How Profitable is Live Poker?
A question I get asked a lot is: “how much can pro players make playing live?” At this time of year, many players heading off to the WSOP are looking to play in the live arena for a month when their day job is grinding online. Especially after Black Friday, live poker is more likely now to become their day job.
Internet poker hands have been recorded for a number of years now. People are quite aware of how many big blinds per 100 hands (BB/100) profitable players can make. Moreover, those professing to make 20BB/100 online have been found out as either exaggerators or those not yet aware of the long run.
For sure, the long run on the internet tends to be well over 100k hands – maybe even 500k to be sure of a dependable figure for BB/100, but perhaps 200k will suffice for a rough idea (see my article “I’d rather be lucky than good” for more). 200k hands in the live arena equates to something like 4 years playing full time, i.e. 1,700 hours a year.
That’s a little longer than most people have posted live! It’s also a little longer that they’re prepared to spend finding out where they are profit-wise – especially at higher stakes than they’re used to.
I’ll try my best to give a decent answer. Be warned that I’ve never been a live professional long term, and the answer I give you will be more concerned with the principles behind what makes profitable poker live, and how to assess what you’re doing. It’s informed not only by my own experiences (probably less than six months total as a live cash player), but also relentlessly picking the brains of more seasoned live pros.
So let’s consider live compared with online:
Fewer hands per hour. Internet players used to playing anywhere between 200 and 1000 hands per hour will have more than boredom to contend with. Where card death on the virtual felt is measured in minutes, one should only expect in the live game to get dealt (for example) Aces once every seven hours. I’ll say that again – once every seven hours.
Think 30 hands per hour for live cash NLHE, 25 per hour for more complex games such as PLO and especially PLO8 (with split pots), and maybe 35-40 hands per hour for the business end of a tournament when it’s all about raise or fold.
Lower opponent standard. It’s well known that live players are more fishy on average. While there are degenerates who are happy to tilt off thousands pressing a button in a darkened room, the real fish come to their local casino for camaraderie, social interaction, or to show how baller they are.
I also believe that the psychological effect which keeps fish in the game – the delusion that they are winners when the actually are losers – is much stronger live than online. The online game, being like a crack cocaine version of the live one, is a lot less forgiving in terms of time scale: there’s far less time for people to forget their past losses, or convince themselves they’ve improved since their last downswing.
Deeper stacks. Cash games are almost always deeper stacked live. Where the standard buy in online is 100 times BB, most live pros will be looking to sit with 200 BB upwards, and 1000 BB is not extraordinary.
This has a strange effect on variance. If the big stacks are gambling it up and you want to stay with them to exploit every edge you can, your variance will go through the roof. However, most old timers like to sit there with 250 BBs or so, sacrificing very little (“tight is right”) and only stacking off when they have the nuts. If you’re lucky enough to be at a table with lots of deep stacked fish who are seemingly unaware that whenever you wake up you have a monster, your variance will reduce dramatically.
In tournaments, often the opposite is true. Granted, live players are worse, but often live tournaments are stingier with the starting stacks, and thus you’ll have to make pot-committal decisions earlier in the hand (or more often), which increases variance.
Higher stakes. Because of smaller running costs, the online game offers low and micro-stakes. Most recreational players quickly migrated to these when they first became available. For the live game, the casinos and players don’t have that luxury. Casinos can’t really spread games cheaper than £1/£1 (and even those aren’t profitable for them, I believe).
However, because people lose money more slowly live, they can afford to play higher stakes (read: lose it more quickly.)
The result is that if you’re a profitable player, you can play much higher stakes than you’re used to online. Off course, your bankroll will need to handle it, but in terms of profitability, your edge should be considerably higher. As a guideline, I’d say that the $1/$2 games online are about as tough as the $5/$10 games in Vegas.
Higher rakes. Although the official rake online is 5%, capped at $3 for most sites, in reality the rake is nowhere near that. First, if you play around $0.25/$0.50 upwards online, the rake quite often exceeds the cap in a typical hand with post flop action. The average rake online is about 2-3% of the pot on most hands at low stakes, and around 1.5% of pot at mid stakes.
Live, the pot will often be raked for 5% (some Vegas casinos only rake 4% – best to check) and about half the pots won’t reach the cap. The good news is that because everyone’s deep stacked, a big pot will easily exceed the cap, so once again, a tight aggressive policy is best at least rake-wise.
As for bonuses, online there is of course rakeback. Some places in Vegas give comps, but it’s best to check with the card room manager how to get them. In general, expect comps of about $1 per hour played.
So what’s the bottom line?
Where a good player might expect to win around 3BB/100 online at low to mid stakes, playing live with a deep stack against fishy opponents could well win them in excess of 10BB/100. Note that while both figures take into account the rake, they don’t take into account rakeback. The online player will probably get another 3BB/100 per table in rakeback with a standard 30% deal.
Playing three to four NLHE tables at once (for, say, 350 hands/hour), the $0.50/$1 online player could thus expect to win around $20/hour including rakeback.
Let’s assume this player goes to Vegas and sits at a $2/$5 table with $1200 in front of them. They’ll play about 30 hands an hour, thus winning about 3BBs again, only this time 3BBs is $15 (I’ve taking straddling into account in the hourly rate and variance, rather than in terms of the BB). In other words, it’s approximately the same money-wise. However, note the following:
- Because of the amount the player had to buy in for in the live game to get the same hourly rate, his exposure is much higher. For the $0.50/$1 game online he’ll need no more than $10k in his bankroll. For deep stacked $2/$5 in Vegas – approximately the same level of fishiness, hell need a bankroll in excess of $40k I would say.
- Table selection is always important, but when you’re deep stacked and only playing one table, it’s paramount. Multi-tabling online, by sheer luck alone you’re bound to be sitting on one nice table. In the live game, that 10BB/100 figure drops to zero if you’re at a table full of people who know what they’re doing!
- Dipping in and out of games is not so easy. Vegas tends to be variable; one day a twelve hour session, the next day mooching around the pool, drinking and/or railing a mate at a final table.
In sum, it’s possible to make decent living from live poker, but it can seem more of a grind than online sometimes. It’s much more fun than online in that you are sitting with real people (and in Vegas many people are on holiday, which adds to the fun). However, the long run is a lot longer live than online and if anything, the bankroll swings can be more harsh.
To translate that into trips to the WSOP, I’m basically saying don’t expect to go to Vegas to become a pro for the two to seven weeks that you’re there. You’ll be playing for an amount of time which is about 1% of the “long run” and you’ll almost certainly be under-rolled in terms of actual cash in your pocket.
There are also more important aspects to a Vegas trip in my opinion. For example, Bryce Canyon is 200 miles away, not 5,200 miles away as it usually is from the UK.
Poker-wise, the experience itself is what you go for. To have a choice of half a dozen different major tournaments daily in the same town, each of which has hundreds of fish; to have all sorts of games at all sorts of stakes at your disposal; to be able to play twelve hours a day if you wish with little or no distraction. That’s what the WSOP is about. Being a professional live poker player is somewhat different.
This article first appeared in Bluff Europe magazine.