What is it like to be a professional poker player?

Peter Stephenson
The KickStarter
Published in
6 min readJul 13, 2020


A true, frank and probably surprising confession.

It is the question I get asked the most when people ask about my background;

“A professional poker player? Wow, what was that like?”

I will try to answer the question as honestly as I can, including responses to the typical follow up questions.

For most the idea of playing poker for a living conjures up the image of Monte Carlo or Las Vegas casinos. The truth is, as I will demonstrate from my experience of playing professionally from 2007 to 2012, that it couldn’t be much further from the truth.

First off, a professional poker player is someone who makes a living playing poker. The best make a lot and may even become famous, but many, ‘grinders’ as they are known, play the game like a job, circa 40 hours a week and grind out a living.

For me, as with most other contemporary professional players, poker was an online activity and for good reason, as I will explain. There are lots of different games which fall under the category of poker, and lots of variants within them but something which holds true for all of them is that luck is a factor. Poker is not like blackjack or roulette; you don’t play against the casino, you play against other people, so if you’re the best player you have the edge, just as the casino has the edge in roulette. Of course, just as you can get lucky in roulette, a weak player can get lucky and beat a strong player in poker. The way to minimise the luck factor, just like it is for casinos, is to maximise the volume.

If you play poker online you can play as many games as you like at one time. At my peak I would play 20 games simultaneously and aim for 200 games per day. In so doing the luck factor is significantly reduced, although it can never be eliminated.

Playing 20 games of poker at once has its challenges. For one thing, you need the hardware to accommodate a set-up like that. If you think of the trading desks on wall street with multiple monitors but instead of graphs and charts, games of poker, then you have a good idea. You also need an environment in which you can concentrate, an ergonomic seating arrangement (RSI, as I experienced personally, is a serious and career threatening condition). These are surmountable obstacles - you can train yourself to concentrate on 20 games, and you can buy large monitors and there’s a big selection of ergonomic chairs, computer mice and desks — but other challenges may not be immediately apparent. You can’t pause the games for bathroom breaks… Many of my counterparts would keep a large bottle under their desk, personally I always opted to sprint to the bathroom to answer the call of nature. There was no dignity or glamour in this aspect of grinding a living playing poker… those images of Vegas are behind us now right?

What about the money?

I was a good mid-stakes player, my income averaged around $100k / year when playing full time (and in the UK that’s tax free). The best made more and plenty made less but poker provided a comfortable income — well… perhaps ‘comfortable’ is the wrong word.

The thing with an income from poker is that it’s not evenly distributed throughout the year like a regular salary. You may have great months where you win $20k or even $30k, but you will have bad months where you lose $10k and the good and bad months can run consecutively. It puts considerable psychological strain on the individual and if the money isn’t managed well it is a virtual certainty you will go bust. Most players, myself included, have had runs of bad luck which exceed all expectation. I had to borrow money after a bad run in 2009 to get back on my feet and realised then, that I couldn’t play poker for a living indefinitely — few can. I transitioned from full time poker more gradually than most. I started a poker training website to provide a more stable side income and played less myself, eventually selling the business and moving on to other business interests.

Were you addicted?

No. Definitely not.

In 2012 I sold my business, and didn’t play a hand of poker for over three years. In part this was because I was busy with other entrepreneurial ventures but since I stopped playing professionally I have only played on a handful of occasions.

I used to love playing when I played poker recreationally, but once I started playing for a living it became a way to avoid my greatest fear — getting a normal job. It was stressful, exhausting and I’m not sure there is a word to adequately describe the indignity of having to sprint to the bathroom throughout the day. I was no more addicted to poker than a taxi driver is addicted to driving their car.

What did your friends and family think?

There are not many parents bragging about their off-spring’s success in the field of poker, and my family were no exception. Eventually they came to terms with it and were supportive but it was never a secret that they really wanted me to get a proper job!

Friends were a bit different. There were those that thought;

“If he can do it, so can I…”

There were a couple of unfortunate instances of friends losing heavily when trying to emulate what I was doing. I couldn’t seem to relay the message that I didn’t start winning as soon as I started playing. It required hundreds if not thousands of hours of practice and study to get good enough to win at poker, to make a living from it took even longer.

Most of my friends thought it was cool for the most part… at least until I hit the inevitable bad runs. During the stages where I ran into heavy losses my mood suffered and I was no fun to be around.

The weirdest thing though was that even the loosest acquaintances seemed to think they had the right to contribute their opinion, to tell me that there is, ‘no such thing as a professional gambler!’ or (and this happened so many times I lost count) to engage in the following conversation;

Idiot: “How much money can you make playing poker?”

Me: “Over the last 12 months I made $100k”.

Idiot: “Wow, Really?!” (pause whilst they process the fact that contrary to their narrow minded beliefs, you could make money playing poker) “But, how much did you lose?”.

I guess the first few times I explained that I was answering how much I made (i.e. profit) and you can’t make profit and loss at the same time, but after a few times I just gave up and moved on. For some people the concept of being a professional poker player was just too much to grasp.

Why did you stop?

Someone once described playing poker for a living as:

“the hardest way to make an easy living”

I wish I could attribute the quote to the person who said it — never a truer phrase has been uttered and it answers the question as honestly as I can. It was brutally hard. I lost my passion for the game and as I discovered other entrepreneurial opportunities it was easy to leave poker behind.

Poker taught me that when you set your mind to something, no matter how many people tell you it’s not possible or it won’t work, you can achieve your goals no matter what they are. Poker also taught me (and my subsequent ventures have confirmed) setting your mind on something is not an easy task and requires a level of dedication and resilience few really understand.



Peter Stephenson
The KickStarter

Entrepreneur, PhD Candidate in Leadership, Lecturer at University of Amsterdam