My first ever purchase as a poker player wasn’t made with money. It was made with FPPs. About a year after I started playing poker, I was $3/$6 reg with over $70,000 to my name, and I decided to cash in my FPPs on Pokerstars to buy an iPod. I was 16 years old, and my parents didn’t have the slightest idea that I was a poker player, much less making tens of thousands of dollars. I still remember getting that iPod in the mail, slipping it out of the thin plastic wrap, and feeling its undeniable weight in my hands. I’d never had an iPod before. It seemed like an extravagant thing to have. Examining my name, engraved on the back of the metal case, I felt like I had gotten away with something. I wasn’t supposed to have this.
Much later, after confessing to my parents that I was playing poker, after becoming a well-known high-stakes player, after making over a million dollars playing $100/$200 by the age of 19, that feeling still persisted. Why did I have money? No one ever explained it to me. I was just playing poker, this game that fascinated me. But soon, I was buying a new car, investing in a house, furniture, a giant TV, 30″ monitors. My small blind was more expensive than any dinner I’d ever eaten, or any item I could buy in a supermarket. What did that mean? What was the point? Was I supposed to know?
As a young poker player, I was ushered into a very unhealthy relationship with money. It’s a common theme among young poker pros. But unhealthy money habits are not limited to poker superstars. Even more common are the players who continually cash out, spend frivolously above their means, and are always broke or in debt.
Poker teaches us to dissociate money from its usual context. We’re constantly drilled toward that idea—don’t be results oriented, it’s just chips, play without fear. After enough of this, most poker pros will eventually be able to change their perception of money at a poker table. It will no longer be betting a month’s rent, or the down payment on a house—it will just be another move at a poker table.
But divorcing money from its usual context can be dangerous if it leaks over into your behavior away from the poker table. Once you start to think of an three-course meal or an expensive night out as “just a buyin,” frivolous spending becomes easier to justify. In poker we allow ourselves to lose; we accept our ups and downs as simply a matter of fact. Why not in life, too?
It’s easy to get caught in this trap. Money comes easy in poker—it goes up and down all the time. But by continually cashing out and spending lots of money, a poker player puts a heavy strain on his bankroll. That much is obvious. But what are less obvious are the systematic effects of that strain on your poker game.
Having a low bankroll, clearly, makes it more likely you grow broke. But chances are, you’re not too afraid of that, and perhaps you’re convinced you’ll move down when that risk draws near (when it comes down to it, you might, you might not). Very few people who go broke ever suspect they’re going to. But going broke isn’t the only danger to a poker player. Much more dangerous are the effects that having a slim bankroll will have on your mentality while you’re playing poker.
If you’re playing with 30 buyins and have to move down if you lose 10, you’re much more likely to feel like you need to win this session. You’re more likely to feel that this day, hand, or play needs to go right. After all, if it doesn’t, the stakes are high—you’ll have to move down, and your mind recoils from that idea. So playing with a low bankroll will make you more likely to tilt, to feel desperate, and to constantly be playing at the margins of safety. Your unconscious incentives will rock back and forth, like a boat in a storm. This problem is only compounded by, for example, having an impending cashout you’re going to make at the end of the month, at which point you’ll definitely need to win. This state of mind is clearly not a good place for a poker player to be playing from.
Cashouts are a part of poker. But if used thoughtfully, they can be a powerful tool to organize your progression. Instead of cashing out a usual amount every month, why not instead use your cashouts strategically? Allow yourself special cashout bonuses when you hit certain goals, like a certain number of hands per month, or not tilting for 10 days straight. Ideally, put your cashout money to experiences you want to have, rather than toward unnecessary material goods; experiences are better motivators, and according to behavioral science, are more likely to make you happy. Used properly, cashouts are one of our most powerful incentives as poker players. If you just cashout the same amount every month no matter what, you’re simply throwing away a powerful source of motivation and direction.
If you are up-and-coming in poker, it is vitally important that you limit your spending. Allow your poker bankroll to grow and flourish; give yourself the chance to move up; let your sprouting poker game grow into a healthy tree. If you live minimally (but well), use cashouts to motivate yourself, and give your bankroll as much breathing room as possible, you will become a better and more focused of a poker player, and you’ll move up much faster.
Ultimately, once your relationship with money is habitualized, it becomes much harder to change it. For my own part, this is something I’ve had to work to repair over time. And now, trying to live with $10,000, money has much more weight than it used to. The anxiety of spending $20 on dinner is something that, before, I couldn’t even imagine. Now, it’s a fact of life. But in time, I’m going to figure out a healthy way to relate to money. For me, as for anyone, that just comes with time and thoughtful effort.
Money can be a great mental burden, and to many people, it is. But the goal, in my mind, is to find the middle way. There are those who worship money, and those who fear it. But those who respect money are, I think, the most happy—and the most free.
The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The Albatross fell off, and sank
Like lead into the sea.Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Diogenes of Sinope was the father of Cynicism, an ancient school of ascetic philosophy. It’s easy to talk abstractly though. I like to imagine him: tattered clothes, tangled beard, a scraggly old man. In Athens, Diogenes was known unaffectionately as “the Dog.” He lived in a discarded wine tub, which he kept out in the […]Read more »
I made my final donation yesterday. The $75,000 is now all accounted for. I sent $20,000 to charity: water for building water wells in rural Pakistan, and $15,000 to GiveDirectly (matched by another $15,000 by Good Ventures), which will be distributed through Kenya and Uganda. I’ll be updating the original post where I announce I’m […]Read more »
So I’m starting over. I’ve decided to give away all of my money. Two years after retiring from poker, I have left about half a million dollars. I’m giving some of it to charity, and the rest to my family to go toward my parents’ retirement. I’m leaving myself $10,000 to live off—you know, in […]Read more »
I don’t tell people these days that I used to be a professional poker player. It seems like a weighty and cumbersome admission, one that always leads to the same tired conversation. The last time I played a hand of poker was well over a year ago. That life feels like an episode long behind […]Read more »