Can I Make Money Playing Poker?
Table Of Contents
Many different paths carry first-timers to the poker tables. Some come to poker via other card games, while others find poker after having sampled other gambling games in the casino, such as blackjack, craps, or roulette. Sports bettors sometimes wander from the sportsbook over to the poker room and find themselves in a game.
Those who stick with the game do so for many reasons, although most are motivated by the prospect of making money from playing a game of cards. Once they realize that poker is a game that rewards not only luck but there is a significant skill element, they take steps to improve their knowledge and skills, and some start dreaming of consistently making money from playing online poker or poker at a brick-and-mortar casino. Only those who take some time to learn poker strategy and gain experience are usually able to sustain that success over more extended periods.
In other words, the short answer to the question "Can I make money playing poker?" is obviously that you can, but you also need to be willing to work to increase your skills and have an advantage over your opponents. While it's certainly possible to win at a single cash game session or go deep and go deep in the $100,000 Mystery Bounty Main Event the first time you play at 888poker, only a small percentage of players remain profitable long-term, and invariably those players are better skilled than those who do not.
Let's look more closely at the question, however, by asking a few other questions addressing factors that will affect the likelihood of your being able to make money at poker and how much you can make.
What is your win rate?
The generic term "win rate" is used to refer to how much someone is winning at poker over a given period or a number of hands played. A player with a positive win rate is profiting from poker, while a player with a negative win rate is not. Calculating your win rate is done differently in cash games and tournaments.
Cash games usually express a win rate as the amount won per hour or 100 hands. In No-Limit Hold'em or Pot-Limit Omaha, the unit of measurement is often converted to big blinds. For example, in a $1/$2 NLHE game at 888poker, making a profit of $10 equals winning five big blinds.
Meanwhile, in Fixed Limit Hold'em, Stud games, and others with fixed-limit betting, the amount won is usually measured in "big bets". For instance, in a Limit Hold'em game where the small bet is $2 (preflop and flop) and the big bet is $4 (turn and river), a player who wins $100 is said to have won 25 "big bets." Somewhat confusingly, both "big blinds" and "big bets" are often abbreviated as "BB" by players discussing poker.
In tournaments, a win rate is usually expressed as a player's return on investment or ROI. To calculate your ROI, divide your profits by your costs and the multiply the answer by 100. For instance, if you spend $200 in buy-ins and cash for $220 total, your ROI is $20 (the profit) / $200 = 0.1 * 100 = 10%.
You aren't making money playing poker if your win rate or ROI is negative. But even if you enjoy a positive win rate or ROI, you need to consider other expenses related to playing poker if you prefer playing live poker. If it costs you $10 in gas every night to get to and from a poker room and you're only averaging winning $5 per session, your win rate is positive, but you aren't making money. Or if you spend $10,000 over a year traveling to poker tournaments but only have an ROI good enough to earn you $8,000 worth of cashes during that time, you're technically "winning at poker" but losing money overall. Obviously, those expenses do not exist in the online poker world because there is no need to travel to or from a venue, which is one of the reasons online poker sites like 888poker are so popular with poker grinders.
The most significant point to take away here is that if you are interested in making money at poker and don't keep track of your wins and losses, you need to start doing so right now. A simple spreadsheet will suffice; even jotting down your results on a scrap of paper is better than not recording your progress at all. Find out what your win rate or ROI is, and take into account other possible expenses associated with playing poker; then you'll see whether or not you are making money at poker. You'll likely be encouraged to sharpen your study of the game to try to increase your profit if you're winning, or to become profitable if you're losing.
How much do you play?
Another question to ask when addressing the larger question of whether or not you can make money playing poker is to consider just how much poker you're playing.
If you're strictly a recreational player who only joins a home game once per week or who plays online at 888poker for an hour or two here and there, you can still win at poker, but it makes sense that you won't win as much as you would if you logged more volume.
Many serious players who put in a lot of volume at the tables can increase their profit steadily even if their win rates are somewhat low. This is because they tend to play longer hours or multiple tables at once, sacrificing the rate at which they win for more overall profit.
Most players consider cash games a more reliable way to make money at poker given the higher variance of poker tournaments. In most poker tournaments, only the top 10 or 15 percent of finishers enjoy any profit, so it logically follows that most players finish out of the money most of the time they play.
That means when playing tournaments, even good players lose more often than they win money. But when they win, they win enough to make up for the losses, sometimes hitting massive scores when finishing at a final table or winning the entire tournament and getting back 10, 20, 50, or even 100 times the buy-in. Bounty and Mystery Bounty tournaments help reduce variance because you can win money for eliminating opponents and do not necessarily have to finish in the prize money-awarding places to see a return on your investment. If you love the mystery bounty format, only 888poker runs them daily at present.
Cash games tend to be less volatile that way, although even good cash game players will frequently have losing sessions. They may even have more losing sessions than winning ones, although they manage to enjoy larger profits than losses, generally speaking, and thus have favorable win rates. Even so, if you don't practice sound bankroll management you can experience one nasty cash game session and lose everything you've won and then some.
Once you've figured out your win rate, you can think about how much you need to play to make a desired amount over a given time.
You should also try to gauge what is the best amount of time to play poker for you to increase your chances of remaining profitable. Some players are better off playing, say, only 10-20 hours per week than 40-50 hours per week or short sessions instead of long ones because they have trouble remaining focused and thus playing well over more extended periods. Others can put in those extra hours and not suffer. Always play to your strengths.
What stakes are you playing, and are they suitable for you?
An important question to answer when delving more deeply into whether or not you can make money at poker is to look at the stakes for which you are playing and whether you choose well when sitting down in games where you can win and win consistently.
One common misconception among new players is that playing for higher stakes is the best way to win more money at poker. You have no doubt heard the tongue-in-cheek comment about moving up stakes where they respect your raises! A player who wins consistently at the $0.25/$0.50 NLHE cash game tables at 888poker might imagine simply picking up and moving over to the $2/$5 game will result in winning 10 times as much money, but more often than not, such ideas turn out to be foolhardy.
Games of different stakes attract differently skilled players. While the lowest stakes games almost always include the least-skilled and least-experienced, they attract strong players sometimes, too. Similarly, many of the best players can be found in the higher stake games, but there also will be inexperienced or poor players sometimes sitting around the table.
On average, though, the higher the stakes, the more challenging the games. Thus do the profitable players' win rates go down as the buy-ins and/or stakes go up? In online cash games (to cite one example), NLHE players of the lowest stakes, including the "micros," have been known to sustain win rates of as much as 20-40 BB/100 hands over large sample sizes, while the best players in the higher NLHE games online generally top out at around 3-8 BB/100 hands.
That's one reason to be realistic about moving up in poker stakes — even if you're great and better than most in the games, you aren't going to win at the same rate you did at the lower stakes. But you also need to be honest about your ability as a poker player and recognize when the competition is too tough to beat. As you move around and test out which stakes work for you, continue keeping accurate records and notes at which stakes (for cash games) or buy-ins (for tournaments) you are winning most consistently and where you are winning less or losing.
Sometimes you might find it hard to win in a lower stakes game than in one a notch or two above, simply because of your particular skill set and how well you respond to the styles and tendencies of others. More often, though, there will be a stakes "threshold" above which you might take shots now and then but probably shouldn't go regularly.
Be honest with yourself and be intelligent with your bankroll, and your chances of making money at poker will increase.