This post is mostly about the shortcomings of a professional Poker career
I used to play Poker for a living from 2018-2021. These days whenever I recount my past with new people, everyone inevitably asks me why I stopped playing the game (full time) if it was profitable to do so. Its understandably hard to comprehend why anybody would stop pursuing a money making endeavour. So, I want to write this post to summarily answer most questions around this topic and mostly because I am tired of repeating myself again and again.
I was working as a product manager at Flipkart.com back in 2020 and around that time, I quit my job to pursue the game for two main reasons:
- The lifestyle and the freedom that comes along with playing Poker full time. You aren’t answerable to anybody. You set your own schedule. You can play from anywhere, travel all the time and visit casinos in cool places.
- Financial incentives. Poker has the best hourly rate for any job in India. The money is simply un-comparable to any job a 20 year old can get and is close to VP+ level in unicorn/FAANG companies
I stopped playing full time because both of the above premises turned out to be false. Let me explain
Imagine sitting in front of a screen for 12-16hrs a day, clicking buttons (without tilting) for a living. Money has lost its meaning long time ago. You don’t care about the wins anymore and the losses still hurt. Winning is not fun because by now you are very conscious of the fact that you can lose 10x that amount any week/day. Your net worth is swinging everyday and variance can be brutal. In fact, you are at the mercy of variance on a day to day basis. I have seen fellow top notch Poker players running below EV for 5-6L hands which is a year worth of effort. Imagine doing everything correct(studying, playing well, not tilting etc) and still end up negative for the entire year and have nothing to show for the work. This is entirely normal in certain high variance Poker games like PLO6, especially when relative edges are lower and rake is high (Indian high stakes basically)
- As a Poker player, the main fundamental thing is putting volume(no. of hands played / hour/day/week whatever). Now, you can’t be jet setting around the globe and putting in the required hands.
- There is a reason professional Poker players are called grinders. Its a grind.
- Moreover, its not at all enough to just play Poker. You need to be at the top shape mentally and physically as the game takes a heavy toll on yourself. This means getting mental coaching session 3x a week, getting theory coaching, hand reviews, etc which is up to 20hrs a week. Its actually way way more hectic schedule than working a simple day job especially given there are no breaks/weekends/festivals etc.
- But all of the above sacrifice is worth it because you are also making 10x your day job. Right? Not really. Let me explain in the next section.
The 95th percentile Poker income is about $200-250k. While this number looks big on paper(relative to what they pay at Flipkart), there are some caveats. Also, when you suddenly start making 10x your previous income, it clouds your judgment. Its hard to think long term.
- This figure doesn’t grow with time. Sure you can move up the stakes but then you will also be playing vs really good players and your relative edge goes down. Beating the rake is hard and you have to constantly study/work on your game everyday. Your skill curve will plateau hard after a point and its super hard to become the world best. Its basically professional athletics at that level.
- However, tech salaries and startup outcomes grow with time. Your experience compounds. You get equity. 95th percentile financial outcome in tech is much much bigger. Flipkart is actually a good example of a top percentile outcome for its employees. 50+ folks supposedly made $10mil + which is super hard to make in Indian Poker in 15 years. “Indian Poker” is the key word here.
And finally and this was one of the biggest reasons I shifted back to job is because I missed:
- Working with smart folks. Sure, I was lucky to study/learn from some really smart folks but most days I am playing against randoms and its not intellectually stimulating. (remember winning money has stopped being stimulating as well and now you are searching for something better)
- Building something tangible at the end of the day. I want to have something to show at the end of 10yrs and not just numbers in my bank account
- Poker is a very lonely game. You are solely responsible for your outcomes. While this is intoxicating as a naive young kid, you soon realize that all worthwhile stuff is built through collaboration and smart folks working together
- Mental health goes for a toss as you are swinging for a % of net worth everyday. You results are sometimes out of your hand and that sucks. Your base dopamine levels get screwed and you no longer get excited by stuff which you used to enjoy before. Its actually a pretty commonly acknowledged problem in the poker/trading community
- Politics and networking. While some Poker players argue that this is part and parcel of being a professional, I was personally uncomfortable sucking up to whales/big fishes to get access to their games. I was unwilling to fake my persona/feelings just to get a juicy chance to play in a game. I just wanted to put in my hands, play my game style, move on and not deal with the politics. With that attitude and disinclination towards bum-hunting, I was anyway not cutout for the highest stakes (its a compulsory now to do this as highest stakes in India are all private games). One of my Poker and life heroes Phil Galfond writes a lot about this on his blog. Do check it out.
TBH, in-spite of all the reasons stated above, I was totally confident in my self to become one of the top pros in the world if I grinded for another 10-15 years. But after meeting them, their lifestyle, earnings, swings etc, I wasn’t sure I wanted that life for myself when I am in my early 40s or late 30s. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be playing cards for a living for 20-25% of my lifespan which felt incredibly wasteful to me personally.
The above were my personal reasons for moving away from Poker. There are some other things like changing life priorities, achieving financial security, long-term sustainability concerns and regulatory/compliance challenges which I haven’t elaborated much on. While bidding farewell to a successful career in professional Poker is undoubtedly a significant decision, it is essential to recognize that life is a dynamic journey, and priorities evolve. I would like to think that I evolved and can judge decisions better.
In conclusion, I didn’t think through the minor caveats of the career path and was fascinated by the competitive aspect(you play something for a living which I still find fun) and the money. However, I am still extremely grateful about my journey. I learned another skill and I probably can always find a way to support myself in dire situations. Poker has taught me a lot of life lessons and has immensely shaped how I view the world on a day to day basis. I am better at quantifying risk , looking at decisions from a EV perspective(instead of being results oriented) and overall having a good idea of how to judge EV of a situation. Things like bank roll management, the mental stamina, propensity to take immense amount of stress repeatedly, grit etc are also things that Poker teaches you and I probably should write another post about my life lessons from the game if enough people ask me that question IRL.🤣
If you liked this, checkout my other posts on building a business in Poker and how to think about bundling games: