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.

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Showing 24 comments
  • Jenny
    Reply

    “Survival itself is a form of achievement” –Truth, man. I admire you greatly for doing what you wanted to do and making a life at it, glamor or no.

  • Jennt
    Reply

    It’s nice you’re able to inject some realism into the community…

  • Nick
    Reply

    Don’t take this as being insulting or condescending as I am legitimately curious…. How does someone with your intelligence and work ethic (Im assuming one must have good study habits to obtain a Ph.D) not be crushing 2/5 right now, especially after five years. What do you think is holding you back?

  • Kat Martin
    Reply

    Fair question. A large part of it is I see a lot of value in the Caesars loyalty program which means playing at CET properties. Most of the year that limits me to the $2/5 at Caesars Palace which is sporadic and often not all that great. More generally my feeling is playing $2/5 would primarily increase my variance without greatly increasing my win-rate, at least initially. At this point if I’m going to play higher variance games I’d rather use that time in tournaments or PLO/(P)LO8 where I have a greater skill edge.

    Cheers ~ Kat

  • Matthew
    Reply

    Good article. In your opinion, what are the top earners (playing over 1,200hrs a year) making as an hourly?

    • Kat Martin
      Reply

      If I had to give a number I think it tops out somewhere around $25/hour for that total number of hours. The issue is the more you play the more you have to put in seat time in quieter time-slots and seasons.

      • Michael Brenneman
        Reply

        I wonder how much the location affects the win rate. I have a buddy in Detroit who said he made $35/hour over a 500 hour sample (the screenshot from his poker bankroll app makes it more believable). He’s a decent solid player at poker. He quit because the swings affected him too much emotionally. I’ve always imagined that while its easier to put in volume in vegas, the higher percentage of grinders would make the games tougher.

  • Uninc
    Reply

    There is so much truth in this article. It is different if you play 1/2 for living and it is your choice (obviously you have a number of options) vs. starting to play professionally especially at young age. It has the potential to pretty much destroy a better future for the young guys.

    I am currently in Vegas on vacation and cannot stop laughing about these young boys in sweatpants with backpacks.

  • Papabro
    Reply

    Words of wisdom Professor Kat! I’m also from academia (retired) and I stay, eat and grind (1/2) at Ceasar’ properties when I visit Vegas.
    Poker and game theory in general are two areas that continue to evolve. Perhaps we’ll meet in the Dlounge (or on the felt) someday and continue the conversation.

    • Kat Martin
      Reply

      If you see an old man with a battered cowboy hat and a cat’s eyes shirt, please introduce yourself!

  • persuadeo
    Reply

    Looking forward to the series.

  • Simon Rudin
    Reply

    My advice is to learn PLO, especially if you already know PLO8 – win rates in PLO games are much much bigger than NLHE up and down the limits.

    Also I never understand this idea of quitting your job to play 1/2 – keep your job and play 1/2 as your 2nd job till you 1) build up a real roll 2) play enough hours to actually know if you like poker 3) actually become decent at poker

  • Tom
    Reply

    Nice article Kat, keep them coming.

  • Christopher
    Reply

    So you’re saying that I should keep my job as a physician and not quit to become a $1/$2 grinder?! I love the realism in this article. On my vacations and the occasional tournament (1-2x/month) I cram studying and playing like I was studying for my boards. I am good for a recreational players but a fish to the sharks such as yourself. I enjoy your writing. If you are ever in Baltimore again I am sure I’ll see you at one of the local casinos.

  • Michael Brenneman
    Reply

    My cost of living is roughly $900/month and I make $19 an hour at my job in manufacturing. I dont like what I do. I think I can make more money playing poker. I’m transitioning from an online ACR player to live cash. I understand that the grind gets boring and that moving up takes serious dedication, but I think that its a much better path for me than anything that’s immediately available. I detest the current state of higher education and do not want to work in a trade. Once ive saved up enough, should I play poker for a living? and is 10k (4k bankroll + 6k liferoll) enough to get me started? My financial goals right now is to save up enough to buy a fairly cheap house and rent out a room in order to further reduce my cost of living (obviously the rent I’d charge wont cover mortgage but it will cover utilities and the mortgage mostly goes back into my own networth rather than someone else’s like the rent I’m paying now)

    after reading this article, I still think I should play live poker for a living. Is there something I’m missing?

