual hourly rate may be slightly higher. There is a lot of value in having no variance to your monthly income.

9781909457232-JCash-vol1One thing most players don’t consider when going pro is you may not be as good as you think you are. If you don’t have a long track record of winning, you shouldn’t even consider quitting your job. I would estimate that you need at least a 500 hour sample in the game you plan on playing before attempting to go pro. These 500 hours will also have let you grind up an adequate bankroll for the game. Ideally, this trial period will let you know what your win rate it is. I also suggest you diligently study my in-depth book, Jonathan Little on Live No-Limit Cash Games.

You may find you enjoy poker as a hobby and not a job. I suggest taking some vacation time away from your job and playing poker as you would if you were a professional, before actually quitting your job. Hopefully, this will let you know what it feels like to play poker every day. Playing poker professionally requires a drastically different mindset compared to playing recreationally.

You may have noticed that I did not mention becoming a professional tournament player. This is because, for the most part, it is quite difficult to put in enough time at the table necessary to give you a steady sizable return. Also, small stakes tournaments in most local casinos are not profitable due to poor structures and high rake. For example, if you can play a $200 buy-in + $30 rake tournament at your casino every day that has a relatively fast structure, you may win something like $50 per game. If each tournament takes 4 hours, you will win $5 per hour ($50 per game – $30 rake). Even if your tournament is incredibly soft, you may win at the rate of $20 per hour, which is about as much as a great player will win at $1/$2 cash games. Notice that putting in 4 hours per day playing a tournament with a win rate of $20 per hour will not make you rich anytime soon. Since most casinos don’t have daily $500 buy-in or larger tournaments, I suggest you devote your time to cash games when you are initially considering going pro. Playing tournaments only becomes a reasonable idea when the buy-ins become very large, assuming the fields are still soft, because then, you can expect to have a high hourly rate.

going-pro-jonathan-littleIn the end, if someone hates their 9-to-5 job and wants to play poker, they are probably going to try going pro. Do your best to make sure the decision is the correct one because if you’re wrong, you may squander a lot of time, as well as your bankroll. If you decide to make the leap, let me know!

To further illustrate the dedication you must have to the game if you want to succeed, I suggest you check out the Going Pro series I recorded with one of my best students, OneTimeJoker. He came to me a few years ago asking to be coached. It was clear to me that he had the drive and passion to become great. We recorded every one of our training sessions, which you can check out here.

Thanks for reading. Be sure to check back next week for another educational blog post.


39 thoughts on “Should you go pro?”

  1. Why is it that most people feel it their duty to point out reason that dreams won’t work? If someone’s dream is to become a professional poker player they should go for it. I recently talked to a pro player and before he knew thing one about me he launched into a 10 minute lecture of why I could never play poker for a living. Everyone is different and will have a different experience doing what they love to do. For those of you that want to turn pro listen to yourself and tune out the negative voices on the outside and the inside, put the hours in to practice and study the game, get a coach and go for it!

    1. It IS my duty to advise my students in the way I think is best for them. I certainly do not want my students to approach becoming a pro in a blind manner. I want them to fully know what to expect. They last thing I want is for one of them to waste a significant portion of their lives trying something they didn’t actually want in the first place.

      If you read this article as me telling you not to go pro, it likely means you aren’t ready. If you read it and are excited to get started with the journey, you are on the right path.

  2. Thank you for this post Jonathan. Very wise and solid advice I admit that I had these types of dreams of quitting my 9-5 job and living the “glamorous” life of a poker pro when I first started playing. It is human nature I think to dream of making lots of big money quickly. I think of it as a kind of “poker fever” that is common when people first get hooked on the game.

    But your advice is sound. I think many people don’t realize that being a professional poker player is like any other job and you will have to work and do all the things like record keeping, taxes, insurance, and al the other living costs. I like your point that many people don’t realize that they would need to treat it like any other job and would put in the same hours.

    Everyone’s situation is different of course, so if a young person has other sources of income, or a person is able to take early retirement and wants to give poker a try that is great. But you are talking to the majority of people and they would be wise to listen to you.

