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(If you're thinking about...) GOING PRO

Becoming a poker pro may seem like living the dream to the majority of amateurs, but there are a lot of factors to consider before taking the plunge, as Juha Helppi explains

Before you decide to make the jump from an amateur player to pro, there are many things that you have to consider. Are you good enough, do you have a bankroll for it, are you able to handle the swings, how will you family take it and so on. Life as a professional poker player sounds glamorous and a lot of fun and it is – but it certainly isn’t easy.

First of all you need to be very good. Just good is not enough. There are a lot of good amateurs out there and you have to be able to constantly make money playing if you go pro – just occasionally scoring is not enough. This is why you have to be good in cash games. It is very hard to be a professional who only plays tournaments as you can run dry for a long time, no matter how good you are. No matter how hard you work, sometimes it just ends up costing you more and more money and it can get very frustrating. If you are not good in cash games, I recommend that you practice more and don't quit your day job to become a tournament pro only. The luck factor is big in tournaments, even if you play regularly for years – sometimes the difference between a big payday and getting nothing is often one or two coin flips. Learn how to beat cash games instead!

As a pro you will need to be mentally tough, because there will be a lot of hard times when you feel that Lady Luck has abandoned you. Every pro has experienced bad times and I personally think that the true toughness of a pro is truly put to the test during bad times. Many pros go on tilt and waste a lot of their money – some even go broke. Not necessarily on poker, but many of them end up on craps and blackjack tables ‘donating’ their money to the casinos. Sounds like an amateur thing to do, but believe me; it is common among pros too. There are actually a surprising number of professional players who have lost huge amounts of money playing blackjack and craps. Those games are very addictive, so it is better to never even try them after a bad session. This is even more common when people get drunk. Of course, it is clear that if you play poker for a living, you cannot consume too much alcohol too often and certainly no drugs. Be prepared for the bad times and stay away from table games and other bad habits.

One other important thing is to keep yourself in good physical condition. Mental and physical condition usually go hand-in-hand, so if you are in good physical condition, you will have a better chance of being able to handle the mentally tough situations that will eventually occur in your poker career. It is crucial to do some sort of physical exercise a few times a week – gym, tennis, jogging; whatever you like. This helps to release some of the stress and frustration that poker causes and if you are feeling good, you usually play much better too. Most poker players are in a pretty bad physical shape, but you will notice that the majority of top pros in the world keep themselves in a good physical state. Do not underestimate the importance of your physical condition and, if you haven’t already, start doing something about it. The secret is to find something that you like; for example, I personally do not like going to the gym or jogging, but I love playing tennis, football and floorball. So find a sport that you like and start doing that a few times a week. Keep it up and you will notice the difference not just in your physical condition, but in your poker too.

Poker is a game that keeps evolving and you need to be able to adapt your game all the time. A few years ago, the most common game online was Limit Hold’em. I have many friends who played for a living back then only playing limit, but now those games have pretty much dried up and everybody is playing No Limit, or Pot Limit Omaha. Some of my friends have been able to adapt, but some have simply gone bust and quit playing poker. You never know how long the games that you are strongest at will last, so it is vital to be able to play a few poker games well enough to make a living. I think the best game to play online at the moment is Pot Limit Omaha – in fact, if you are reading this and do not play PLO yet, its time to learn it and start quickly!

If you have family, discuss going pro with them before you decide on anything. Instead of the normal daytime work that your family will be used to, you will be playing a lot during late hours as this is the time when most games are running. You should definitely try to separate your poker life from your normal life – if you are able to do this, you can relax better when you have time off from poker and you will enjoy life much more. You will also probably play better when your life is not all about poker. Even if you don't have a family yet, it is hard to get one if you spend all your nights in the casinos! If you are a good online player, you can be a pro and still spend time with your family and be there when they need you. You can find a good game online almost anytime nowadays if you don’t play at the highest stakes and it is also a lot faster way to make money if you are a winning cash game player.

If you have these things covered, you still need a reasonable bankroll before you decide to go pro. You will need to make money playing poker because you won't have a regular income from your job anymore and will pay all your bills from your winnings. If you make only small money, you can go broke just by paying your normal bills. Build a big enough bankroll to manage through bad times and keep a separate bankroll for expenses. This separate bankroll should be big enough to cover one year of your normal expenses. A good bankroll also keeps stress away when you are playing and that helps a lot. If you have a small bankroll you will be playing with ‘scared money’. And scared money is losing money. I would say a good bankroll is 100 full buy-ins at whatever level you play – so if you are a $10/20 NL player, you would need $200,000 plus some money on the side for expenses. If your game is Pot Limit Omaha, you will probably need even more than this, because swings in PLO are so much bigger than in No Limit.

You will also have to manage your bankroll wisely. Playing $10/20 and having a $200,000 bankroll does not mean that you have to keep it online or in cash somewhere. You should invest most of it well and have a part of it in cash for poker. Get someone to help you invest the money as you can get a nice extra income per year if you do this wisely. However, just like in poker, sometimes you lose money to your investments, so do not think you will automatically get profit on them every year.

Of course, there are a lot of good things about playing poker professionally. If you play poker for a living, you can pretty much choose when you have time off and go for a holiday and if you travel to play live tournaments, you can even take your holiday after playing poker. Many live tournaments are arranged in great locations, but you should not play when you don’t feel like it. You are your own boss, so instead of going to work you can go for a movie or whatever you like to do and – if you know what you are doing – you can earn some big bucks. In poker you can go from rags to riches in a very short time.

Last but not least, you need real passion for the game. You need to love what you do, because if you don’t, you won’t work hard enough to improve your game and you may become a losing player when others around you improve. The level of play has increased a lot during the last two years and there are a lot of young, smart guys who spend virtually all their free time learning and playing the game. They get very experienced quickly by playing a lot of hands online and there is a lot of competition out there. The common saying: "Poker really is a hard way to make an easy living" is very true, so prepare yourself well before quitting your day job and you’ll have a much better chance of succeeding.
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