8 Things I Learned From Being An Underage Semi-Pro Poker Player

After selling candy and burnt CDs in elementary and middle school, from high school on, I cut my teeth as an online poker player. That's how I went from being a dead broke 15 year old, to only moderately broke 18 year old. I learned a lot of valuable lessons, in here are 8 of them. But first, some back story.

The first poker tournament I ever won happened when I was a month shy of 16 years old. It was the $22 9:10PM Heads Up Matches. There were something like 170 entrants, and a first place prize of $1100. I’d been grinding out the low stakes $5.25 Heads up SNGs (that means Sit & Go, 2 players register, game starts, play 1 on 1 until one player has all the chips and they win the pot, minus the houses take of 5%). I played the 4 man version where there were 2 tables each playing 1 on 1, the winners went on to the final round, and the winner got $20. I literally played 20-30 matches per day, every single day. I’d play before school, in school I’d review hand histories and read 2p2 posts I printed out discussing various strategies for heads up matches.

The $22 nightly tournament was always my “big shot” game. If I’d had a good session that evening, I’d play it. If not, no thanks. I was constantly “going broke” and having to wait tip I could scrounge up $100 to give to my friend’s dad to transfer to me on the site so I could start playing again. Of course I was playing under my mother’s name as you had to be 18 to be on the site.

As soon as I got a taste of poker for money, I was hooked. I recognized that it was a game of skill, and that I could leverage my infinite free time as a broke 15 year old to learn well enough to make an extremely modest income. I’d watch Phil Ivey and Daniel Negraneu on High Stakes Poker and read about the Las Vegas lifestyle of high end poker players and think to myself, “Mathematically at my current win-rate and bankroll it’ll take me 100 years to make it to that level if I live with zero expenses, but wow it must be nice.”

Being the youngest son of a single mother of four, who worked part time in the deli of a grocery store to make an attempt at making ends meet. A $3/hr average rate playing poker on the computer in my room was totally worth it. Every day I’d grind and ruthlessly pursue improving my game. Then it paid off.

$1,100 win for about 2 hours worth of a tournament. I’d made it. Never would I need to worry about the mundane things of life again, infinite baller status, I could check out and say fuck the world, easily coasting off this money for years to come. A few trips to Wendy’s, an awesome mother’s day present (brand spanking new washer and dryer set because ours didn’t work $600) and some slight negative variance (damn you, variance) and I learned my first valuable lesson in bankroll management, busto.

But… It wasn’t the end. I knew I could do it. I saved up another $100 and started again. The slow, long grind. My cumulative stats for the next few years were pretty lame in poker player terms, but I won about $15,000 from age 16-18. Playing on and off depending on what was happening in real life. I put in 1,000s of hours in a very short window, and never stopped trying to improve my game.

Here are the most valuable things I took away from that experience.

#1. A hot month doesn’t mean you’re good. You still suck. Get back to work. Pussy.

It took me about 5 busts (running out of money completely) to really grasp this. There were times while playing that I would sit down against players who were way way better than me, and just dominate their souls. And then there were at least as many times when I would sit down against total “fish” (bad players) and just watch all my money go flowing away to their “luck”. What really mattered was the math, and being able to skillfully manipulate situations hand by hand to maximize your statistical edge. There isn’t a shortcut, it takes hours and hours and hours, day after day after day, for at least a few months to get to be a consistent small stakes winner. For the great players, it takes forever. They never stop improving, as soon as they do, they lose everything.

#2. Luck doesn’t exist. Stupid

This one was immediately self-evident as soon as I learned how the game worked. But it took close to a year for me to really incorporate it into my brain and “get it”. There is no such thing as luck. Only statistical variance. If you think that a 1 in 1,000,000 chance occurrence is rare,  “you are significantly underestimating the total number of things that there are.” To blame negative successes on “bad luck” devalues the entire proposition of a skill based game (I think all life is a skill based game). Conversely, to attribute positive successes to “good luck” devalues the skill you used to achieve those successes and cheapens things in it’s own way. Winners have no place for luck. It’s all cause and effect. Ignore short term variation, focus on the long term. This has a sub point that I don’t feel quite like giving a whole number too.

-The world doesn’t owe you shit. Fuck you.

