We all play poker right? So who gets to decide who is a poker pro and what that even means? In my first few years of making my living exclusively from poker I was a bit embarrassed to tell people I was a poker pro but I made a point of being open about my source of income if people asked me what I do for a living. Over the years I’ve become more comfortable with the idea and have a bit more clarity on what it actually means.
The main identifying characteristic might be the most mundane, taxes. Here in the US the mechanics of how you get taxed and what forms you fill out is different depending on whether you are claiming you play poker as a business or not. Taxes don’t excite most people but its a pretty clean definition. If the IRS believes you are a pro, then you are a pro. That doesn’t necessarily make you a particularly good one, but you are a pro nonetheless. I’m sure there are plenty of grinders who might be staying under the radar entirely. But I have a long held belief, conscience aside, that if you do this as your primary income and you are under retirement age it will ultimately make more sense to be transparent. Apart from being the right thing to do this has to do with deducting travel expenses, earning social security benefits and contributing to retirement accounts (Yes, poker players should probably think about retirement like everyone else).
I suspect you are about to start reading more about this in 2018 in the US. The reason is that the tax code changes on the horizon are likely to increase the differences between those who claim they are in a poker “business” and those who don’t. As someone on Twitter pointed out to me, there will be alot of money paid to accountants in 2018 to figure this out.
Taxes aside, you can choose to approach the game like a pro regardless of whether the IRS thinks poker is a hobby for you or a business. A professional poker player approaches each session as being part of one lifelong poker game. That might sound cheesy but what it means is that you try to focus on getting as many individual decisions right without worrying so much about whether this individual session is up or down. Avoiding sessionitis (decisions being corrupted by swings of the session) is a big part of approaching the game like a professional. How many players have you seen at the tail end of a losing session buy back in one last time. But instead of treating that buyin like any other they are only interested in a quick double up. They’re in a hurry and it shows in their decisions. The emotional pain from their losing session is hardly made worse by losing one more buyin. But if they could just run it up…
Related to this is thinking about and tracking your profit as an hourly average. In a game as swingy as poker (or any kind of investing where luck plays a big role in the short term) you are never going to be able to evaluate your performance if you just look at individual session results. You have to average it out over the long haul and then reflect back over a significant number of hours. That means keeping track of your session results is a must, but paradoxically not reading much into any one session. It doesn’t really matter whether you are talking about $15 per hour grinding in a modest cash game or $1000 per hour “grinding” high roller events at Aria. Either way you need to know what you are averaging per hour over a significant sample. This hourly mentality is very helpful in ensuring you are putting in enough hours. Time is still money even though the swings of the game try to deceive you with outlandish wins and soul crushing losses. The generation of internet pros truly understand this in minute detail. They can look at their database of hundreds of thousands of hands and tell you exactly how many big blinds per hour they average with each hand combination in each position. Even without that level of detail the same principles apply to all of us whether we acknowledge it or not.
So regardless of whether you choose to declare your winnings or stuff them under a mattress, make 2018 the year you approach the game more professionally.
Happy New Year!