Stroll through any poker room in America – from the vaunted Bobby’s Room high-stakes area at Bellagio in Las Vegas, to your local card club’s $1/$2 Hold’em game – and you’re bound to see the same sorry sight repeated time and time again.
Tired looking men (and the occasional woman) are hunched over their chips, poor posture and a pathetic smirk combining to make them look both angry and tired. They might be muttering to themselves, or if they’re bold, loudly berating a fellow player for their “bad” play. These players aren’t dressed to impress, wearing the same sweatpants they’ve had on for a week now. And in many cases, they’ll be nursing a Corona or cocktail, even when the sun is shining high in the daytime skies outside.
Now, this isn’t the classic image of a poker pro plastered on made for TV broadcasts like the World Series of Poker (WSOP) or World Poker Tour (WPT). No, those shows typically present viewers with a positive image of poker, as shown by this famous photo of Antonio Esfandiari beaming with pride and embracing his newly won $18 million pile of cash.
Or maybe you’ll see the classic winner’s photo, which depicts the lucky winner surrounded by friends and family, every one of them smiling ear to ear as their buddy savors the moment. In each case, the poker tournament circuits are trying their best to sell you on one illusion above all else – poker pros are living their best lives.
From the high-rolling exploits of Phil Ivey – who descends on unfortunate casinos in a helicopter before laying waste to $10 million baccarat sessions – or the perpetually peppy Daniel Negreanu, poker stardom is almost always equated with a jet-set lifestyle and comfortable living. After all, these players have reached the peak of poker, competing for massive seven- and eight-figure prizes, all while traveling the globe and experiencing the world’s wonders firsthand.
Indeed, what’s not to love? Well, when you circle back to those everyday scenes witnessed at poker rooms coast to coast, you’ll find plenty of reasons to not love the poker grind. Simply put, for every Ivey or Negreanu out there living the dream, hundreds of poker players toil down in the pits, struggling just to make ends meet while trying to put on a brave face.
And even for the “winners” out there – pros who appear regularly in big tournaments or cash games and seem to enjoy sustained success – happiness is a hand that isn’t always dealt their way. Just ask Ben Wilinofsky, a young pro better known as “NeverScaredB” to his legions of fans online. Wilinofsky has won countless millions grinding the highest stakes cash games and tournaments online, and he’s also added a cool $1.3 million in live tournament scores to boot.
Wilinofsky’s heyday in poker occurred between 2010 and 2013, and at the time, he appeared for all the world to be on Cloud 9. He was winning all the big tournaments, crushing cash games against his former poker idols, and travelling worldwide all the while.
But in 2015, Wilinofsky shocked the poker community by announcing his retirement from the game. Many pros come and go in poker, grabbing as much money as they can before moving on to their next passion project – but Wilinofsky’s reasoning was different. As he revealed in an enlightening interview with PokerListings, the online beast was suffering from intense depression.
Here’s how Wilinofsky described the revelation that, no matter what he accomplished in poker, winning could never heal his mental wounds:
While the journey experienced by Wilinofsky is unique, you’d be surprised to know just how many poker players – pros and recreational grinders alike – endure the same kind of emotional upheaval. Whether they’re using poker as a coping mechanism to escape external demons, or the game itself is diminishing their ability to enjoy real life, these players struggle day in and day out to stay on an even keel.
Now that you know poker players – even the most successful pros out there – can still be unhappy and unsatisfied on the inside, let’s examine seven reasons why winning money doesn’t solve everything:
1 – Pro Poker Is a Grind, Plain and Simple
First and foremost, playing poker for a living – or even as a serious hobby – can be emotionally draining to say the least. The TV poker broadcasts have the benefit of editing on their side, so viewers at home only see the big all-in moments, dramatic river cards, and raucous celebrations. What you don’t see are the many hours spent huddled around a dingy table, surrounded by similarly unhappy and/or unpleasant opponents, folding trash hands like 3-9 off suit for hours on end.