Emotions over perceived “bad luck” suggest that someone did not get what they deserved. Well all is fair in love and war… and poker… and business… and every other aspect of life. I don’t like to say, “you get what you deserve.” I prefer to say, “You deserve what you receive.” If you get a big plate of shit served up to you, you deserve that. Because if it were me, long before the waiter arrived at the table to serve me shit, I would have tripped him, taken him to the ground, rubbed his face in that shit, and said, “NO! I WON’T HAVE ANY OF THAT. YOU EAT IT!” Any serious poker player ends up facing the very stark realization that not only does the universe not care about them, but most people don’t either.

#3. It’s just a game. OK?

And really, life’s a game. It’s a game that you get to set the rules for, you get to play, and you get to decide whether you won or not. There’s no use getting all worked up over it. If you don’t like the hand you’ve been dealt, fold it, get up, walk away, and find a better table to play at. If you can’t see the sucker, you’re the sucker. Everyone is a sucker some of the time. Make sure you’re not the sucker when the issue matters to you, and be cool with being the sucker at other times. When you’re the sucker, soak up as much information as you can, because this information can be transformed into valuable weapons in other situations. Enjoy the process, not the end game. Which brings me to my next point.

#4. Being “money motivated” just means you’re poor, and stupid.

People who work their ass off to get that big payday usually aren’t any happier when the payday comes. In fact, usually they reach that payday, feel exactly the same, and then get extremely depressed because they had been taught that once they got that payday it’d be a one way trip down easy street from there on out. They didn’t get what they thought they deserved, and this makes them ridiculously bitter and angry at the world. Beware of people who’s primary motivation is money. They are usually losers.

Money is a byproduct of successful living. A lack of funds can be a wonderful motivator to spur action. Surplus funds aren’t a real motivator for the uber successful. Note: by removing money as a determining factor in your self-perception of power you’ll quite likely experience a radical increase in net cash available to you.

#5. Know your place… Intense Realism.

Every time I started to see success at one level. I wanted to jump to the next level and start fighting there. Moving to new levels prematurely overextends your resources and talents. Instead win like crazy at the level you’re at, for long enough, to be able to safely move to a higher level without having to put yourself at serious risk. My bankroll management once I got good was set so that in order for me to move from one level to the next higher level I needed to have 150% of the necessary bankroll to be comfortable at that level if I was already a winner. My “safe bankroll” amount for heads up sit and goes was 50 buyins available bankroll. So before I would move to a level higher than I was at, I’d need 75 buyins. When I first wanted to move from $20 games to $50 games I waited until I had $3,750 in available cash to play.

This lesson has stuck with me and it’s a winner. It isn’t always so cut and dry in business and life. But before I push myself to any new level I first make sure my current level is secure and won’t be in jeopardy by making a move someplace higher. This takes both radical honesty in your self assessment and patience. You have to always know where you stand and be willing to wade through the tough stages until the timing is right. Not knowing how to manage money is a huge leak, get this part right early on.

#6. Emotions cometh before the fall.

When you start making emotional decisions at the poker table, you start losing money. It’s the same in life. I learned to pause when I got angry or sad or bored or nervous. Walk away for as long as it takes to get back to an even keel. Could be hours, could be weeks. Don’t play the game pissed off or you’ll always be at a disadvantage. After a while though you naturally get the “I’ve seen it all” feeling and emotion plays less and less of a factor. Eventually you become a winning robot and it’s all good. This lesson has probably made me the most money directly.

#7. Learn from people who are better than you.

Easy skill to pick up. Be a student at all times. When there were discussion threads from seasoned pro’s I’d read every word, over and over to try and figure out what it was that made these guys so successful. Then I’d ask them, in a cool way, for advice. Most pro’s like giving advice. When you give advice about a skill that you’re good at, it makes you reflect on the reasons you’re good and dissect everything. This self analysis improves your game, no doubt. When I was a winner at $20 games I sought out people who were hustling the $5 games and offered my help. I’d go through hand histories with them, I’d give them advice, I’d coach them online. I definitely improved their game, but I improved mine a hell of a lot more.

#8. When you’re good, go for the throat.

Poker is all about damaging the other person for your own personal gain. It’s ruthless in every way ( and beautiful for that reason). It’s just like business. When you know you’re good try to take as much as you possibly can for your opponent. There is no place for fairness or playing nice. You have to want to murder your competition. Never pull punches when you can knock them out. When you’re holding the nuts (the best possible hand given the cards dealt) you’re only goal can be the utter destruction of everyone else involved in the hand. Extract maximum value. Hint: this is easier when no one knows you have the nuts.

These lessons all translated in one way or another to my life and have influenced the guy I’ve turned into.

Video Unrelated