Over the years, I’ve gotten hundreds of messages asking me how to become a professional poker player. The following is my unconventional
First, I’ll begin with a story of success and failure.
Thirty-three year old John Cynn smiles, standing behind bricks of cash. He just won $8.8 million for 9 days of work by taking down the 2018 World Series of Poker Main Event. It’s easy to see why many people assume poker pros lead glamorous lives. Play a game, get rich and love life.
What most people don’t know is that those bricks of cash aren’t what they seem. In most cases, instead of each brick being $100,000, they actually $1 bills stacked together with a $100 bill on each side. Deceiving, huh?
A Story of What It’s Actually Like
In 2005, my husband Andrew and I fell in love while running around in Fort Wayne, Indiana poker games. I held my own in bar leagues and charity games, but Andrew was the hometown hero who everyone admired (and feared) at the tables. He won every tournament there was in town and crushed the underground cash games. Everyone knew Andrew was destined for bigger games.
Back then, I wasn’t ready to play full time, but I dreamed of making it big time. I wanted to be Shana Hiatt. So one year into our relationship, I told Andrew we were moving to Las Vegas. I landed my dream job at Card Player Magazine as a poker writer and reporter, while playing poker on the side.
For Andrew though, without a college degree, he had nothing to fall back on. He’d jumped right into the deep end.
Whenever you go for a dream, there will always be moments where God, the Universe, or fucking variance (whatever you call it) will show you unforeseeable amounts of adversity and ask you— LOL kid, you sure this what you want?
I remember many nights Andrew coming home with empty pockets, distraught and inconsolable. “I don’t think I can do this anymore. What am I going to do?” he’d say, with his head hanging low.
One of the most difficult parts about loving someone so much is their pain becomes yours. When they hurt you hurt. I think that’s why some partners, parents, siblings actually discourage their loved ones from going for their dreams. They don’t want to see them struggle or fail because it hurts.
Maybe that’s why you’ve been hesitant to go for your poker dreams and why other’s have discouraged you. They’re afraid. You’re afraid.
Luckily for Andrew (and you), I’ve never been one to shit on people’s dreams. I’ve seen the impossible become possible too many times for me to think I could ever be a judge for someone else’s limitations. That said, I also want to tell the truth. Having lived the poker dream and been by Andrew’s side through the hardest of times throughout his career, I know what it really takes to succeed. I’ve spent 15 years in this industry and watched hundreds of players come and go– let me tell you, it ain’t all rainbows and unicorns.
Should you choose the poker life, know that your path will likely include the following:⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
-family and friends will worry you have a gambling problem
-long intense hours of study work
-phases of deep self doubt
-many consecutive losing sessions
-getting so unlucky you feel like you’re in the twilight zone
-being in casinos and in front of a computer all day everyday
-long walks to the car after brutal poker sessions, feeling hopeless, wanting to quit, asking yourself, “What the FUCK am I doing with my life?
and the hardest one of all…
-facing your demons
When you’re losing, poker will highlight your relationship to money. Who do you think you are with money? Without it? Losing will bring up shame and have you question your self worth. It will bring out the worst of you from the depths of the shadows into the light. And for some of you, those closest to you will get the brunt of what your anger and fear bring up.
We both struggled with this. Andrew is a relationship person, and poker can be extremely isolating. He felt lonely, depressed and directionless. In the beginning he went broke over and over again, while I held our heads above water with my reporting job. The stress of Andrew feeling like he couldn’t provide for us and the anxiety I had around it pushed us to a breaking point.
You might be at one of these choice points now with your career. You, like we did at the time, have two different paths you can choose to go down.
Path #1. Stay exactly where you are. Blame other people. Get down on yourself. Curse the poker gods. Feel unlucky. Wish it was different but keep doing the same.
Path #2. Grow. Take full responsibility for your life and results. Don’t waste time wishing the past was different. Take the next right step even if it’s hard or new.
We chose path #2.
What that looked like is doing what was scary and uncomfortable. If you want something you’ve never had, you’ve got to be willing to do something you’ve never done. We hired poker and life coaches, completed thousands of hours of personal development work, worked on our marriage, stepped up stakes, stepped back down, watched countless training videos, got stacked taking new spots, crushed villains who used to crush us, lived through bigger swings, rigorously implemented good habits, fucked up and got back up.
