7 Reasons Why Poker Pros Go Broke

By Michael Stevens in Casino & Gaming on August 20, 2019

Many poker players dream of becoming a professional one day. They may look to famous WSOP winners and high-stakes cash game grinders as inspirations.

Being a poker pro seems like a fantasy to many gamblers. After all, these grinders get to play an entertaining game for a living.

Unfortunately, this dream sometimes turns to a nightmare when pros go broke. In fact, skilled rounders go busto at an alarming rate.

What causes these players to lose everything? And what can aspiring pros do to prevent the problem?

I’m going to answer the first question by discussing seven common causes of players busting their bankrolls. I’ll answer the second question while covering tips for protecting one’s funds.

1 – Bad Bankroll Management

One of the most common reasons why successful poker players go broke involves poor bankroll management. A good player not only needs the skills to win but also has to properly manage their funds.

Pros need a long-term mindset when handling their money. They shouldn’t take shots at high-roller events and the biggest cash games if they don’t have the bankroll to do so.

Nevertheless, many players fall victim to this problem. They may grow impatient with slowly grinding their way up the ladder and want to reach the big time quickly.

Phil Hellmuth At WSOP Main Event Commentator Desk

Their aspirations are often fueled by other pros who took a leap of faith and were successful. But just because one famous rounder completed a successful shot doesn’t mean they made a good decision.

Of course, playing too big of stakes isn’t the only way that one can blow through their bankroll. They can also grow overconfident and jump into really difficult games, or play when they’re not in the right mindset.

Successful poker pros are very good at finding soft games, but sitting at tables full of other pros just for a challenge makes it difficult to earn any money.

As for playing in the right mindset, many professionals have gone bust due to serious bouts of tilt. This highly emotional state forces one to make bad decisions that can cripple their bankroll.

2 – Living Above One’s Means

Poker pros are like anybody else in that they must cover living expenses away from the tables. They need enough money to both have a bankroll and pay for rent and food.

Any long-time professional is good at gauging what type of lifestyle they can live based on their earnings. Those who flame out early, on the other hand, struggle with balancing their bankroll and living expenses.

Making $10,000 in a single night of playing cash games might feel really good. However, it by no means entitles one to blow $8,000 at a nightclub to celebrate.

Marquee Nightclub Las Vegas

Poker is a game of swings, meaning one should bank most of their big wins in preparation for the bad times. Moreover, players must realize that their winnings will be inconsistent, and a single big night isn’t cause for partying.

Another thing that many grinders fail to account for is the additional expenses that come with being a professional. Tournament pros especially have a serious balancing act in front of them.

They need to account for such things as:

  • buy-ins
  • travel expenses
  • hotel fees
  • dining on the road

One or two big tournament scores should be stretched out over the long run to cover all these expenses.

Sadly, many tourney grinders have a difficult time understanding this concept. It’s not surprising that tournament specialists lose their bankrolls faster than cash-game grinders.

3 – Failing to Account for Downswings

Poker pros normally don’t have a massive edge over their opponents. They instead have a small advantage that leaves them open to wild swings over the course of their careers.

Having a 2% edge (opponents and rake included) on the game you’re playing can lead to considerable profits at the right stakes. But this advantage still isn’t very large, which means that you’ll suffer plenty of losing nights.

Smart players fully realize that many upswings are soon accompanied by downswings.

They properly plan for these times by sticking to the right limits and avoiding the temptation to live lavishly.

Irresponsible pros, in contrast, let emotions get the best of them when things are going well. They take risky shots at bigger games and/or live decadently while failing to account for inevitable future downswings.

4 – Drug Abuse

Drugs and alcohol have ruined the careers of some of the game’s best. Stu Ungar, who battled a serious cocaine addiction throughout his life, is the poster child for what drugs can do to a great player.

Like Ungar, many players start using drugs under the guise that doing so helps their game. I’ve talked to several players who think that they have to smoke marijuana to get into the right mindset.

Some pros use cocaine to help themselves stay awake during long sessions. Ungar, Mike Matusow, and Layne Flack are all examples of winning players who’ve used coke excessively.

Others may drink alcohol under the banner that it loosens them up and makes the game more fun. Scotty Nguyen infamously drank so much during the 2008 WSOP Player’s Championship that he went on a drunken tirade and ruined his reputation.

Scotty Nguyen Drinking And Gambling

Players can make any excuse they want for doing drugs. However, these substances always take their toll on players after a while.

The most extreme case of this is Unger, whose heart gave out after a lifetime of cocaine abuse. Of course, any pro will unnecessarily tax their body and cause serious health problems through substance abuse.