  3. Great writing and advice as always Jonathan. It’s a slightly better situation in the UK where our gambling winnings are not taxed. And health care is generally cheaper.

    Still, that’s a definite “slightly” there!

  4. Great topic and advice Jonathan. To Lisa I understand your frustration but like all good advice you have to take the parts that fit your situation the best and apply them as best you can. Jonathan is coming from a position of responsibility here and you should respect that. He has to present a realistic picture for you and I think he does that very well. And this may sound funny but I would not recommend that a young person do what I do for a living either. I have been a golf course superintendent for 26 years and the business has changed drastically over that time. And to be honest I have probably become a little negative on the state of the game and the future that it can offer a young person. I think this happens in many professions so again, take what you can and learn how it can help you move forward. Now, on to my situation. I am in early 50’s and love to play poker any chance I get. I have a good job currently and a family and I could never step away from those responsibilities on purpose but I dream of winning Circuit ring or a BPO main event some day. My plan for the next ten years is to play when I can, study hard and get to a point that I can semi-retire and play tournaments. Turns out many of the big events are at really nice places and I think my wife would enjoy the travel and seeing places with me. Till then I guess I’ll be dead money playing when I can and just trying to satelite up for main events but I will be having a great time. And who knows, maybe I’ll learn enough from Jonathan that I might be a bit more than dead money some day. All the Best!!

  5. Most players reading this (Lisa included) are not as good as Gus Hansen and he lost $20 million in 18 months on Full Tilt.
    Jonathan always gives it to you straight so that you can make an informed decision.
    Sitting at a poker table and grinding out a $100K/YEAR INCOME does not sound like fun to me.

    Jonathan did not add the detriment to your health or the cost of buying food and drinks at the table.

    Lisa, I have dedicated myself to a profession. I have read a book a week on sales, leadership, or human behavior for 40 years. That is 2000 books for the math challenged. I earn a nice 7 figure income with no potential “bad run”.
    I had a call in radio show for 6 years called “Winning the game of life.” I always encouraged people to go for their dreams. But, as Jonathan says, be prepared and go in with eyes open.
    I attended a WSOP boot camp where a young pro showed me his spread sheet for the year. This guy did not sugar coat his results. He was basically even for the year (6 months into the year). He has played 8 million hands on-line and is ahead for his career.
    If you have a decent bankroll and a way to replenish it when you go broke and have read all of Jonathan’s books and watched all his videos, then go for it.

  6. What most of the people that turn pro do not realize is all the risks associated with it (Jonathan already outlined some of important points), here are mine:

    1. The lifestyle of a an average poker pro just sucks. Whether you play cash in a local card room or online you’re either spending your entire evening sitting in a casino playing cards or clicking 16 tables online. Does it sound exciting? May-be yes for some, but add family. Still exciting? May-be not.

    2. There is more money to be made outside poker. Of course, if you’re Joe Mckeehen you’re going to argue, but face it $50k net income per year is not worth it. If you’re smart enough to beat tough games you are smart enough to get a job that earns equivalent of the above.

    3. Of course you can grow as a poker player, but that’s it. You’re not going to be able to use the skill anywhere else. If you’re growing in a job, start your own company, sky is the limit.

    4. Things out of your control – legislation, rake, rakeback. If you make a decision today and calculate $50k net income, poker can become illegal in your state in 6 months. Or your income will shrink with changes in the VIP club benefits. Rake is going to be increased and you no longer beat the game or your hourly is significantly down.

    5. If you ever quit playing poker, what is your plan? If you quit after winning a big event, great, but most of the poker pros would quit because they cannot earn their hourly or because of the lifestyle that they don’t want anymore. You have a hole in your resume. While the others grew in their role, progressed their careers or grew their own companies, you’re there with a hole in your resume. “But it’s not gambling” is not going to work with any employer.

    Good luck if you decide to go pro, but the risks in my opinion are bigger than potential benefits (for the average player).

  7. For me, I’ve never even considered going pro because I would be taking something I’m passionate about and turning it into a job. If that doesn’t automatically suck all of the joy out of it, I don’t know what will.

