Want to turn pro? You may go broke trying

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Dr. Alan Schoonmaker is a reknown PhD psychologist who, many years ago, was drawn to the mental challenge of the game of poker.

He has authored 14 poker books, including four dealing with poker psychology, as well as hundreds of columns in poker publications, videos and podcasts. Undoubtedly, he is the world’s greatest contributor to the psychology of poker.

In the February 27, 2019 issue of Card Player magazine, he offers the first in a series of columns to answer what may well be an extremely important question: “Why Do So Many Poker Pros Die Broke?”

His advice is essential if you want to avoid that kind of future. And, it can also be applied to recreational poker players to some extent.

Let’s assume you have been a recreational player and done rather well at the poker tables — overlooking the cost to play. You have all the skills needed to succeed. So now you are contemplating becoming a pro. The money you can earn would permit you and your family to live a comfortable, pleasant life — without the travails of holding a steady job. The thought of being your own boss appeals to you.

Think again.

Dr. Schoonmaker offers good reasons for reconsidering that idea. By way of example, he notes that even some of the top pros have ended up broke. Prime examples are poker celebrities Johnny Moss (who, early in his poker career, gained fame after winning the first two World Series of Poker tournament championships) and Stu Ungar (considered by many as the greatest poker player ever, drug addiction led to his going broke and death at age 45).

Why does it happen? There are many reasons a poker player can end up broke. Schoonmaker warns that variance (I call it “ups-and-downs”) is inevitable. If a pro doesn’t set aside some of his winnings, he is in danger of not having enough money for the next tournament he planned to enter, nor for his ultimate retirement.

Some pros use their winnings to gamble in other — unbeatable — games such as craps. End result: They go broke. Others may put their winnings into poor investments. They should have gotten the advice of an experienced investment professional. And they neglect to put any of the winnings they gain along the way into a retirement savings account, where they can earn interest, dividends and other tax-free profits until they are ready to retire.

Some pros cheat on their taxes, or may not even file a tax return. Result: They pay more social security (a forced savings for retirement), earn a smaller cost-of-living allowance, and may not be eligible for Medicare.

Much of this is due to the pro’s arrogance (the “I don’t need it” syndrome). Likewise, he may fail to consider health insurance. (“I’ll always be healthy,” he reassures himself.) Then too, poker pros may be so busy learning the skills and playing poker, that they fail to recognize that it is a sedentary game. There is little physical exercise involved when seated at the table.

Dr. Schoonmaker explains that “Poor health has a much greater effect on poker pros’ incomes than on those of other professionals.”

By way of explanation, he notes that you can make a living as a mediocre salesman, teacher or lawyer, but you will not survive as a poker pro unless you are among the best.

“If you neglect your health, you’ll have higher medical costs, and you won’t play well enough to pay them. You probably won’t just die broke. You’ll also die a lot sooner.”

To these, I would add the unavoidable cost-to-play (of which I have often written), be it a cash game or a tournament. Overcoming this cost to go home a winner is a challenge for all players — professional and recreational.

In future columns, Dr. Schoonmaker will discuss other causes for dying broke. More importantly, he promises to tell us how to retire securely.

Play poker but don’t die broke. If you contemplate moving from recreational to poker pro, think it over again before you take that big step.

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About the Author

George Epstein

A retired engineer, George Epstein is the author of “The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!” and “Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision.” He teaches poker courses and conducts a unique Poker Lab at the Claude Pepper Senior Center under the auspices of the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and at West Los Angeles College.

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