    • Doug Hull
      Reply

      One of the big problem I see for “baby pros” (young guys coming out to make a go of $1-$2) is there is no exit plan. What I mean by that is I have yet to see a low stakes grinder build anything approaching a reasonable Professional $1-$2 bankroll of $21k.

      Where does this number come from? $12k for a BR of 40 Buyins + 9k for 6 months living expenses. If they never even build up a proper $1-$2 bankroll, they are going to have to take massive chances to move up.

      You want to buy a house. I just bought a condo in Vegas that would fit your goals. 90K, it takes about $30k down to get into that. OK, so now lets be more realistic and say you are going to save up $30k over 3 years.

      Three years later, you own a condo. Your living expenses just went down seriously. I know this. I went from $1200 a month apartment to $400 mortgage + $160 HOA and like $140 in utilities. Maybe you get a renter and the condo essentially gets you a free place to live.

      Now you can start to build a roll after three years.

      Oh, you been saving for retirement? You should be. “Bink the Main Event” is not a retirement plan. I think $6k a year into retirement is not anywhere close to enough, but we will make that a goal.

      We have not even gotten to taxes, health insurance, etc…

      So let’s reality check:

      $20 an hour (assumption that you can do this)

      Pre-Condo:

      $1500 Survival living expenses (Nut) 75 hours a month
      $ 833 Saving for 3 year condo purchase 42 hours a month
      $ 500 Retirement 25 hours a month
      $ ??? Taxes and Health Insurance
      ———————————————
      Just a rough estimate we got you at 140 hours a month or 30 hours a week.

      This is all with the VERY generous $20 an hour assumption.

      Let me propose an alternate plan:

      Keep the day job, save like a mad man, live frugal. Play a ton on the weekends and nights. Get damned good at this game, know that your $20 an hour is realistic.

      Have the $30k for the condo and the $21k for the roll. Have a good start on the retirement contributions. Have multiple thousands of hours logged showing that the $20 an hour is realistic.

      Save your vacation time and come to Vegas for as long as you can all at once, maybe three weeks straight. Live the dream and see how it feels. If it is viable, the visit should be self funding if you find a good airBnb or some such. Try and live in a neighborhood with a rental car. Emulate the experience.

      Now, you are set up for success while building up your skills. If you can not save $50K cash with a regular 9-5, you will never be able to do it playing cards. You come out here properly rolled with proven skills, you can not fail.

      I am admittedly a liferoll Nit. That said, I am 43 and all I got to do is break even until retirement kicks in. Saving like mad during my 15 year engineering career has given me what most people are looking to from poker: Time. Lot’s of it. Now I have lots of different passive to semi-passive income streams, play some cards, and ride motorcycles around.

      I highly recommend it if (and only if) you come out over-rolled and over-skilled for the games you will play.

      • Michael Brenneman
        Reply

        I appreciate the great response Doug! I think two things though that you might have missed in my original post is that my cost of living right now is not 1.5k like you said, its 900. I pay 300 a month in rent, my phone bill is covered, my only other expenses is car insurance, health insurance and groceries.

        Also, I’m sure you were making much more as an engineer than I am as a machine operator. So your day job was probably much more valuable.

        My back up plan, honestly is that my cost of living is insanely cheap. I can survive as a grocery store cashier if I needed to until i got back into manufacturing.

        Im not trying to be argumentative, I just want to make sure all factors are considered. I have over 150k hands played on ACR, one of the toughest online rooms out there. Im not sure how skill on ACR translates to live poker, but I think that while skill and experience i’ve gained from that probably isnt the nuts, it isnt insignificant either. I’m racking up winning sessions on Global, and playing weekends live and if i get close to a 500 hours sample with $20 or better win-rate then I think i need to pull the trigger and write a new chapter in my autobiography.