    I agree with all of the other points made here, as well. Work/life balance is important – less so in your 20’s, more so as you get older. When you take a job, you ask about vacation, benefits, etc. You need to ask yourself those same questions about poker. I am extremely lucky that I have a job that allows me to work from home, make a good salary, earn plenty of vacation, and have health care for myself and my family. If your career options are limited and you basically have nothing to lose, or if you’re young and this is your passion, then of course, go for it. But this article is a good guide for those who are considering giving up a reliable source of income of what to realistically expect if you choose this path.

  8. Isn’t the “Going Pro Series” primarily (exclusively) Tournaments and SNGs? Although there is some overlap, cash is primarily a “deep stack” game. I would love to see a “Going Pro Series” exclusively for cash players (probably 9 seats which is most similar to live play) where you give lessons to a player(s) playing cash games. What hands to raise by position, when to isolate, when to call or 3Bet; maybe with a heads up display to help with you decisions (which is similar to cash and observing how many hands a player is playing).


  9. Basically I just like flopping sets and stacking donkies over and over again. Hitting quads on the turn is also one of my specialties that I love now and again. If you call this “going pro” then I’m in.

  10. I tried this back in ’08 when there were no jobs, insurance mandate, and bad market. I did ok, my numbers looked EXACTLY as described here. When my sales came back, I never wanted to play pro ever again. This list is the facts but at lower levels, you’re constantly listening to the clank of chips and the monotony of looking at hand after hand, after hand, after hand…, sitting with people who are often introverts, lowlifes, addicts, or gangsters, you eat garbage and cheap food, and the gamblers (who you need to generate action) drive you nuts. It’s not an entirely bad environment but the 80/20 rule applies. Through all this, you have to maintain a high discipline.

    I totally enjoy being a serious amateur. If I hit a big score, i’d play more but not full time

  11. Aside from taking a $60K bankroll and going pro playing $2/$5, another viable path I can see to going pro as a live player is to accumulate a small bankroll while working a full time job, then taking shots at mid-size MTTs with that bankroll.
    For example, playing small games as a hobby, accumulating $2k-$3k, and entering a few $500 – $1,500 tournaments. Bink one of them and you’re looking at >$30K. Then take shots at slightly larger MTTs and hopefully bink one of them for over $100K. Then your path is (somewhat) open to going pro as a mixed cash game/tournament player and it still would require lots of work to stay on top of the game.
    This path requires luck and perseverance, and a lengthy period of time. But it won’t require a leather-ass 30-40 hours a week at $2/$5.
    One example of this pattern would be Neil Blumenfield.

    1. Ideally you would have built that $60,000 bankroll from time playing as an amateur. I am certainly not suggesting you cash out your savings and put it all on the line to try to go pro. I strongly suggest you “become a pro” while you work your day job, putting in all the spare time you can into poker. I then suggest you take some “vacation” and treat it as if you are a pro.

  12. Having experienced what Jonathan described I have to agree with most of the comments on here. My situation was not exactly quitting and trying poker but having been made redundant and receiving a 12 month salary payout I was in a position to give it a go. Jonathan was one of the people I sought advice from and the advice he gave was both brutally honest and extremely helpful…both of which was appreciated.

    I gave it 3 months and had to stop. My win rate was pretty much where I wanted it to be but I was start to dislike the game (I was playing live cash after always being an online MTT guy). I was barely seeing my family and trying to fit in other things that I enjoy like sport, friends and eating better food that served up at the casino snack bar!

    All in all I am glad I tried it and have no regrets but the advice given to me before I tried and the advice JL gives in his blog are spot on. Having experienced playing live cash full time it is no wher enear as glamourous as it sounds. You have to be super mentally tough to handle the swings and the part of the blog that resonated the most with me is trying to grind 40hours a week. It just plain sucks being at a casino with (generally) a bunch of losers whilst patiently trying to play your A game.

    Fair play to JL for a) taking his time to post this blog giving free advice and b) responding to all the people that like me that have sent in the questions about going pro and responding detailed and honest manner.


    Richard “ChipDouglas1” Broxton

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience with attempting to go pro. It certainly isn’t for everyone. I am glad you gave it a shot and came away still enjoying the game.

