Was It Easier To Make A Living In Poker In The Old Days?

The toughest games in the world today, which all but certainly take place in high stakes cash games online, are without a doubt the most sophisticated and advanced form of poker that’s ever existed. Being able to beat those games requires more knowledge and skill than any time period in history. That’s a given. Debating this would be silly, but is it more difficult to make a living playing poker today than it was in the pre-internet poker boom days of the 90’s? That is the topic of this blog:

For some online poker players, when they think of the old days, they think of the golden era of poker where the games were juicy and there were a lot of them. During the early 2000’s when Moneymaker won the main event PokerStars and the entire online poker industry were bringing in more and more new players to the game at an alarming rate. For anyone who was already a professional poker player at the time, this was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Instead of having to go to a casino, wait around for a seat, and play 25 hands an hour one-tabling, they could sit at home in their underwear, play nitty on 20 tables and just rake in the cash. I don’t think there was ever a time in history that it was easier to make a living playing poker than that time period.

Even if you weren’t a pro, the learning curve to becoming one was quick. Plenty of books and poker forums existed that could help you develop a strategy that could win in a short period of time. In that era, learning the basics and playing “tight” was enough to make a decent living playing poker without ever having to leave your house.

Of course, that gravy train was never going to last. Players continued to improve, and those that didn’t, lost consistently and stopped playing. The only way to continue that gravy train was to continue to bring in new players at the same rate. The number of people trying to make a living online increased and the ratio of winning players to losing players at each table also shifted. In order to survive the changing environment, winning players had to work even harder on improving their skill set, meaning the new recreational players would be at an even bigger disadvantage than before. They’d lose their bankrolls even faster, wouldn’t have good experiences, and then stop playing.

So make no mistake, you shouldn’t underestimate the amount of skill and work it takes to be a winning high stakes player online. While the golden era of poker was a much easier time to make a living playing poker, I assert that it is much more accessible and easier for a young player to make a living playing poker today than it was in the 90’s.

It would seem like that’s a total contradiction? How can games be tougher today, yet it’s supposedly easier to make a living now as compared to the 90’s? I’m going to go over just a few reasons why I think making a living playing poker today is much easier than it was in the 90’s:

1. Number of Hands

In the 90’s, the most popular form of poker was limit hold’em. Pot limit hold’em games popped up occasionally, but those games were mostly populated by professional players and tourists weren’t really drawn to that format. They would go broke quickly and hardly post any winning sessions. Playing limit hold’em, while a much faster form of poker, still only saw about 30-35 hands dealt per hour. So if you put in an 8 hour session, you would gain about 250 hands of experience under your belt. It would take you about four long days to play 1000 hands.
If you are playing live games for a living these days, you would likely get less hands than that because no limit hold’em has taken over as the most popular form of poker so you would be playing 25-30 hands depending on who is at your table.
Multi-tabling online poker, though, allows you to play hundreds of hands per hour. That allows professionals to play more games at lower stakes, lowering their variance while also being able to play in better games.
In the 90’s, if you needed to make $25 an hour to earn a living wage, you couldn’t sit at 10 different $2-$4 tables with the tourists, you needed to play either a $10-$20 or $20-$40 limit game to make that much money against mostly professionals.

2. Learning Curve

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discussed the theory that it takes about 10,000 hours to master anything. Assuming there is something to this, in the 90’s it would take players about 4-5 years to get that many hours in. In that time period, a player would be getting about 300,000 hands of experience. Online play allows you to get that much experience in just a few months if you grind hard over multiple tables. The amount of time it takes to learn how to play the game well today is far less than it was in the 90’s.
It’s important to note, that the definition of playing well in the 90’s is far different than it is today. It’s relative. While it took 4-5 years to play well in the 90’s, that version of playing well would not be enough to beat the much tougher games of today. It was playing well, relative to the field. Learning to “play well” enough relative to the field can happen much more quickly today than it did back then. There are a lot more resources outside of simply the ability to play online that might help get you there, and well discuss that in a separate point.

3. Availability

Poker is a lot more popular today than it was in the 90’s. You could argue that it’s not as popular today as it was in the golden era, but there is no question that there are more poker games being played around the world today than there was in the 90’s. If you were a pro back then, you likely played limit hold’em. If you played limit hold’em in Vegas you might find 2-3 $20-$40 games at the Mirage, and one spotty $40-$80 limit hold’em game littered with pros and few recreational players. Higher mixed games existed, but overall your options were limited. If those games weren’t good, you could try the $15-$30 Stud, but it wasn’t like you had a sea of poker tables to choose games and stakes from. If the games weren’t good, you either sat and made less money or didn’t play. There was nowhere else to really go and find better games.