Remember, of the 169 unique starting hands in Texas Hold’em, only 20-30 of them are considered to be “playable” given a typical tournament structure. This statistical oddity ensures that most grinders will be folding far more hands than they play. As they say about Hold’em, the game involves “hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.”
All of those hours in between can pile up on a player, especially when the moments of terror aren’t producing winners. Just imagine heading to the poker room for a big tournament, and feeling that rush of excitement and energy. You came to play, and you came to win. Your emotions are buzzing on overdrive as the event begins, and all of the optimism in the world seems to be flowing freely through you.
Poker is a game defined by the constant battle between skill and variance. You can play perfectly, only to see the deck deliver your opponent’s perfect string of cards. Conversely, opponents can play extremely poorly en route to eliminating you from the field.
Knowing these facts is the first step, but coping with them is another story altogether. As Wilinofsky explained in the passage above, poker players can experience the greatest thrills imaginable in one game, but the next session offers no such guarantees.
Between the long 12-14 hour days spent grinding, and the reality that four out of five buy-ins will result in a bust out, hitting the tournament circuit requires immense emotional stamina. You’ll be riding a roller coaster of intense feelings – excitement, anticipation, relief, then disappointment, dread, and frustration – all within the course of a few hours.One could easily argue that the human brain just isn’t equipped to handle these emotional swings.
2- Winning Money Doesn’t Always Mean *Making* Money
One of the most common complaints levied against poker pros by recreational players goes like this:
It’s the same argument used against professional athletes, celebrities, or any other successful individuals who nonetheless succumb to unhappiness or depression. Leaving aside the inherent unfairness of demanding successful people put a smile on their face at all times, this argument glosses over one basic mathematical fact – poker winnings don’t always equate to profit.
The poker industry is particularly curious in how winners and losers are perceived. When you fire up the Hendon Mob database – which tracks live tournament cashes around the globe – you’ll see somebody like Wilinofsky with just a single score over the last five years. Meanwhile, pulling up Negreanu’s records on Hendon Mob will show he’s the second-largest money winner of all-time, with dozens of cashes sprinkled throughout each and every year.
But as you learned earlier, Wilinofsky willingly withdrew from professional poker, taking his leave from the game to focus on his mental wellbeing. It’s quite likely that he’s extremely happy in 2018, or at the very least, much happier today than he was back when depression compelled him to retire.
As for “Kid Poker” himself, Negreanu is probably a happy camper too, but it’s not because he’s always in the black. When 2017 came to a close, Negreanu – a social media butterfly who loves connecting with his fans – offered an interesting insight into the world of professional poker finances. In a post to his personal Full Contact Poker blog, Negreanu revealed that he cashed for nearly $2.8 million throughout the previous year.
Of course, most recreational players saw those numbers and thought “wow, imagine how happy you’d be cashing for almost $3 million in a single year.”
But as Negreanu laid out in exacting detail, he actually finished 2017 as a net loser overall:
In the blog post, Negreanu lays it all on the line. In 2017 he cashed for $2.79 million, but he paid entry fees totaling $2.87 million. By year’s end, despite in 21 of the 71 tournaments he entered, the world’s best poker player wound up down $86,140.
Remember, the Hendon Mob and other poker scorekeepers can only track recorded cashes – not buy-ins and losses. Thus, when you see a player has had a “winning” year, you never really know whether they’ve locked up a penny of profit along the way.
3 – They Aren’t Succeeding “Easily” Like the Pros on TV
Along the same lines, TV poker’s deceptive use of positive winner stories and “rags to riches” tales involving recreational players can take a definite toll.
Everybody who has ever flopped a flush or forced a fold entertains the same basic dream. Grind your way up through the ranks, take your shot at a major tournament, and walk away with the title in tow – not to mention a million bucks. And if you believed the WSOP and WPT producers, these improbable journeys happen at seemingly every stop along the tournament circuit.