  13. Thanks Jonathon for all the info you give us.
    After 15 yrs at the same job making $15 an hour
    Which I know is a embarrassing yearly income ,
    I was finally able to quit my job March 18th,
    to start playing Poker full time.
    I do have one year bill money set aside plus my bankroll .

  14. My embarrasing story: quit my 18$ a hr job to grind 1/2 and 2/5 games with a limited bankroll and very limited life savings. After about 6 months and a downswing i went back to the same job and am now starting from scratch. I still have a desire to be pro but this time i am looking to have a 30 buy in roll for 2/5 cash games and a year of living expenses. I think it is important to understand why you need such a cushion. Most people go on a hot streak and quit without considering a long downswing. Anyway, something that i didnt see mentioned here that also was a negative when i was playing full time was the stigma of being a “gambler” or “hustler”. A lot of family and freinds did not understand that many people do this professionally. I struggled with this mentally.

    I also would love to learn more about how cash game winnings are taxed and any tips or suggestions moving forward. If anyone has any material they could link me too i would greatly apperciate it. I saw Jonathan mention 20% of your winnings as a default tax rate.

    I live in New York and hopefully we can get regulated online poker soon. It could create a mini boom because of the large population in the state. We already have a few casinos under construction upstate.

    Thank you and good luck to anyone going pro. You only live once so go for it but also be smart about it too.


    1. You are correct, I failed to mention the general public’s reaction to a “professional gambler”. I tend to not worry about the public’s opinion, but that is something to be concerned with, especially if most of your interactions are in the non-poker world. As for taxes, that is a huge subject. I use a professional accountant, Theresa Fox, who you can google, for all my tax needs. She is excellent. I certainly agree that poker in NY would be excellent. Maybe we will run hot and it will happen!

  15. Hi Jonathan. Is there a concern with the law of diminishing returns in poker as far as skill goes? I can beat the $1/2, $1/$3, and $1/$2-$5 games pretty easily, and people tell me $2/$5 isn’t much tougher…but what about beyond that? Do players pretty much have the fundamentals, adjustments to other players, and tells down so well that the skill edge isn’t very large at all between players once you get decently high in stakes? If I become a pro, is it likely I will have a ceiling around the $5/$10 games? Is poker complicated enough to really have much of an edge past that? How about your matches with Barry Greensten and Phil Ivey etc. Aren’t you guys basically all about equal? Thanks, Tony

    1. It depends on the setting. For example, $10/$20 at Bellagio is still somewhat populated by tight, passive players who are competent enough. To beat these players, you steal more than your fair share of the small pots. If the line up is all good regs, you simply don’t play. During the WSOP, the $10/$20 games are quite soft, making them great. I certainly agree that as you move up, the games generally become tougher. I find that $5/$10 is about as high as you can reasonably play and expect a somewhat soft game on a regular basis. However, if you can make $100/hr at $5/$10, that isn’t so bad!

  16. Hi. I just subscribed to your new website I retired from the Federal Government last November to pursue a full time poker career. I live near the new poker rooms that recently opened up in Maryland. It was rough going the first 5 months. Up until I won event #8 at the WSOP Circuit Events in Baltimore. I cashed for $15,000.00. It is my largest cash ever. I also cashed for $3,000.00 about 3 weeks prior to that at a Tournament at Maryland Live. This has all been since January. You are absolutely correct that you will not want to play 50 hours per week. That takes a toll on the body, both physically and mentally. I have discovered after a week of playing tournaments and/or cash games, such as the WSOP in Baltimore or the WPT at the Borgata in February, I need two days to recover. I’m a little older (56) but still, I have come home more mentally and physically exhausted than I ever was working 9-5. Further, no matter how good you are, there are going to be some bad days. That being said, the good days I’ve had far outweigh the bad. However, it does become a job. You have to play even when you don’t feel like it, on days when you would rather be outside or home with your family. However, I love the independence of playing poker, and I absolutely love the game. Further, a lot of the work at poker comes not from playing, but from working on your game. There are times when I study the game for 6-8 hours per day when I’m not playing. The ability to study the game has really helped. I would urge anyone to give it a try and follow their dream. However, as Jonathan points out, be careful, as a lot of poker dreams become nightmares without the appropriate dedication and bankroll.

