Playing Poker as a Career: Are High Stakes a Fair Price for True Freedom?

On June 12th, 2018, 27-year-old Lars Nick won $51,000 at the $1,600 Venetian PLO in Las Vegas. On the worst day in his career, at the World Series of Poker, he lost $12,000. Such dramatic wins and losses are just part of everyday living for a professional poker player.

The biggest reward is certainly freedom,” Lars says. “I can work whenever and however much I want, I can take as much time off and travel wherever I please. Freedom is worth so much, and only a few of us really get to experience it.”

Without a monthly paycheck, however, you need to play for money. If you don’t play, or you get unlucky or you can’t focus, you end up not making any money or even losing it. Lars considers poker to be a mental sport, like chess. Although luck is a huge factor, skill, knowledge and strategy outweigh all else in the long run.

I still have to play as I need to make money, so I’m not totally free yet,” Lars says, “Planning for the future is always a factor.”

Lars has been passionate about poker since he was 15 years old, but it took him years to convert his hobby into a career. He was studying e-business at a university when he realized that he was wasting his life and quit spontaneously to move to a poker house in Malta. He lived with three other players in an apartment right on the ocean, where his life consisted of poker and parties.

I wanted to be my own boss and do something that I could possibly be great at.

When he started playing poker, he essentially had no money. He played freerolls until he eventually won $11.00, which was enough to start him off in cash games. He began humbly with mere 1/2 cent stakes. It took Lars 3 years to turn $11.00 into $10,000.00.

The competition factor was always important to me, and moving up in stakes in a poker game was like playing a computer game and trying to reach the next level,” Lars explains, comparing rising stakes to a promotion at a 9 to 5 job.

On a regular day I wake up around noon,” Lars says, describing going straight to work after a shower and a bite to eat. In his free time, he plays video games, travels, and spends time with his wife and dog. “I come home whenever I feel like it, sometimes I will stay at the casino and play until 5 in the morning or even later.

Despite living what seems like the dream life, Lars does not recommend becoming a full-time poker player and admits that he doesn’t enjoy playing full-time anymore.

I would enjoy playing less hours than I do, but since I realize that it’s only going to get harder to make money in poker, I can’t afford to do so,” Lars says, explaining that other than his goal of retiring, a great accomplishment for him would be to win a WSOP bracelet.

Everyone has a different opinion about what ‘making it at poker’ would mean, for me it means that I am able to support myself financially and make it to the point where I feel that it has been worth my time.

Lars Nick / Photo: From archive of Mr. Nick

Speaking of time, being a full-time poker takes up a lot of it if your goal is to truly excel. Lars works 200 hours on average per month in just playing time. But he puts many hours into studying in addition to his playing time, and is investing most of his time in his financial future.

I think that studying up to a certain point is very important, just like in a regular job. There is a lot of content available nowadays, including paid coaching or self-study using the various programs that are available.

Lars believes that most forms of poker are much more ‘stable’ than a person would think. “What is stability really? If stability means having a low but stable income, then I’d rather be unstable and have more money at the end of the year. If you have a good sense of self-reflection, are willing to study and simply work hard enough, then I’d say that poker is not risky at all.”

Although Lars has been a successful playing poker and has made a decent living this way, he doesn’t recommend it as a career. In addition to the fact that the field does not offer regular salaries or other benefits such as retirement plans or health insurance, poker is also trending down now.

Ultimately, my goal is to retire after I have created enough passive income to be safe in the future,” Lars says, “I simply don’t know if I will ever be able to retire completely from poker. Personally, I don’t expect more than five more good years, so I’m stressed trying to make as much money as possible.”

There are several ways to make money playing poker. Lars makes most of his income playing cash games in Los Angeles. He also participates in larger tournaments such as the WSOP. He points out that real-life tournaments are no different from online ones, except for the typically smaller buy-ins online.

As I said earlier, I don’t recommend starting out as a poker pro. I recommend really figuring out what you love doing and then working as hard as you possibly can on that,” Lars concludes. “If you have something good going for you and you are passionate about it, you should just go for it. Young people should try to figure out what they really love instead of going the route that society has already planned out for them.

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