As an author of a personal finance website, writing on the topic of playing online poker to make extra income is a bit of a risk. Some might say it’s a bit of a gamble!
However, whenever I get into a conversation with someone and I explain that I played online poker “professionally” for a year after university, they become interested. Furthermore, when I explain that I was able to earn enough to put down a deposit on a house, they become truly fascinated.
Therefore, I decided that I would today share the hints and tips I learned along the way which can help you make extra income by playing online poker.
Is poker is a game of skill or luck?
The first thing to address is whether poker is a game of skill or luck. If poker is only ever a game of luck, then we should never be using it as a tool to earn extra income as it would only be akin to gambling. Luckily, I’m very convinced that it’s a game of skill. Let me explain via a quick example.
Let’s consider two individuals who are playing No-Limit Texas Hold’em poker against each other. Player A thinks only of his own hand and how that looks. Player B thinks just one level ahead and considers what hand he has AND what hand his opponent has.
These two players have played together before, and player B understands that player A will only bet more than 25% of their pot pre-flop with either AA, KK, QQ or AKsuited.
The following hand occurs and player A and player B both have £100 to start the hand and the limits are £0.50/£1. Player B gets dealt QQ. Player B bets £3 total (including his blinds). Player A raises to £8 total (including his blinds). Player B re-raises to £22. Player A then re-raises “all-in” for £100 total.
Ok, now Player B has a decision to make. Luckily, he has the knowledge of his opponent and his favourite tool that EVERY poker player will need to master: maths.
Player B firstly calculates the odds he is behind provided. Everything that has already happened from a mathematical perspective we can forget about; it’s a sunk cost. Player B just has to determine that he has to put in £78 more, for the chance to win a total return of £200.
Therefore, his odds to win the hand need to be above 78/122 (39% or around 4 in 10) for the decision to play to be profitable.
Next Player B needs to work what his actual odds of winning is. There is where it becomes complex. The chances of Player B winning the hand under the possible holdings of his opponent is:
- Player A holds “AA” – 20% win
- Player A holds “KK” – 20% win
- Player A holds “QQ” – 50% win
- Player A holds “AKsuited” – 55% win
Each of these %s is an estimation (but are right within 1-2%). For example, when both players hold QQ, it is not guaranteed that they will tie as either player could get a flush. However, given that both is equally likely, it’s okay to estimate that the pot will be shared 100% of the time, which is the equivalent to us winning the whole pot 50% of the time.
However, it doesn’t end there. Player B also needs to calculate the “chance” that Player A holds each of these combinations. For “AA”, there are 6 different combinations of “AA”. AhAd; AhAc; AhAs; AdAc; AdAs; AcAs. The same is true for “KK”. However, because Player B already has “QQ”, there is only one combination of “QQ” left for Player A to hold. Finally, there are 4 different combinations of “AK suited”. Therefore, 17 possible combinations.
Now, we can calculate the odds of winning the hand:
- Player A has “AA”: Chance of hand (6/17) x Chance of winning (20%) = 7%
- Player A has “KK”: Chance of hand (6/17) x Chance of winning (20%) = 7%
- Player A has “QQ”: Chance of hand (1/17) x Chance of winning (50%) = 1%
- Player A has “AKsuited”: Chance of hand (4/17) x Chance of winning (55%) = 13%
By working through the maths, we get an overall chance of winning as 28%. For confirmation of this figure, check the screenshot from PokerStove later in this post.
Therefore, there are two ways to look at the maths to make the comparison:
- We are betting £78 to win the final £200 pot 28% of the time. Therefore, we are betting £78 to win an average of £56.
- We need to win 40% of the time, but in our analysis we are only winning 28% of the time.
Whichever way you look at it, the best decision is to fold and not call the bet.
Let’s look at a role reversal. Imagine that Player A picked up QQ. His thought process would simply be that QQ is a good hand (because they only think of their own hand and not the hand of their opponent) and therefore they call. However, under the same circumstances, that call costs Player A £22 every time they make it.
First Tip To Work Out If Online Poker Is A Possible Side Hustle For You
If any of the following is true, you are not ready to try earning money by playing online poker:
- You skipped over any of the previous analysis because it was too long, because the maths was too complex or boring.
- There was anything in the above example which you didn’t understand.
- There was anything in the above example that you thought was “unrealistic”.
Think about who makes the money
The other thing to think about when considering online poker is who actually makes money. Well, the definitive answer is “the online poker site” and this may make you think that poker is indeed gambling.
However, this is structured in a very different way to gambling.
When you go to the casino and play roulette, and say you bet £1 on every single number (0-36 inclusive). Therefore, you bet £37 total. However, when any one number rolls in, the casino will only pay you pack £35.
Therefore, on any single bet, your “expected value” (EV) is negative, but you have the chance of winning big if you put £10 on one number and it rolls in. This is gambling.
However, online poker is different. In online poker, you play against other humans, and the winner of every hand pays a “commission” to the site (called a “rake”). Pokerstars, for example, charge 6.5% rake for the above example game, up to a maximum of £3 per hand. This can be built into the odds which you calculate on each hand, but effectively the easiest way to think about it is that you need to be able to beat your opponent by such an extent that it also exceeds the amount of “rake” you’ll pay.
Playing Online Poker To Make Extra Money – My Story
So, how did I start playing online poker? Why did I stop?
Well, I’ll keep this fairly brief, but I first starting playing (badly) with friends at school and in my summer holidays when I came back from university. During this time, I first started to think about the mathematics of it all. Whilst I wasn’t a “good” player, I started to feel that I had an edge over the people I was playing against, and I made a few pounds in these games.