In reality, low-level players who try to move up through the ranks tend to get smacked down in a hurry. Poker games, especially No Limit Texas Hold’em, have become increasingly “solved,” meaning the pros know exactly how to approach every conceivable situation.
Imagine playing chess against a supercomputer to get the idea. You might have a chance to win in theory, but in practice, your opponent’s superior skills will wind up winning out in the end.
TV poker shows can’t let viewers in on this dirty little secret though, because if they did, hopeful amateurs and hometown heroes wouldn’t pony up the buy-in to play their branded events. Instead, they sell you snake oil about those lucky souls who went from $60 daily tournaments to WPT titles.
4 – They’ve Invested Everything – Economically and Emotionally – in the Game
One big reason why poker players seem to be so unhappy is the fact they have nothing else to fall back on. Get a load of this 2016 profile by the New York Post, detailing poker pros who dropped out of college or quit their jobs to play the game, to get an idea of how this phenomenon works.
For them, a decision made impulsively many years ago has snowballed. College classes are distant memory, their resume hasn’t been updated in years, and for all intents and purposes, they’ve sunk everything they have into a poker “career” that they can’t get off the ground.
Ryan Fee – co-founder of the Upswing Poker instructional site and a WSOP bracelet winner – recently penned a blog post offering advice to players who put too much stock in poker as their life and livelihood:
5 – Compulsive Gambling and Addictive Tendencies Take Their Toll
This is the big unspoken secret within the poker world, and the casino gambling world in general. When you see the same faces grinding it out on a daily basis – at noon, or midnight, and all hours in between – these poor souls aren’t “grinders” who have “passion for the game.”
Nope, they’re likely suffering though a gambling addiction that they haven’t yet come to grips with. And like any form of addiction, indulging one’s temptations and vices may appear to be a blast, but only from the outside looking in.
In an article published by PokerListings, writer and player Lee Davy explained how his own compulsive play led to depression and dark thoughts. The article goes on to cite Stephen Pfleiderer, a certified interventionist, addiction specialist, and recovery coach who studied Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
According to Pfleiderer’s diagnosis, Davy and other poker players who can’t seem to quit after a bad beat are prone to the same addictive tendencies as an alcoholic:
When you realize just how many players at the poker table would rather be somewhere else, but stay because they don’t know how to walk away, it’s easy to see why so many of them are miserable.
6 – The Games Are Getting Tougher
This was alluded to above, but poker in 2018 has nearly been “solved” from a game theory perspective. In other words, the best players have used computer algorithms and other advanced tools to figure out how to play the game perfectly. Imagine basic strategy rules in blackjack to get the idea.
As a recreational player or aspiring pro, trying to climb the industry’s ladder today is essentially impossible. The top players have already solved their game of choice, and even if you do the same, you’ll be left to simply trade pots back and forth. That’s no fun for anybody, and unfortunately, even the lower stakes games are prone to the solver dilemma.
7 – They’re Already Unhappy and Poker is Just a Salve
Saving the most obvious answer for last, when you see somebody who is unhappy at the poker table, chances are good they’re just plain unhappy.
Poker can be a great outlet for those who are dealing with stress at work or at home, at first glance anyway. Many people think they’ll get to blow off steam and relieve their stress by playing poker, only to find that the game exacerbates the problem.
When they’re winning, it’s all smiles and celebrations. But one bad beat later, and these players can easily let the mask slip, revealing an unhappy existence that a few big pots just can’t come close to fixing.
Poker players are a unique breed, as the game requires a certain emotional and intellectual hardwiring to enjoy. And for whatever reason, including the seven explored above, many poker players seem to have trouble staying happy on a consistent basis. That may be a symptom of the times, or the game itself, but if you’re not having fun at the tables any longer, take a page of Wilinofsky’s book and give yourself a much needed mental breather.