Being a professional poker player has always been a tough way to make a living.
Even for profitable players, who find themselves in a small minority, the question must be asked: how much constitutes “a living”?
Yes, you’re profitable, but if you’re in the black to the tune of, say, $10,000 per annum, you are basically living at the poverty level.
Nor could you be said to be “living the dream,” which in the eyes of poker players everywhere is the ideal of wealth and excitement without the need to pursue a conventional job.
Going pro has certainly become tougher in recent years, largely because, as the well-worn adage goes, “everyone’s solid.” Online poker allowed younger players to experience a huge volume of hands and amass knowledge of the game that would have otherwise taken years.
Meanwhile, the rise of training sites and a wealth of information to anyone willing to put in some time to improve means that there are fewer soft targets out there and less value for everyone.
This was tempered to a degree by the rise of tracking software, which allowed players to play higher volume and make a living by grinding multiple tables at lower stakes, which would otherwise not have been profitable enough.
However, all of these things have led to a drying up of the recreational players, who represent poker’s bottom line. The recs have abandoned the game, because the skill gap is insurmountable and they are being swallowed up and spat out at a faster rate than ever before, leading to claims that online poker is “cannibalizing itself.”
Without the soft spots feeding the poker economy with money, that economy is unstable. The pros need the recs, but they are also scaring them off. Oh, the conundrum of it all!
This has led to the online poker industry making some fairly revolutionary changes that favor recs over the high-stakes and high volume players, who are by definition their best customers. Poker sites are beginning to curtail, or even ban, the use of tracking software and the ability for players to employ game selection, for example.
PokerStars late this year announced sweeping changes to its player reward system, reducing benefits for the high volume players in order to tempt the amateurs back. This, coupled with curtailed rakeback programs and higher rakes engendered by increased regulation and taxation across the world, will certainly make it harder for professional players, many of whom spend their time pushing small edges in the first place.
Is the Party Over?
The ideal era to have been playing the game can be seen in the rise of Tom Dwan. He was old enough to discover online poker in the glory days of PartyPoker, when the play was notoriously wild and anyone with a bit of moxie and careful financial management could build up a decent bankroll, a springboard to potential success.
From there, Dwan road on the coattails of the poker boom and was able to incorporate and benefit from the rise of online poker software. His career culminated in the legendary high-stakes games of the old Full Tilt, the likes of which have not been seen since.
Dwan was a genius and the cream of a generation that redefined the game, but he was very much a product of his time, also.
It could be that online poker is destined to wax and wane in cycles, as all economies do. Should the industry’s efforts to attract the amateurs back succeed, then the economy will become healthier, making professional poker more profitable again for a wider group of players.
There is, however, no evidence yet that the changes the online poker industry is implementing will succeed, and meanwhile, the idea of a second poker boom remains an as-yet-unrealized fantasy.