The 4 Challenges Of Live Tournament Poker

Professional MTT player Steven Tabb discusses four major challenges faced by live tournament circuit poker players. He draws his wisdom from almost a decade of playing pro in the MTT trenches.

A few years ago, I made a poker lifestyle decision that would inherently change my life forever. Despite poker being my full time profession, I made a promise to myself that I would cut back on live tournaments by over 75%. This means that I would play no more than 20 tournaments a year; and instead, I would be dedicating significantly more time to online poker. To many of my poker colleagues, this was considered an extreme decision. But after experiencing years of traveling full time for poker tournaments, the choice was easy for me. 

The tournament poker life is a dream career for millions worldwide. If you believe you are a strong enough (and lucky enough) poker player to take the journey, you must be prepared for the inevitable obstacles that will stand in your way.  Before you make the jump to traveling full time for poker tournaments, keep in mind the challenges and sacrifices that lay ahead.

Challenge #1: Lack of Stability/Structure

Living out of a suitcase can be a fun experience for a limited amount a time. You get to travel to new places, meet new people, and constantly be thrown into new situations. But there are many downsides as well. Most people need to have a place that they can call “home”. Constantly changing locations prevents you from having that private home-base which would increase your sense of comfort and security. It is also difficult to develop a healthy routine with your surroundings always changing.

No doubt, you will meet many people on your journey; but even if you have outstanding social skills, there will be times where you will battle loneliness. It is difficult to find a constant companion or develop close friendships when you are always on the move. If you already have a family or significant other that relies on you, your time away from home will be even more challenging.  Missing out on family time and the people closest to you are some of the biggest sacrifices a traveling poker player has to make.

Life is about balance. You need a balance of hobbies, activities, friends, family, and your sense of fulfilment. Always being on the road for poker inhibits you from reaching this balance. Your mind will often be in a state of competition: overflowing with poker hands, strategy, and trying to win. Thoughts of prosperity, love, friends, and other ambitions tend to take a back seat. 

Traveling too much can also dull you to new experiences. Your excitement levels aren’t what they once were when you first started traveling.  Months of tournament poker turn into a blur. Eventually you forget 99% of the hands you played and only remember the crucial hands that were make or break. Tournament poker was never meant to be a full time job. It is anything but a balanced profession.

Challenge #2: Expenses

The cost of traveling for poker adds up quickly. Even for a thrifty investor like myself, I find it difficult to keep the costs low. Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and say you are splitting a hotel with a friend throughout all of your travels.  A decent hotel will cost you anywhere from $79 to $199 a night (weekend casino rates will often crush you at over $200). With taxes included, you could realistically split a room for an average of $65/person per night.

Food prices at casinos are always a rip-off. A decent meal will cost anywhere from $12 to $25, assuming you are not going to any fancy dinners (which can hit your for $50-$70 a pop). If you stay frugal, you could spend less than $45 a day on food for three meals on the lower end scale.

Transportation always seems to be under budgeted. If you plan to fly, that can cost a few hundred each way (poker players often book one-way flights for convenience and end up paying a premium for it). You will also have to factor in transportation to the casino which might require renting a car or using a taxi.  

If you add up the numbers for a two-week poker series, it will run you around $2,000-$2,500 if you budget well…and over $3,000 if you don’t. If you’re doing just one of these series per month, it can cost you $20,000 to $30,000 a year. Keep in mind this does NOT include any of your tournament buy-ins! These costs end up taking a huge hit on a poker player’s bottom line.

Challenge #3: The Variance

If you are an online poker player, prepare for even larger variance when switching to live poker. You will be a playing a small fraction of hands that you would online for stakes that are significantly higher, and therefore, every bad beat hurts a lot more. I don’t care how good you think you are at poker; if you play tournament poker full time, you are guaranteed to go through a downswing period. Since you are only playing a maximum of one tournament per day, downswings can last months, not days. Your income will become anything but consistent. Winning a tournament is a phenomenal feeling, but it never happens as often as you like. 

Long losing streaks can devastate even the most stable players. Most humans thrive from momentum, but due to the nature of tournaments, the encouragement is never consistently there. Losing streaks can take a toll on your health, your relationships, and your outlook of the future. In the end, the variance can be a constant strain on your mental happiness. 

Challenge #4: Eating/Workout Habits

It is very difficult to eat healthy while traveling for poker full time. Many destinations lack healthy food options; casinos especially. Even when you do find a good option, it might not be available during your obscure playing hours since many tournament schedules end after midnight. Even for someone like myself who is dedicated to a healthy lifestyle, I often find myself giving into fast food when traveling.

Poker can unfortunately influence a sedentary lifestyle, which makes staying physically active a struggle as well. The tournament lifestyle leaves little time to get a good workout in.  After a full day of tournament play which tends to run from 11am to midnight, you will often be mentally drained and ready to crash.  The last thing your body will want to do is workout. Some poker players are able to do cardio or yoga early in the day before the tournaments starts. For the few that I can, I applaud. But for the majority of us, this is an ambitious goal because your sleep schedule will be shifted during your travels. It is hard to go to bed before 1am, which means getting a good workout in the morning might require losing sleep, breakfast, or preparation time. For me personally, lifting in the morning is a disaster because then I am exhausted when it is time to play high stakes poker!

Is the Tournament Lifestyle Right for YOU?

Despite all of these challenges, I personally have no regrets dedicating multiple years to traveling for tournament poker. Without question, this lifestyle favors young poker players who have as few commitments as possible. The downswings in poker can be similar to other downswings in life. If you can learn to manage poker downswings at an early age, you can set yourself up to successfully deal with other life crises down the road. As they say, adversity builds character. 

Society never created poker to employ human beings. But if you can handle all the challenges and sacrifices, than you just may have a shot at making one of the most obscure professions your livelihood. 

Photo Credit: Yannick Croissant | Flickr