        • Doug Hull
          Reply

          The $1.5k was an estimate of what I was *actually* spending in Las Vegas. In taking on an adventure like this, being conservative is not a bad thing. I was living in a decent 1000 sqft apartment, utilities included. All in all, a very nice value. If you are willing to have housemates and such, you could go cheaper.

          I am admittedly a liferoll nit. I came out here with a plan A, B, C and D. It is good I did because nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I burned through plans A, B, C pretty quickly. My Plan D was still more solid and better funded than most people’s plan A.

          Then again, there is a totally different way to look at this, and probably the one you want to hear. I gave this advice to my own sister.

          She hated her job. Though it paid decent, at age 38 her retirement only had $5k in it anyways and she had not made any significant headway on other assets. She wanted to get her Captains license and sail big ships. If she was miserable and not getting ahead financially anyways, why not go swab decks and scrape barnacles until she got he hours in to be a Captain. I told her to go for it.

          So now Captain Hull is looking for her ship.

          Go through the podcast list for Red Chip Poker:

          https://redchippoker.com/playing-poker-professionally-podcast/

          This podcast and several others deal with “going pro” Almost universally, we recommend against going Pro. I am a big advocate of “Retire early and play poker” however. I suspect at your age that is not a timeframe you want to deal with.

          Go into this with eyes wide open, know what the pitfalls are. Bring lots of skill and lots of money. If we can not dissuade you from it we can at least prepare you.

          I do think you should seriously consider the “Go Pro Month.” E-mail me: hull@dougHull.com I think I got an offer that you would be down with.

    • Kat Martin
      Reply

      Doug has provided an excellent and comprehensive analysis of the pitfalls. If your current job provides no health benefits nor pension, and you’re in easy reach of good live games, it may make sense for you to take a shot at poker. But even when I reluctantly tell people it may be a decent idea, I always strongly suggest they have a Plan B. In my case I can always tutor college students in math/physics at about 2.5x the hourly I get from poker.

      • Michael Brenneman
        Reply

        Thanks for the reply Kat. I definitely understand its not as glamorous as they make it look on TV. I know what its like to get in the lab for a few hours constructing ranges and I know what its like to 10-table MTTs for an 8 hour session. I think worst case scenario is it doesnt work out and I go back to doing the same thing I am now.

      • Jim C
        Reply

        Hey Kat!
        Random find of you here!
        Very cool.
        I like what I’m reading here.
        (I have many hours playing with Kat at Harrahs and other Caesars props)

        • Kat Martin
          Reply

          Glad to be tracked down 😉

  • Matthew
    Reply

    Kat and Doug. Great advice you’ve given, IMO. I’ve been grinding cash for a living for 10+yrs and totally agree with your approach. You don’t hear a lot of people explain it as responsibly as you have to Mr. Brenneman. Great stuff!!

    I’m curious about the promo possibilities that exist out there. How much do you think the very best regular grinders are making a year just in promos? I know that’s a little hard to answer, but just a rough estimate of the range that’s possible for players who have the biggest edge in those free roll tourneys and are playing 35+hrs a week?

    Not long ago I was chatting with an older gentlemen (good experienced player) who I played with regularly before he moved out to Vegas a few years ago. He told me that he knows of several break even skill level players that are now making 25-$30K a year just from all the promos. That sounded a little far fetched to me and I didn’t really press him for details, but found it curious.

    If I’m asking too much, I’d understand, but if you don’t mind disclosing your opinion on the range of possibilities, I’d definitely appreciate it.

    Thanks for any insight guys and keep up the great work!!

  • Kat Martin
    Reply

    Thanks for the question Matthew. If you’re break-even in promo room cash games I imagine it’s possible to make $25k/year in promos but that you need to play at least 200 hours/month. The funny thing is, you can turn this equation around. If you’re playing 200 hours/month in promo rooms you’re inevitably playing some of that time in dreadful games, so a winning player in a non-promo room gets converted into a break-even one in a promo room.

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