In some respects, this feature does not make poker that different from other endeavors in which people demonstrate varying levels of skill, with some percentage (usually small) achieving a status that brings them enough financial reward for their efforts to be regarded as those of a “pro.” Analogies are easy to find -- from sports (golf, bowling, dressage) to art (writing, painting, photography) to entertainment (music, drama) to other areas of our culture. Indeed, practically any pursuit for which one can potentially receive payment and thus “make a living” invites the separation of its participants into the two categories.
Then again, poker is also different from all of these other activities in that it not only takes money to play, but the exchange of money is part of the activity itself. (One can play poker without money, but no one ever asks whether the person who plays for “play money” is a pro or amateur, so we’ll set that aside.)
In other words, even some amateurs are -- technically speaking -- making money, with a few of those distinguishing themselves significantly from their opponents by making a lot more money, relatively speaking. Thus arises some fuzziness between the categories, with lots of disagreement over just what constitutes being a “professional.”
In Elements of Poker, Tommy Angelo has a section titled “Going Pro?” in which he “define[s] a professional poker player as someone who either quits a job to play poker, or never had a job and plays poker instead of getting one.” It is a matter of commitment, Angelo suggests, whereby one forgoes that other possible existence -- the “normal” one in which one’s living comes not from poker but some other source -- and instead necessarily devotes most (or all) of one’s available time and energy to poker.
Doing so “requires a tremendous amount of poker playing, poker thinking, poker talking, listening, reading, and writing,” says Angelo, adding that “there isn’t quite enough time in a normal life to hold down a normal job, maintain normal relationships, and [also] be a poker monster.”
Kind of funny that Angelo would use that word “monster” there at the end, suggesting both a very successful poker player and someone who is somehow not human (or “normal”). His point is clear enough, though, and is echoed by many other poker writers, too -- one should never take lightly the business of becoming a poker pro, as it requires a significant reorientation of one’s self-image that will potentially affect all areas of one’s life.
However, some of us have trouble with declaring ourselves “amateur” players, too, as even that designation seems to involve some degree of commitment to the game not all of us are willing to make.
Maybe that hesitancy partially comes from the fact that poker isn’t unequivocally acknowledged by much of society as an acceptable pursuit (morally speaking). To say one is an “amateur player” implicitly engages one in an argument about poker, and not all of us want to get involved in such arguments all the time -- even those of us who can debate the point knowledgeably and effectively.
The fact is, whenever I am asked about my poker playing, I almost never say I am an “amateur.” Rather, I usually declare myself a “recreational” player, which some might say is really just another way of saying “amateur,” although in my mind I assign the term a particular meaning which makes “recreational” signify something slightly different.
An “amateur” generally does what he or she does for pleasure, not profit. That’s what is usually meant by the term, anyway, although we can talk about, say, Olympians or college athletes who are very, very serious about what they do and who are not in it strictly for pleasure, but the desire for competition and/or other motives. In fact, in just about every pursuit where the term comes up, it is the “not profit” part of the definition that makes the “amateur” an amateur (not the “for pleasure” part).
Which brings us back to that earlier-mentioned problem with using the term with reference to poker players. Because amateur poker players do play for profit. And some earn a bit here and there, too.
The term “recreational” also refers to someone looking for pleasure or enjoyment, with the added connotation of seeking to relax or find respite from the stressors of one’s life. And whereas the definition of “amateur” wants to exclude profit-seeking, making a little cabbage can still be a primary motive for a recreational poker player, though it doesn’t have to be.
I also like the etymological significance of the word, which suggests one “recreates” oneself -- or “recovers” or “restores” -- when pursuing that activity. Poker does that for me, giving me intellectual stimulation, satisfying competitive desires, and adding a bit of controlled, manageable uncertainty into my life.
So while I might partly use the term as a self-descriptor either out of (1) an unwillingness to “commit” even so far as declaring oneself an “amateur” seems to imply or (2) in response to society’s moral prejudice against poker, to say I’m a “recreational player” nevertheless has meaning to me.
And like any good existentialist (professional, amateur, and/or recreational), I’m all about making meaning.