5 – Bad Business Deals

Some poker pros make more money than they know what to do with. They then try finding ways to make their money work for them.

This is typically a smart thing to do when considering that you don’t earn much by letting your wealth sit in the bank. But you also need to strongly consider a conservative approach when it comes to business deals.

Buying a few rental properties or investing in a mutual fund that pays 8% annually may not sound sexy. However, these moves have a high rate of success and can eventually pay big dividends.

Of course, professional poker players are used to taking bigger risks. The mere idea of becoming a poker pro is in itself unconventional and risky.

Many grinders have gotten in over their heads with business deals.

Whether investing in a massive property or spending big on cryptocurrencies, they’ve taken more risk than the average businessman would recommend.

Pros often enter into staking deals with each other too. The backer provides the funds, while the “horse” shares a percentage of their winnings.

Sometimes deals can work out well. Other times, though, the backer can get burned if their horse doesn’t play well or fails to share the winnings.

6 – Thinking That the Money Will Always Roll In

The poker boom (2003-2006) was a blissful period for many professionals who were already involved with the game. They used this period of rapid growth to take advantage of incoming fish and lucrative sponsorship deals in some cases.

Many of the same pros thought the boom days would last forever. They were rudely awakened after a series of legal events (UIGEA and Black Friday) caused the game to take a downturn.

Of course, the poker boom is an extreme example of how players can be irresponsible when the money is rolling in, but it does show plenty of cases of how not to manage funds when things are going well.

Just because a player is winning big over the course of several months doesn’t mean the money will keep coming. They need to constantly have the mindset that their good fortune could end tomorrow and they’ll go through a draught.

The boom years are long past, but many successful poker players continue forgetting the lessons from this period and go broke as a result.

7 – Playing Games Where They Don’t Have an Edge

Even though poker pros make their living through a skill-based game, many are still gamblers at heart. They often play other skill-based forms of gambling and even house-banked casino games.

Sports betting is particularly attractive to many professionals. Poker pros think that since they’ve beaten their current game, they can apply the same skills to winning at sports gambling.

Just like poker, sports betting is difficult to beat in the long run. Many players have found this out the hard way after losing a significant amount on sports wagers.

Erick Lindgren is a perfect example of how sports gambling can go terribly wrong. Once on top of the world, Lindgren bet and lost heavily on sports for years.

Erick Lindgren WSOP With Stack Of Money

He once had plenty of winnings and a lucrative sponsorship deal with Full Tilt Poker to help him cover the losses. However, he lost his sponsorship deal once Black Friday hit in 2011.

This event robbed him of the ability to continue paying back his debts. Lindgren would go flat broke and enter gambling rehab multiple times.

But sports gambling isn’t the only Achilles heel of poker pros. They gamble on everything from baccarat to roulette.

These games are even worse for one’s bottom line because they feature house edges. Playing them at high stakes can spell disaster for somebody who needs money to fund their bankroll.

Tips for Not Going Broke as a Poker Pro

You can see that poker pros face a number of potential dangers. Fortunately, grinders don’t have to be resigned to going bust.

They can take a number of precautions to keep their bankrolls healthy. Here are several tips for ensuring that you don’t end up in financial ruin if you ever reach pro status.

Perform Solid Bankroll Management Calculations

Bankroll management should be at the heart of any effort to avoid poker financial ruin. You need to come up with a solid plan for what stakes you play based on your bankroll size.

One general way to manage your bankroll involves playing limits where you can afford 20 no-limit cash-game buy-ins or 100 tournament buy-ins.

Here’s an example on managing your funds:

  • You have $11,000
  • You want to play multi-table tournaments (MTTs)
  • You need 100 buy-ins
  • 11,000 / 100 = 110
  • You should play in MTTs with $100+$10 buy-ins

Having a surplus of cash game or tournament buy-ins helps you get through downswings. As long as you consistently improve your skills, you have a strong chance of winning profits and moving up the ladder.

Avoid Taking Undisciplined Shots

From Viktor Blom to Tom Dwan, many famous poker pros got to where they are by taking a big risk at some point. They took shots at stakes that they probably shouldn’t have based on their bankrolls at the time.

You may look at these players and think that they’re the ideal model for poker success. However, the truth is that taking undisciplined shots has ruined more pros than it has helped.

Assuming you have a job and are successfully playing $1/$2 NL hold’em, you may take a chance at higher stakes (e.g., $10/$20) just to see if you can make it as a pro. You have more reason to do so in this scenario with a job to fall back on.

When you’re grinding in $10/$20 NL cash games for a living, the situation changes.

