How Many Poker Player are Really Losers

While perusing the shiny new Bluff Europe Forum last week, I came across a quote that got me thinking about one of the common misconceptions in poker. The quote, admittedly a throw away comment, was that 99% of poker players are losers overall. Whether or not anyone really believes the figure is that high, it reminded me that most people vastly overestimate the percentage.

So what do you think? Eighty percent? Ninety? Most people think somewhere around the eighty percent mark, but it’s worth defining exactly what is meant by being a losing or a profiting player. First, we’ll look at the stats by simply defining a losing player as someone who is net down on recorded results. Later, we’ll assess what it means to be a regular money maker, or someone who perhaps makes a living from the game.

For the purposes of this article, I’ve used a couple of my own databases – both from Full Tilt – which contain about 3.4 million hands each, and track the performances of over 40,000 Hold Em players ($2NL level and above), and 16,000 Omaha players ($4PL level and above).

Based on whether they are net up or down, roughly two thirds of these players are losers.

However, many of the players in this database hardly played any hands. Reduce the entry requirement to at least 100 hands played, and only 18,000 HE and 8,000 Omaha players make the grade. The percentage of losers drops down to 60% and 64% respectively. Increase the entry requirement to 5,000 hands, and only 721 HE players and 773 Omaha players are left.

The figures for this last category, which we can loosely categorise as regular players, is even more shocking. In Omaha, there are still more losers than winners, 53% to be exact. In Hold Em, no fewer than 58% of players are winners. Perhaps this explains why people are beginning to feel that Hold Em has been found out and fresher pastures need to be sought. Even so, these percentages are consistently at odds with most people’s expectations.

Interestingly, going up the stakes doesn’t make a huge difference until you get to the nosebleed games. At $2, $4 and $6 NLHE, 63% of players are losers on average. At $10 and $20 NLHE, the figure is the same. However, at $50 NLHE and above, the figure drops to 57%. At first blush, one might interpret this as simply that there a more good players at the higher levels. Of course this is true, and it would account for some kind of bunching of profit towards the winning players. But perhaps that bunching effect is opposite to expectations.

As players get better, we might expect more of the profit to go to fewer of the players, whereas in fact the opposite is true. Herein lies a significant wisdom for poker players – when everyone is proficient at the game, there is only so much of an edge one player can have over another. As a result, the profits are more evenly distributed.

So the first effect is that going up the stakes increases the percentage of winners. The other key determining factor is rake. The rake is the only thing that turns an otherwise (collectively) breaking even population of poker players into money losers on average. For the purposes of these calculations, it’s the percentage of the pot taken down by rake which is the figure we’re looking for. Most online sites have a cap on the amount of rake that can be taken – not just in percentage terms (it’s usually no more than 5% of the pot), but in absolute terms as well.

On Full Tilt and Poker Stars for example, the cap is $3 per pot on any stakes above $2NL or PL. To repeat: you’re paying a $3 rake maximum whether you’re at the $2NL tables or the $400NL tables. As a result, the average rake as a percentage of the pot decreases as you go up the stakes.

Thus the greater the average percentage of the pot consumed by rake, the greater the proportion of losers at that particular level. Some figures might illustrate. On my Omaha database, the average rake is 1.7% of the pot at $2PL, about 0.9% at $10PL, and about 0.2% at $50PL. You’ve always been looking for a reason to go up the stakes, there it is!

Offline the rake can be higher. Take the £1/£2 ring games at the Vic. You play on average around 30 hands per hour. At a full ring, nine players will be paying a £6 per hour in table rake. In other words, the table is paying £54 per hour to play 30 hands of poker – that’s £1.80 per hand in rake. I presume that the average pot at these games is something like £40-£50, so the rake percentage is around 4%. Perhaps it’s more credible, then, that there are more losers offline.

Finally, let’s return to the definition of a losing player. In other articles, I’ve examined how many hands a player has to post to be sure of their performance. The answer was also surprising: in the hundreds of thousands. Perhaps people think of a winner as a long term, consistent and significant money maker – someone who may even make a decent living from the game. Returning to the figures above, only 721 Hold Em players out of my database total of 41,000 had played more than 5,000 hands. Of these players, 58%, or 422 were winners.

That is indeed close to the 1% the forum poster had estimated. So in a sense only that fraction of players, we could claim, are “winners”. However, it does not follow that the rest are losers, but merely that they don’t play often enough for us to make any concrete observations about their results. So there are definitely more losers than winners in poker, but it might cheer up a few people out there to know that about a third of “part-timers” are actually in credit from their poker playing exploits.