The hard part about choosing #2 is that if you don’t succeed, you can’t shake it off as, “Oh well I wasn’t trying anyway.” But I promise you, in a game that keeps getting tougher to win, it’s the ONLY way you have a shot at making it.
We rebuilt our relationship and just when Andrew was gaining real sustainable success in poker in 2014, I quit my job to go pro too.
One more time… you sure?
Here’s the truth- most people aren’t cut out for this life (and that’s not a bad thing). You may not want to have a boss, but does the thought of going a couple months without a regular paycheck feel overwhelming? What about actually working full time hours and LOSING money over two months? When you’re left to your own devices, how motivated are you? Can you get yourself to study or play, even when it’s not convenient? Or are you someone who really needs a schedule?
If these sound like you, another possibility to consider is playing semi-professionally.
One of my good friends posted the following on my instagram post this blog was inspired by:
mjmacey33 I am (a pro) and was but I’m ready to move on. When I started playing professionally, almost all my friends said just give it time, you will not want to do this forever. I finally see what they mean. Poker is a wonderful way to create your own schedule and destiny, but will beat you down and make you question everything and how you got to this place in life. I don’t play poker professionally anymore. I just play in the certain games that I still love. In higher stakes poker, the love of the game seems gone for most pros. And the recreational players that gave you a steady income are leaving the game because they too are not having fun anymore. If you’re gonna be a poker pro in today’s world, it takes much more than just studying and time spent at the table. If you want a future in this game start treating it like one and do it for the love of the game and the enjoyment of the process. Make everyone else around you enjoy the game their playing and make sure the fun players want to play with you next time. Not the guy to your right wearing headphones, eating fried rice and arguing over the smallest loss of ev. (mic drop)
The Prize on the Other Side
If you’re still reading, that means you still want it. Great, because here’s the other side of the token if you make it as a pro.
Your path in poker can also include:
-being your own boss
-freedom of schedule
-creating a healthy relationship with money
-learning to be a good human even when losing
-transforming your relationship with risk
This is what has been true for Andrew and I. We are more in love than ever, have recently bought a house in San Diego, travel, and everyday, we wake up and do whatever we want.
Andrew now plays $10-$20 up to $50-$100 NLH. In 2015, he finished 28th in Main Event for $211K and final tabled the Monster Stack the next year for $219K (and he barely every plays tournament other than the summer he plays a handful).
His most proud poker accomplishment is that he’s mentored several struggling poker players into winners. One of his mentee’s nearly gave up on his poker dream a few years ago and last year, he made a quarter million in cash games.
When asked why he’s been so successful coaching people, he says it’s because
1. he only takes on people who can be forthcoming about their mistakes, can easily put ego aside, and shows strength of character
2. he focuses on process, coaching them into living a full and happy lives, and letting results fall where they may.
It’s time to RISK
When I say #RISKEVERYDAY- I don’t mean be stupid and gamble a bunch of money you don’t have. I mean RISK committing all in. RISK looking stupid by asking players who are better than you about hands you know you misplayed. RISK by getting your life in order. Take Calculated PLUS EV risks.
I believe that everything in life – relationships, sex, love, health, joy, happiness, success… it all comes down to our relationship with RISK. What’s between what we have and what we want is fear. The only way to move past fear is by taking risks. So Risk Everyday and watch your life transform.
Whether you decide to go pro or play semi-professionally, the way you succeed is by doing everything it takes to be the best poker player and human you can possibly be. If you’re only the best poker player you can be, you can have all the success in the world but be lonely and unhappy if you don’t focus on the latter simultaneously. No amount of success is worth it if you don’t have anyone to share it with (trust me, I know, but that’s a story for another time).
If you know you will regret it for the rest if you’re life if you don’t give yourself a shot, and you’re ready to go for, DOOO IT! No matter what happens, if you commit to learning from everything, you’ll be a better, stronger, wiser person. Get ready for the ride of your life.
The bricks of cash might have been fake, but the actual money John Cynn won wasn’t. He’s a millionaire. As are many poker players. At the end of the day, it is a game of skill (as is life). If you keep putting yourself in good situations, you’ll win in the long run. And if you have fun and become a better person along the way, you can’t lose.