  17. Only thing I will add is that you can gradually become a pro. I started long time ago playing the smallest stakes with 50$ and worked my way up to the point where I was making good income that’s more then what I would make at a job with little stress. This took a long time but now this is all I do besides venturing into stocks.( so now I trade and play poker ). So if your wondering if you should be a pro then you probably shouldn’t. You do this gradually and grind it out to the point where you have been making enough to live off of in a healthy way year after year. You need years of sample imo before you want to quit your job. I got lucky since I started when I was in college so this was my only income but if you do have a job then you should really make sure you have adequate history of being a winner before making any decision. And this history should be atleast a few years of grinding (not just getting lucky in a tournament). I knew Jonathan from poker tables long time ago when he and I both grinder sngs. So that’s just to show how many years it really takes to understand that you can do this. Winning isn’t the only factor.

  18. This is exactly what these players try to do: kill your dream. Over 1 year of playing poker semi-pro (and way more than 500 hours), I make x5 of what I earn at my office job. So don’t tell me how “hard” it is. I’ve read your books, Jonathan, you can call me a dreamer or whatever, but for me 30 hours a week at the poker table is NOT enough. 40-60. I love poker, I adore it with all my heart. I constantly work on my game when I’m not at the table. I loved card games since I was 5 years old. It is my passion so what you say is only for people who don’t enjoy poker much. It’s not 50k a year if you do your homework. Even $1/2 would bring you more. P.S. I have saved 6 months living expenses and going pro soon. What do I have to lose? Nothing. I can come back to my office job, they will even hire me back.

    1. You seem to have taken offense that I presented the facts. It is difficult to make it as a small stakes player. That is not a bad thing. If you are comfortable with the reality and still want to try to go pro, you should. If you are not, then you should not. Do not take presenting the facts as me trying to kill dreams. As a coach, my job is to give my students accurate advice. If I blindly told everyone to go for it and that they will get rich, I would not be doing my job.

    1. I am glad you enjoy my blog. I would venture to say that you decided to make the jump earlier than I would have, but I wish you the best of luck. Keep grinding and move to $2/$5 ASAP because the rake is much less of a killer there.

  19. Jonathan, what are your thoughts on appropriate bankroll and reasonable expectations for a winning player at:

    1/3 NL (500 max buyin live)

    2/5 NL (1K max buyin live)

    Factor in $5 max rake and $2 BBJ drop

    1. It depends entirely on how risk averse you are. In general though, if you have a solid win rate, something like 4,000 big blinds should be adequate.

      Also, $7 rake per hand is HIGH! Make sure you can beat the game.

  20. Hi John,
    I greatly appreciate your approach and thank you so much for all the work you do for us.
    I see that most people are talking about earning a life. I am a CTO and have 6 figure currently at the age of 32. I am also a software engineer and architect, so i already have a craft.
    My dilemma is not totally about money as i know the implications. But, it is that it is such a good game that teaches me a lot of valuable things such as discipline, forward thinking, humility, psychology. All of these are ultimate skills that can be applied to all.
    Do i want to give my job? I dont think so.
    Do i want to give up on poker? I dont think so.
    Would i be better off putting all my power, focus and time on one? Would it make me enjoy my life more?
    Till i figure this out, i created a schedule for myself where i play a couple of nightly 10ks during the week online and on most sundays.
    Maybe if some leaders like Jonathan and others wont point out things, we would be lost.
    I would like to hear any advice as i am struggling to have time to study and practice both poker and engineering.

    1. It is important to understand that getting good at poker is like getting good at any other high-level skill. It takes a TON of time to become great. If your goal is to make $100,000+ each year from poker, you need to either find amazingly soft games or become world-class, which takes years of dedication. Basically every world class pro I know had periods of their life where they played/studied poker for 80 hours a week every week for multiple years.

      If I were in your situation, I would keep my job and then spend about half of my “poker” time studying by watching videos/playing on and the other half playing something like 4 tables at once online. This will quickly develop your skills while allowing you to get in at least some games. Good luck!

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