Moving up to $100/$200 NL before you’re financially ready could result in losing your bankroll and livelihood.

Nobody can stop you from trying to move up the ladder quickly. But you’re better off being patient and taking a controlled approach that doesn’t involve putting your bankroll in jeopardy.

Take Everything Into Consideration With Your Living Expenses

Being a poker pro isn’t just about your bankroll. You also have to consider everything on the side, from travel to living expenses.

I mentioned earlier that many players aren’t as mindful of living costs as they should be. But poker is just like any other job in that it needs to cover your food, living arrangements, and entertainment.

Don’t look at a big cash game session or tournament score as an excuse to go crazy with your money. Instead, think about the long term and what bills you must cover so that you don’t blow a windfall.

Stay Away From Drugs and Alcohol — Or at Least Limit Them

You don’t need drugs and alcohol to be a successful poker player. While cocaine or marijuana may seemingly offer short-term benefits, drugs like these cause more harm than good in the long run.

The best-case scenario is that you won’t ever drink at the table or use drugs before sessions. Unfortunately, you may already have a dependence on weed or another substance.

At worst, you want to keep your usage to a minimum so that it doesn’t affect your playing abilities. You especially don’t want to reach the point where it seems necessary to smoke weed or take a bump just to get through your session.

Of course, caffeine is the most used drug at the poker table. You’re certainly in the right to have coffee or the occasional energy drink in order to keep you awake.

But even caffeine has downsides when you’re dependent on it. Hopefully you only need this stimulant from time to time when you had a bad night of sleep or a long trip.

Don’t Blindly Throw Money at Business Ventures

Warren Buffett once said, “If you don’t find a way to make money while you sleep, then you’ll work until you die.”

His quote perfectly captures the essence of why it’s important to make your money work for you, but that doesn’t mean you should blindly throw money at any deal that comes your way.

Many so-called entrepreneurs target poker pros for their ventures. But they don’t always come through and can cost the players lots of money.

If you’ve been successful in poker and have extra funds, then take your time and thoroughly research any potential business deal. Don’t be afraid to say no if it looks like a bad venture.

Realize That Poker Success Comes and Goes

Poker success can be fleeting, even for the most skilled players. Grinders may eventually find their way back to success if they properly manage their bankroll.

However, one should never take anything for granted in this game. Poker is gambling, after all, and can be unpredictable in the short run.

Every pro should look for opportunities to save money when they’re successful. Extra cash can come in handy when one is going through a downswing.

Don’t Get Carried Away With Other Types of Gambling

Some poker pros measure their bravado against each other by how much they’re willing to gamble. They make huge prop bets with each other or start fantasy football leagues where the buy-in is $10,000 or more.

While gambling in games where you don’t have an edge can be fun, it also gets out of hand really quickly. You don’t want to throw years of success down the drain just to look cool in front of other pros. Oliver Busquet and JC Alvarado did just that when they took their prop betting to the MMA cage.

Oliver Busquet Vs JC Alvarado MMA Match At Syndicate MMA

Like anything, playing too many casino games or making too many sports bets can drain your bankroll when combined with a downswing. If you decide to gamble, take it easy and only do so on a recreational level.

Conclusion

Going broke isn’t the end of the world for a poker pro. Good players can often find backing and get on the right track again.

But it’s definitely best to avoid busting in the first place.

Knowing and avoiding the pitfalls of a professional poker player is a great start in not going broke.

Poor bankroll management is the chief reason why pros wind up penniless. Taking undisciplined shots at higher stakes, competing against difficult competition, and suffering from tilt can all lead to bankroll problems.

Many professionals also fail to factor in their living expenses. They may be good at handling their bankroll but do a poor job of accounting for rent, groceries, utilities, and bills.

Failing to consider future downswings is another common problem. Every poker pro has bad luck and will see their winnings take a hit. Successful players predict these times in advance so that they’re not ruined.

Drug abuse plagues certain pros. Some feel that they need one or more drugs to maintain their edge, when all they’re really doing is hurting their long-term health.

Many poker players seem to engage in bad business deals. Perhaps this is because they spend so much time playing that they don’t have enough time to properly research such ventures. In any case, one should never invest in something that they’re not thoroughly sure of.

Some rounders also play games where they don’t have an edge. Although entertaining, this can be a sure path to losses — especially when one gets carried away.

Becoming a skilled poker pro isn’t easy. You can see that it’s almost equally as hard to stay a pro and avoid the previously covered downfalls.

But it’s possible to remain a long-term success in poker with enough responsibility. You can also refer to the tips in this guide for advice on remaining financially stable.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016.

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