4. Global Options

This point ties into availability. Unless you lived in California, Las Vegas, or Atlantic City, being a professional poker player wasn’t likely an option for you. You would have to decide to move to one of those places to find regular games. Question is, how could you make the decision to move to one of those places without enough experience and knowledge to be a winning player? Would seem like a pretty foolish idea.
Sure games existed in Europe and other parts of the world, but they weren’t exactly advertised on TV so you had to actively go looking for them.
Today, there are local cardrooms with regular games in most parts of America and the world, and that says nothing about the fact that internet poker is available globally. Online poker allows you to make a living wage from anywhere in the world that has wifi. (and is legal of course)

In the 90’s, if you grew up in Frankfurt, Germany and liked poker, how would you even go about becoming a professional? How would you get good enough to justify leaving your homeland to find games abroad? Where would you even go? How would you know where good games existed? The list of geographical obstacles was long.

5. Study Tools

There were study tools available in the 90’s. There were books available and by then they even had Mike Caro’s Poker Probe witch was a software program that allowed you to run very simple hand simulations. Before Doyle Brunson decided to write Super System, though, there just wasn’t any way to learn how to play the game outside of actually just sitting your butt down, taking your lumps, surviving the losses, and learning to play well enough before you went broke.
Today, you have a wide variety of study tools available, many of which will cost you absolutely nothing. Poker forums where you can read and learn from other pros. Twitch streams where you can watch pros like Jason Somerville walk you through his thought process during hands. Television, YouTube, Poker Central, or PokerStars.tv where you can watch how pros play hands in tournaments and have access to their hole cards.
A 16 year old kid could learn a ton about how to play poker without ever risking a dime of his own money. He could play free play on PokerStars, then, once he is equipped with enough knowledge he could theoretically be a winning player from the first real money hand he ever played!
If you do want to spend some money, there are advanced books available today as well as coaching sites that get really deep into high end strategy.

Those are just five reasons but I could list many more reasons why it was more difficult to make the decision to be a professional poker player in the 90’s than it is today. It’s not to say that guys like isaac Haxton, Olivier Busquet, and Dani Stern wouldn’t have been smart enough to beat the games in the 90’s, it’s to say that there is very little chance that they would have even bothered to put in the effort required to do so.

Doyle pointed out on Twitter that people who were drawn to being professional poker players in the old days did so because of the absence of any really good options in their lives. Most were not educated. Most were not qualified to get good mainstream jobs. Professional poker players back in those days were hustlers finding a way to make it in the world. For people like the guys I mentioned, they are educated and have all kinds of opportunities to get good jobs in the real world.

The existence of online poker is what made this lifestyle accessible to young, brilliant, educated young people who saw an opportunity to make an “easy living” from the comfort of their own home. I don’t think any of the three guys I mentioned would have been professional poker players in the 90’s! Again, not because they weren’t capable, but mostly because it would have been a bad decision. Professional poker players were misfits in that era. Hustlers, that were smart enough to find a way to survive in life despite limited options in terms of valid career choices.

The reason this whole topic came up in the first place was a general feeling that there was a lack of appreciation for the level of skill and intuition that professional pokers of the 90’s and before had. This idea that, “If I could have played in that era I would have crushed the games.” No, you probably wouldn’t have. The learning that would have been available to you back then doesn’t resemble today in the least. The best players in that era, were just amazing poker players. The best players of today are amazing poker players.

Just imagine taking a smart 21 year old kid and plopping him back to 1995. A kid that today is a professional poker player making hundreds of thousands of dollars. You really think he would have been able to cut it back then? Maybe, but it would have been a long shot unless his parents gave him a bankroll that could fade all the bumps and bruises he would take on the way towards becoming a winning player. The years of sitting at one table playing 30 hands an hour trying to master the game. The struggle of trying to make enough money to pay rent for his Las Vegas motel each month. The constant inner struggle of wondering if you should give it all up and use his college degree to get a “real job.”

This purpose of this blog isn’t to discredit the young wizards of today, it was to pay due respect to the professionals of old who beat the odds and were able to make a living playing poker when few would even dare or succeed.

So was it easier to make a living playing poker professionally than it is today? You’ve got to be kidding me! Are games tougher today than they were in the 90’s by a wide margin? Of course!