This is the first in a series of articles about playing low-limit NLHE. My reference point will be $1/2 in Las Vegas since that is the game I play the most, but the majority of the content will be relevant to live low-limit NLHE anywhere. If you play this game only occasionally or grind out hundreds of hours a year, these articles aim to help you play the game more profitably and with greater enjoyment. In places I will take issue with Red Chip Poker orthodoxy and disagree with RCP founders and coaches even though they are better at poker than me. I hope this will provoke discussion about life in the shallow end of the NLHE pool.
Just over a decade ago I quit my job to play poker for a living. At the time of Black Friday I was mostly grinding tournaments, sit-n-goes and cash-game Omaha variants online. Since live poker in Kansas was a little thin on the ground, it was apparent I would have to move. As a frequent visitor to Las Vegas for years, my relocation destination was obvious.
When I got here I had played maybe three or four live NLHE sessions. My plan was to play $8/16 Omaha-8 at the Venetian (a game I had scouted extensively) and supplement this with tournaments. For multiple life and poker reasons that are not particularly interesting, this plan faltered. But as I became more integrated into the Vegas poker community I noticed two things: there was a population of grinders making a meager but viable living playing NLHE $1/2, and the vast majority of tourists were playing this game. Poorly.
It was this switch in my primary game that led to, among other things, becoming a subscriber at RCP. Over the last five years my $1/2 skills have improved and I have learned how to survive using this game as my base. And while I don’t regret my decision to make my living playing poker, I wouldn’t recommend what I do to anyone else.
I was prompted to write this article, at least in part, by the significant number of people I meet who are considering or currently embarking on playing $1/2 for a living. Many appear to be oblivious to bankroll requirements, the inevitable periods of boredom, frustration, and occasional panic, and the fact that poker as a job is a completely different beast from poker on a Wednesday night in their buddy’s den. Few appear to have a well-developed plan, and fewer still have a Plan B.
The main reason given for why people want to become professional poker players, beyond a love for the game, is that these individuals want autonomy. They don’t want to work for someone else who tells them when and where to work. They want to sleep until noon and adopt a professional schedule solely determined by themselves.
Fine. I feel the same way. But consider this. Making a basic living at poker is difficult, and making a lucrative one requires the highest levels of self-motivation, study, emotional control, and probably some innate ability at the game. To put it another way, if you are the kind of individual with the intellectual and emotional skills to succeed at poker, it is a given that you could succeed in a host of other entrepreneurial endeavors that offer far greater stability and easier financial rewards than does poker.
So what are the downsides of playing $1/2 for a living? Let’s start with the basics. To play poker well, it’s generally agreed that you have to have a certain level of detachment from the money involved. If you’re having a good session and the stacks of chips in front of you metamorphosize in your mind into this month’s rent, you’re doing it wrong. The conventional wisdom in modern NLHE is that the highest hourly comes through employing high-variance plays. This in turn means you need a sufficient bankroll such that you can make these plays without worrying about what the chips you place in play could buy. In addition to your technical decisions being compromised by a short roll, your ability to play well will further deteriorate because of emotional stress.
While nobody is sure what the maximum achievable hourly rate at $1/2 is, I have a pretty good idea of what the better Vegas players make. I frequently hear neophyte grinders mention figures of what they expect to soon be pulling in completely out of step with what veterans actually bank. Unless you have remarkably low requirements for where and how you live, the only way to secure a semi-comfortable lifestyle is through poker volume. Playing 180 hours of poker a month is not a never-ending party in the dazzling lights of Vegas. It’s sitting on your ass in the Flamingo six days a week listening to tourists misquote Rounders as they spill Crown and Coke on you.
“Aha!” you say, “But I’ll only be playing $1/2 for a few months! My future is in $2/5 and beyond!” I see. Certainly some get there. Red Chip Poker’s own Fausto Valdez has successfully made that transition and I wish him the very best. But this is a treacherous food pyramid and becoming an apex predator is not the easy journey that many seem to assume. And yet I still hear bright-eyed newbies tell me that they’ve been doing really well in their bar league in Salina, KS, and that the $850 they’ve saved up will propel them to stardom.
Look. It can be done. You can make a living playing $1/2 and you may be one of the small fraction of dedicated players who move up in limits and only have to put in seventy hours seat-time a month. But isn’t there something else you’d rather be doing?
You may still be wondering what gives me the right to caution others against playing $1/2 for a living given that it is what I do, particularly since I have asserted that I don’t regret this decision.
I genuinely think my situation is somewhat unusual. First, I had already had what most would consider a successful, albeit truncated, career. After obtaining a PhD in theoretical cosmology at the University of London, I moved to the States to work for NASA as part of the Hubble Space Telescope project. I then transitioned into academia where I ultimately became a tenured university professor with a pleasing balance between teaching and research. However, as I moved up the greasy pole of academia I found myself spending more time on committees that spent weeks considering proposals for an expansion of the main parking garage and similar nonsense and decided I needed a new challenge.
I mention this not in an attempt to illustrate how clever I am, but because without this prior career I think I would find my current situation a little depressing. Despite working hard on my game, in many ways I haven’t progressed much during five years in Vegas. I’m playing in the same games with many of the same players, chasing the same promos and eating the same chicken wings in the Diamond Lounge. I am constantly striving to improve, but if I never graduate to higher limits, it really won’t be the worst thing in the world. Survival itself is a form of achievement, and with a career before poker I can choose to think of my current situation as a prolonged retirement.
And perhaps more importantly, my past also gives me a Plan B. Any city that contains colleges also contains college students, a significant fraction of whom are compelled to take courses in math and physics. If the wheels ever fall off the Kat poker-wagon, my Plan B is to offer my tutoring services to them.