While the high-stakes poker lifestyle is purported to be full of champagne, penthouse apartments, and beautiful women. However, the reality of professional poker is often a lot different. There are a massive amount of professional poker players who go broke, even well-known ones!
Poker is a zero-sum game - to have every winner, you need at least one loser!
Truth About Professional Poker
The truth about professional poker is that it's incredibly difficult and full of traps no matter the amount of money you start playing with. Whilst there is no doubt that you can make money with online poker and even reach vertiginous salaries, you can go broke very quickly.
One of the most common reasons poker players go broke is that the game becomes too hard for them to make money anymore. The game and strategies are constantly evolving. And, with the advent of software poker solvers, the games are getting tougher and tougher. Therefore, if you're not working hard to keep up with the changes then you're going to get left behind.
A lot of the professionals that go broke fall into the trap of thinking they've "made it", and don't put in the same hard work that it took to get to the point where they can play professionally.
Additionally, to make a professional player's time worth their while, they have to play higher stakes which inevitably brings about strong contenders. And as the saying goes, "what got you here, won't get you there".
Why Professional Poker Players Go Broke
Professional poker players go broke for the same reasons small businesses go broke - they just aren't able to make enough money to cover their expenses. However, there are more personal factors that can affect poker players:
Living a Luxurious Lifestyle
When people think of professional poker players they think of people living it up in Vegas mansions, partying every night, and being James Bond without the shooting. However, the truth, as usual, is much more boring than fiction with the average professional poker player spending most of their time playing either online or live and study in the breaks between games.
Some players feel pressure to live up to this lifestyle, causing them to spend large amounts of money on frivolous endeavors and taking time away from actually playing or improving. After a while, this catches up with them and they no longer have the money or the skills to make enough money to live on and they end up going broke.
Not Preparing for Unlucky Periods
Poker is a game of hellacious swings, even highly skilled players can go on downswings that last over 100,000 hands and it can be difficult in these stretches to continue to play your best game - causing you to lose even more.
If a poker player who doesn't have a safety net goes through one of these downswings it can be very easy for them to go broke. When you decide to play poker professionally it needs to be treated like a business, and businesses will keep a certain amount of capital on hand to cover expenses during periods of low income - otherwise, they'll go broke, just like poker players.
One of the most important parts of being a professional poker player is managing your bankroll. Your bankroll acts as your investment capital and in each game you play, you invest a certain amount of that capital, expecting to get a certain return based on your win rate. The larger your bankroll is, the bigger games you can play and the more money you can make. Professional players must be prepared to take into consideration the poker tournament payout structure or aim for achievable cash rewards that cover their living expenses.
However, it can be tempting to use your bankroll for other purposes not related to poker or play in games that risk too much of your bankroll at any one time. A lot of broke poker players fall into this trap and it's why they're not around anymore!
Blindly Taking Bad Deals
When you first start playing and find out that some people can make a living playing a game. Then, a select few make hundreds of thousands of dollars. So yes, it's only natural to want to do something similar yourself.
The problem is, there are plenty of poker tables that agree to take on new players but at the cost of the majority of your profits. Others keep you on the hook for any losses you incur, potentially putting you in debt long after you've decided that poker is no longer for you.
To make it in poker you need to have at least a little bit of gambling. It's hard to be comfortable wagering thousands of dollars on the turn of a card, even if you have an edge unless you're comfortable with gambling.
The problem is that some players get a little too comfortable with gambling and start to spend longer and longer periods in the pit rather than at the poker table.
Professional Players with Major Losses
When talking about poker, people tend to focus more on the winnings than the losses but the truth is even well-known professional players have incurred substantial losses over their careers.
Gus Hansen is a rare player who has racked up millions in losses online and doesn't seem to have made any efforts to hide it. Rather than having to speculate on exactly how much he's lost like we have to with live players, it's all here to see in black and white.
While he's had a lot of good live results, as well as an unconfirmed amount of winnings in untracked backgammon games, you have to imagine that dumping $21 million to the world's best online players must have at least sent him close to, if not completely broke.
One of the first Full-Tilt pros with big success in both cash games and tournaments, Erick Lindgren fell victim to a gambling addiction that ruined his finances and his reputation amongst his peers. He found himself in considerable debt after a string of sports betting losses, having to declare bankruptcy multiple times.
Since this has come to light, Erick has taken a step back from poker, not playing anywhere near the volume he used to, and is no longer the public figure he once was. He had entered a rehabilitation program for gambling addicts in 2013.
Phil Hellmuth broke?! Surely not! Phil has always been seemingly frugal with his money compared to his contemporaries, both on and off the poker table, but there was a little confusion back in 2009 when some fans misinterpreted a passage in his blog.
He had referenced that owing Daniel Negraneau $181,000 had come at a poor time as he was a little short on cash, leading some people to assume that he had gone broke. Phil cleared this up in his next blog assuring people that he had plenty of capital, just very little of it in cash and that he is more than capable of paying Daniel back as well as keeping us entertained at the poker table for a long time to come - phew!
Gavin Griffin is another player who has unfortunately succumbed to a gambling addiction, ruining what was a promising poker career. Gavin is a highly decorated player, even winning the coveted triple-crown (a WSOP bracelet, a WPT title, and an EPT title).
His gambling, as well as a lavish lifestyle, eventually took its toll on his bankroll, and has now had to drop significantly down in stakes to not lose everything. The only silver lining for Gavin is that he didn't have as much money to lose as some of the other players on this list.
It's hard to imagine that a former WSOP Main Event winner can have such a fall from grace but that's what happened to Scotty Nguyen. A well-loved personality in the poker world, Scotty also won other notable titles such as the $50K H.O.R.S.E and a WPT event.
Scotty is another player who succumbed to his addictions, both gambling and others, and has lost back a significant amount of the money he won on his rise to poker stardom. He continues to play but at lower stakes in an attempt to grind his way back to the top.
Can professional players who won numerous poker tournaments go broke?
Unfortunately, numerous professionals could not maintain enough wins to sustain their poker careers. Even the most popular players have experienced going broke.
How can a professional player maintain their lifestyle?
Professional players usually take part in small stakes tournaments or cash games within online poker cardrooms. They aim to get enough wins to achieve a monthly earning of $1,000 to $10,000.
What are the reasons why the top poker players go broke?
Rich professional players tend to make poor decisions when managing their bankrolls. This is due to the pressure of maintaining an unrealistic earning per month, which comes from having a luxurious lifestyle.
How can professional players prepare for unlucky periods?
To avoid bankruptcy, smart professional players put a small chunk of their earnings in a savings account. Their savings can cover the monthly expenses during times when they are losing more games than winning them.
What is the best way for professional poker players to avoid going broke?
Professional players with a long career in the game tend to keep learning new strategies and ways to play the game. Others find alternative revenue streams such as offering mentorship.
While the high-stakes poker lifestyle can be attractive, the reality is that it can be hard to maintain over a career. Often the fall can come as quickly and unexpectedly as they rise, leaving once talented poker players completely broke.
This article was published on March 27, 2021, and last updated on June 23, 2022.