NOW- Let’s get to work.
(The following are suggestions based on value and vibe strictly from my opinion and experience. If I’ve missed something amazing, either I forgot or neither Andrew and I have experience with it. Add your suggestions in the comments please!)
You need to get clear about where poker fits in your life, what your goals are and why. What stakes do you hope to play one day? Can you envision yourself taking down a big tournament? Who would you need to be to have that happen? What does that look like? Feel like? Be specific.
Without knowing where you want to go, how will you ever create the map? You’ll be floating around like a plastic bag in the wind. Greatness is rarely stumbled upon.
For the past year, I’ve also mentored people in relationships and health. This is where we start and you can bring this into any domain of your life. Everything starts with a vision. This is also what will carry you through when times get tough.
A poker player’s most important tool is money. You need money to play and if you run out, you’re done. Having a bankroll that can sustain your swings is important to be able to stay in the game, but also, for you to play your best.
There are great articles on Bankroll management that have already done a great job breaking it down. Here they are:
Extra Thought: Bankroll management also comes down to personal preference, personality, and playing style. Bankroll management success relies heavily on self awareness and mental game. You can have all the skill in the world, but if you’re not disciplined or emotionally grounded, you will go broke. I’ve seen many extraordinarily talented poker players walk around broke, asking for money to stay afloat. The only reason they’re still around is because people will still invest in them.
I’d suggest creating a bankroll plan for yourself. You need to have enough stats to show you a solid and reliable winrate (perhaps a year or at least 2,000 hours for low stakes. This number needs to be increased for mid and high stakes). Given your hourly (if you’re playing cash), how much do you need to work? How long will it take to build a roll big enough to take shots at the next stake? You can change your plan as you go if you need to, but failing to plan can be a plan to fail.
Andrew’s Tip: Never lose more than you know would be demoralizing, especially when starting out. And if you don’t know that answer to the question, air on the side of caution. Quit sooner. When you’re more seasoned, you can be more lenient with this rule, especially when he games are good.
POKER Mental Game
This is the groundwork for your success. If you want to learn quicker, crush faster, spot your own leaks, become happier, be responsive versus reactive, use stress as fuel, know when to quit, when to keep playing, increase your win rate, have better relationships, start here. At this point, the positive affects of mindfulness practice and meditation are not just speculation, but scientifically proven.
Have you ever known what you were supposed to do, but did the opposite? Like someone goes all in, and you say, “I know I’m supposed to fold because I’m not getting the right price, but fuck it.” Then you lose, and you’re, “Why did I do that?” Or maybe more subtle– a spot comes up and you can figure out whether to call or fold because of the pressure? All of that comes down to your ability to be calm in high stress situations and having altitude over your emotions. The best part is, anyone can train their brains to this, but it takes consistency and practice.
The following three people have specialized in the mental game for poker players.
Tommy Angelo – Author and Coach
Tilt and frustration cost you money. Tommy coaches people into playing pain free poker. He’s one of the first people who introduced me to meditation. Now, it’s part of my morning routine I do everyday. In an interview I did with him, he gives an introduction to becoming Zen. Follow him for wisdom and strategies for becoming ZEN at the tables.
Elliot Roe – High Performance and Poker Mind Coach
The following are two interviews I did with him:
- Stop Making The Same Mistakes— He actually did a hypnotherapy session on me which I included parts of in this interview. I was having an issue where I kept making bad decisions in big pots. We found it was due to a deep fear I’ve had since childhood. DEEP AF. Blew my mind .
- How to Overcome Fear — Did you know that the best athletes and high performers in the world still experience fear? They’ve just trained themselves not to let it stop them. You can do it too.
Because poker is a high-stress game, taking breaks are super important to recharge and release tension. I LOVE the Primed Mind app for that. Primed Mind
Jared Tender’s Book – The Mental Game of Poker This is a must-read for any serious poker player.
Low-Mid stakes Cash Games
One of the best places to start improving is by getting your preflop ranges in order. It fixes a ton of leaks with simple memorization. By playing better hands preflop, you’ll be in less dicey situations post. Upswing Poker’s Poker Lab is a great resource for this.
