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Do You Have What It Takes?

by Ed Miller |  Published: Apr 12, 2017


The vast majority of poker players are amateurs. They play as a hobby. That’s the way it should be for the poker ecosystem to remain healthy.

But I think most serious amateur players have, at one time or another, thought about making poker something more in their lives. They think about playing semi-professionally—or even full-time professionally.

I hear this story very frequently. Someone will send me an email, “Hi. I have been a poker player for 15 years but I’ve recently decided that I want to make poker my job. I’m willing to do what it takes.”

Here’s the thing. While I have no doubt that the people who email me like this are very highly motivated and willing to do everything within their power to reach their goals, I always doubt that these players know exactly what it takes to be a professional poker player.

When I played as a full-time professional some years ago now, it was fairly difficult to do, as evidenced by all the folks I knew who tried and failed. Nowadays, unfortunately, it’s significantly more difficult than it was back then. Games are tougher, and your skills have to be a lot sharper to stay ahead.

So what does it take to be a professional poker player?

A Truly Outstanding Quality

Here’s the cold reality of the situation. If you want to be a successful pro, you need at least one truly outstanding quality. You need to be able to look at other poker players and say, “I am truly elite at this thing, compared to my competition. I am the best in the room. In almost any room.”

And your competition isn’t just the other hobbyist players. Its other aspiring professional players. If you are going to succeed, you need to be materially better at something important than everyone else who shares your goals.

If I ask people, “What are you better at than everyone else who is trying to be a pro player?” most people will tell me that they will work and study harder. They’ll play more hours. They’ll want it more.

Unfortunately, this is not Lake Wobegon. All the children are not above average. Everyone who wants to be a professional player thinks they will work harder and want it more than the other guys. It simply cannot be true for all of them. In fact, it can only actually be true for a small percentage. For everyone else, it’s a comforting myth.

So if I were trying to be a pro, I would not satisfy myself with that answer. “What important thing am I better at than everyone else who is trying to be a pro?” You probably won’t work that much harder or want it that much more than the next guy. So what is it? Here are some options.

Logical Thinking

You do not need a math degree to be a high-level poker player. You don’t need to have a calculator in your head. But you absolutely need a high-quality logical brain. You need to be able to think through things like, “If A then B and if B then C, then if I know that C isn’t true, can A be true?”

This sort of thinking absolutely abounds in poker. It comes into play every time you try to read an opponent’s hand. It is important every time you try to navigate any new situation you haven’t seen 10,000 times before.

Bluntly, some people are just better at this sort of thinking than others. It’s clearly related to IQ. High IQ folks are faster and more accurate with this sort of problem. And as the poker gets higher level (and higher stakes), the logical problems get more complex and nuanced. Which demands even stronger logical thinking.

It does not absolutely require an elite IQ to succeed as a professional, but every bit of intellectual horsepower will ultimately matter—the same way that every inch of height and every pound of muscle mass matters if you want to be an NFL lineman. You do not absolutely have to be 6 foot 7 and 320 pounds to play lineman in the NFL, but if you want to play at 290 you need other skills to compensate. And if you want to play at 280 you need even more compensation. It all matters.

Everyone thinks they’re smarter than average, but if you are serious about wanting to be professional, it will do you good to take an honest, objective look at where you are compared to the others around you. If you are elite, great. If you aren’t, you will probably need another elite quality.

Soft Skills

I know some very successful poker players that are good, but not elite, with their logical thinking skills. They’re good, but not elite, with their poker strategy study.
They’re elite with the soft skills. I’m talking about the hustling side of poker. This boils down to the ability to talk your way into good games and good betting situations. Can you get yourself invited to good home games? Can you start great games at the cardroom or casino by texting or calling a network of ideal opponents? And while you’re playing, can you talk your opponents into giving you extra edges?

We can all think of prominent poker players who obviously have used these soft skills to get the success they have achieved. I know of a few highly successful players whom I’m certain would have washed out of the game long ago were it not for their hustling skills.
I think most people are pretty honest with themselves about this part of the game. Either they know they have these skills, or they know they don’t.

Physical and Emotional Control

These three skills are ordered roughly in importance to being a successful pro. If you have an elite logical brain and study hard, you can succeed with no soft skills and poor physical and emotional control. If you have elite soft skills, you still need at least an okay logical brain and study habits to succeed.

And while physical and emotional control are important, and being elite really helps, you still need to be at least decent at the earlier stuff to really have success.

I don’t think I need to explain emotional control. I know one or two long-term successful players for whom I would say emotional control was their one elite skill. It’s not a common formula for success, but it can work.

By physical control I mean keeping yourself in great physical shape. This adds to stamina which can help you play at your peak for longer periods.

Final Thoughts

If you want to play as a professional, it pays to ask yourself, “What makes me different? Why am I going to succeed where most people fail? What do I have that’s special?”

Everyone thinks they work harder. It’s true for a few, but not for most who think so. Consider what else you may have going for you. And figure out how to make that edge work to your greatest advantage. ♠

Ed MillerEd’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site