I played a little during University with friends, but this was the time that I first discovered online poker. I wasn’t great at this time, but luckily back in 2005, the average player in the low stakes that I could afford was even worse. I played more and more in my final year at University, to the point where I was consistently making a profit at what was a reasonable hourly wage.
Then, after University, I didn’t have a job immediately lined up, so I took the conscious decision to take a “gap year” and play online poker for a year (in 2006/07) and see how I got on before determining whether to look for a “real” job.
Long story short, I earned an hourly wage that I’m still struggling to match now (8 years after starting in the finance industry and becoming a chartered accountant) and all that without tax, due to tax regulations in the UK not requiring tax to be paid on poker winnings. In one year, I earned enough to put down a decent deposit on a house and have enough left over for savings and to pay my day-to-day expenses.
So, why did I stop? Well, for a number of reasons:
- Unsociable hours – Being based in the UK, the majority of online poker players (and the vast majority of the bad ones) were based in the US. Poker players also become much worse under the influence of certain substances (mainly alcohol). Therefore, the best hours for me to play were from about 6pm EST to about 2am PST. In the UK, that was from about 11pm until around 9am. Not the most sociable of working hours. In reality, I probably worked from around 8pm until 6am every “day”. Also, for the aforementioned reasons, the games were even better on Friday and Saturday nights, which isn’t great for a 21 year old!
- Hard work – Poker, as a living, was hard! I’m hugely motivated and wanted to make sure I was earning as much as I could. Not only did this involve playing poker for the hours above, but it also involved a great deal of study and analysis of my own play, and that of my regular opponents, during the other hours. Therefore, my average day probably involved me getting up around 1-2pm, “studying” until around 6pm, taking a couple of hours break, and then playing from 8pm until 6am. Not easy over a prolonged period of time. After a year of this, I was pretty ready to jump into the 9-5 world (although I certainly made a poor estimation that my career in professional services would provide that!!!).
- The Fall of US Online Poker – Also, 2007 was the year where online poker was made “illegal” in the US. Many of the large sites stopped allowing US players to play on their networks and as such a large proportion of the weaker players left. This meant the games became less profitable and the future of the industry less certain.
- Instability in the Market – As a 22 year-old when this happened in the US, I was not financially protected from the instability in the overall market, and hence I decided that the risk was longer worth taking.
- How it was viewed by others – Another problem linked to this was how it was viewed by other future employers in “regular” industries. Going to interviews and saying that I’d spent the past 3-4 years playing online poker would probably has seen me shown the door fairly quickly in the majority of cases.
Therefore, at the end of the year, I stopped playing online poker as a “career”, but instead carried on playing as a method of earning additional side income when I had the time. For example, in 2010, I took 7 days holiday from my full-time job and played enough hours to earn the money to fund a fortnight’s trip to New York.
So, unfortunately, I never made it to the World Series of Poker, but I did manage to play enough poker to earn my way in the world.
What game or limits should I play?
Enough about me. Back to you and your decision on whether online poker is right for you. When starting out, many people will ask what game and limits they should play.
What game you play is completely up to you. Generally cash games (instead of tournaments) are more profitable as you can play more hands per hour. However, either are viable options.
When it comes to the limits you play, there are generally two factors to consider:
- You have a sufficient bankroll to play the game. You need to be able to swallow the variance in games and so the limits you play will be restricted by your “bankroll” – funds put aside specifically for the use of online poker. A general rule for no-limit games is to have 30 buy-ins, and move up and down the limits when this monetary value is fallen below. Therefore, to play £0.10/£0.20 no-limit, which has a standard buy-in of £20, you would want to have more than £600. If your bankroll fell below £600, you would then drop to the £0.05/£0.10 games until you had won enough to be back above £600.
- You’ve beaten the previous limit consistently over several thousand of hands. Whilst poker is not a game of luck, there is an element of luck in the short-term variance. Therefore, you could win big at a few limits in the short-term through good fortune and think that you are more skilled than you really are. This can then be dangerous when you start to lose at the higher limits. Therefore, start with the play money, then at £0.01/£0.02 and work your way up through the limits. Not only will it ensure that you are safe with your money, it will make you a better player.
What can I reasonably earn?
Generally, players talk in terms of BB/100, which is big bets per 100 hands, where a “big bet” is twice the big blind. After rakeback, it’s considered about average that a good player can beat the lower limit games for around 5BB/100.
In a £0.10/£0.20 games, this would mean that the good player would win £2 per 100 hands.
Also, on average, a player could expect to play around 85 hands per hour at a 6 person table. Multi-tabling is also fairly common (I usually played 8-12 tables at once during my year of poker) and so we’ll say you play 4 tables concurrently.
This means that even at the £0.10/£0.20 limits, you could earn around £2 / 100 * 85 * 4 = £6.80 per hour. Remember that this is tax free in the UK, and hence not bad as a source of extra income that you can earn from home.
The tricks of the trade
If you are getting into online poker, there are a few things you’ll need to help you along your journey:
- TwoplusTwo Forums: There is nothing about poker that can’t be learned from these free online forums. I spent a good proportion of every day there when I played regularly.
- Poker Tracker: This wonderful tool allows you to record and measure every game you play. This is integral in noticing mistakes you are making from certain positions, with certain hold cards, against certain opponents, etc etc…
- Poker Stove: A quick and free tool to do the analysis we did above regarding player A and player B and their possible holdings:
As my 2500+ word count is suggesting, I could literally talk to you about online poker all day.
To conclude: be careful. For a non-skilled player, online poker will cost you money.
However, if you approach it in the right way, learn everything you can, and treat it as a job rather than a game, then you could earn a reasonable wage from doing something you enjoy as a side hustle.