When my brother-in-law and poker vlogger Johnnie Vibes flew out aspiring poker pro Glen Clementi to Las Vegas this summer, Andrew helped coach him and the first thing Andrew had him do was study preflop ranges. It helped him better understand how ranges work and interact. And btw, Glen’s story perfectly illustrates the idea of this blog post. Check it out:
Poker vlogs give an inside look at what it’s like to play for a living and it’s free. Johnnie and the following vloggers also talk about hand histories they in a way are informative and give you an understanding of how to play against different live player types. Johnnie and Andrew Neeme also both have created online communities where you can discuss hands make poker friends.
Doug Polk is obviously an extremely talented and hard working poker player who provides helpful, deep, strategy breakdowns, but in general, I’m not a fan of his style. The way he pokes fun at players making mistakes creates this condescending inflated ego vibe that can be contagious.
Like I said before, poker can dig at your insecurity. What can happen is that when you feel insecure about your own game, you might start to want to make fun of someone else’s bad play because you want to feel better than someone else. For a moment, you feel superior, which lessons the pain of insecurity, but in the long run, it’s going to negatively impact your willingness and ability to see your own mistakes. I’m not saying that Doug is insecure (he probably just does it for entertainment), but I can see how it could be detrimental to the common viewer. Ego is the enemy, especially in an an exploitative game where the best players are going to use your ego against you.
This is just my preference and opinion. Poker content wise though, Upswing Poker is legit.
Raise Your Edge
If you want to learn tournaments, the one and only resource I suggest now to people is the Raise Your Edge Tournament Master Class. One of the best tournament players I know told me that if I was serious about winning that I’d need best and latest info, and to get it, I’d need to make a significant investment of time and money. I snap bought it. He was right and I was blown away. I even suggest RYE to cash game players who only have an interest in tournaments because of what it did for my OVERALL poker game.
The lead coach is Bencb who has consistently been one of the leading online tournament players in the world. He’s known for winning the $102,000 buy-in WCOOP Super High Roller event. In each lesson, he discusses the key principles of each topic, the biggest mistakes he sees people making, shows real hand examples. The course includes extensive preflop ranges open raising on different stack sizes, ranges for flatting, 3betting and 4betting, and push/shove/calling ranges. Imagine never having to be confused whether a preflop hand was a flat, three bet or fold?
In the first live tournament I played since starting the course, I made the final table and got my biggest tournament cash to date- $55,000 for 6th in the World Series of Poker Circuit Main Event at the Bicycle Casino.
Because there is an emphasis on poker principles, I finally understood concepts that applied to cash games as well that I’d been dragging my feet to learn. My cash game win rate went up and I started playing $10-$20 more regularly. That’s why I tell pretty much every poker player I know about it.
It’s a ton of information, so I’ve had to go so slow through it, making sure I understood everything along the way. And I’m still studying it over and over again.
When I believe in something, I tell everyone. I sought them out to become affiliate, so I have some sweet coupon codes for you if this is the route you want to go. Keep in mind, it’s somewhat advanced, so if you have to go slow, that’s ok! Commit to doing the work and I promise you the results will show.
Tournament Masterclass – Apprentice: “KRISTYAPP” for $80 off
Tournament Masterclass – Expert: “KRISTYEXP” for $150 off
Bounty Beast: “KRISTYKO” for $100 off
HIre a coach
No matter what you’re wanting to improve in your life, I’m a HUGE advocate for coaching. It can feel like the riskiest way to go because like that above course, it’s an investment of time and money, but in addition, to get the most value, you have to be willing to expose your weakness. That said, it’s the fastest track to competency.
Here’s what to consider when looking for in a coach:
-Results – the coach has to obviously walk the talk
-Does the coach ask you questions? Or do they talk at you the whole time? The best coaches tailor their sessions specifically to you. They help you identify faults in thought process which can only be identified if they hear how you think.
-Do you vibe? Different coaches have different coaching styles. It’s important to find someone who suits your way of learning. Try a couple different coaches and when you’re ready, I’d suggest working with a coach consistently (once every week or two) for at least a couple of months. To implement your learnings and let go of bad habits, consistency is the key.
-Don’t let price be the biggest factor. If you need to stretch to get the coach that’s right for you, that’s better than having a coach that’s cheaper but less effective since the speed at which you learn directly affects how much you win.
You can find coaches on most poker training sites. They usually have a tab where you can read their bio and see their hourly rate. I’d also suggest getting referrals from people you trust and respect.
Luckily, my favorite coach in the world teaches me for free because he thinks I’m cute 🙂 And because so many of you asked, I need to say that my husband Andrew is not taking on any students currently but if you’re interested, you can send him a message to be the first to know if does in the future. firstname.lastname@example.org
One of my friends who I’ve had the pleasure to learn cash-game strategy from is Ronnie Pease. He’s extremely knowledgable in advanced and balanced strategy.
In the low-to-midstakes cash portion above, I included a link to find out more about Johnnie Vibes coaching offerings as well, but he currently has a waitlist.
Poker Strategy Books
Honestly, I’m out of the loop on this one. Add your favorites in the comments.
Advanced Poker Tools
Run It Once Expert I think this is best poker video training site for advanced strategy from the best players. You’ll never run out of stuff to watch either. Andrew and I are subscribers.
Solve For Why – I’ve heard great things about this site, but truthfully, I’ve never used it. Just thought I’d include it because of what I’ve heard.
PIO Solver GTO solver for hold’em.
Equilab for PC Software to test the equity against a specific hand or against a range of hands in pretty much any no limit hold’em scenario
Thinking Poker – with Andrew Brokos and Nate Meyvis. Talented players who discuss both strategy and lifestyle.
Just Hands – with Jason Laskey and Zack Resnick. These guys think deeply about the game and it’s no nonsense hand analysis.
Poker Life Podcast – This is more poker lifestyle than strategy, but Joey Ingram gets great guests who cover an array of topics that are still informative concerning life as a pro.
My favorite Streams to learn from are PokerGO when pros like Matt Berkey or Nick Shulman are commentating. It’s fun to watch and the lulls in action actually give you time to consider what they are saying. You can ask yourself, “What would I do in this situation? What hands would I do this with? What bluffs could I have here?” etc.
(BTW, If you watch low-stakes poker streaming, make sure you take the strategy commentating with a grain of salt. I’ve heard lots of out-dated or misguided strategy suggestions that will actually make you worse.)
I don’t watch TWITCH much because it’s not the way I learn best, but I have watched Jason Somerville, Jaime Staples, Jeff Gross and Lex Veldhuis and they are great resources to learn and be entertained from.
Risk Everyday Podcast- I created this podcast for Risk Takers and Dream Makers. I interview the best risk takers in the world and we share stories and wisdom to inspire you to take action and live the live you’re meant to.
The School of Greatness Podcast Lewis is an ex pro athlete now obsessed with deconstructing what makes people great. His guests are top notch and every episode has tons of value and inspiration.
The 4 Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz- This one of the first personal development books I’ve ever read. It’s short, to the point, and SO good.
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey – This one is a classic that has withstood the test of time. It’s pretty long, but includes so many relatable examples of how to be a leader and your best you.
The One Thing by Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan- As an ex multi-tasker, this book changed my world. This book teaches why you need to focus and how.
The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin – You don’t have to know anything about Chess or Martial Arts to take the lessons from this book and apply them. I made leaps in my poker game when I began learning how to learn.
(the following are affiliate linked)
RISK TAKER DREAM MAKER ADVENTURE
This is what I’m REALLY excited about. For the past four years, I’ve quietly started my own private coaching practice. I’ve helped people transform their relationship with risk so that no challenge is too scary. Because of that, people I’ve worked with created results they’ve never had before like losing 80+ pounds, going on first dates and finally owning their own self confidence. I’m working on creating a live experience for people to work with me in group setting by going on an adventure of a lifetime. If you want in on it, sign up for my mailing.
Getting to Your Specific Questions
(I’ll continue adding to this as I go)
(If I’m missing something, let me know in comments! There is a good chance I haven’t tried/read/heard it or maybe I forgot.)
Full disclosure- This is not an ad, no one paid me for this post, however, I’m get a kickback for the coupon codes I provided for Raise Your Edge (but you get a discount so WIN WIN!), and the Amazon links are affiliate ones, but that’s it. Everything else is just linked for your convenience. Please know that I only suggest what I have personally used and believe in.