A thoughtful piece was posted over on the ESPN Poker Club website yesterday, an article titled “What Does It Mean to Be a ‘Pro’?” The author is Eric Siegel, Marketing and Player Development Leader for Poker Players International, an agency with a large roster of players. Poking around the PPI website, it appears the agency represents dozens of players, including folks like Tom McEvoy, Kathy Liebert, Victor Ramdin, John D’Agostino, Linda Johnson, T.J. Cloutier, and many other recognizable folks. The agency divides its players into different teams according to various criteria (Team PPI, Team PPI Elite, and Team PPI Pro, and Team PPI International), so Siegel is perhaps quite familiar with this sometimes tricky business of classifying poker players.
Siegel begins his article by noting that the “professional” label doesn’t always fit poker players as neatly or obviously as it might in other areas of society. “By definition, a professional is someone who engages in an activity as a source of livelihood or as a career,” writes Siegel. However, when it comes to poker there are many who “are either labeled or label themselves as ‘professionals’” without necessarily regarding that otherwise cut-and-dry criterion as a prerequisite for doing so.
Siegel goes on to make a couple of further points before making his own attempt at answering the question that appears in the headline. One point he makes concerns the fact that poker players on the tournament circuit are “under constant scrutiny from other players, family or the media,” with their results “made public record on thousands of websites” -- oftentimes even before they collect their checks! Might be a slight exaggeration there to say “thousands” of sites posting such info, but you get the idea -- it’s all out there (says Siegel).
In this discussion, Siegel does gloss over a couple of obvious factors. One is the fact that a relatively small percentage of actual poker pros are exclusively tournament players. Dan Harrington declared in a Card Player interview (the December 11, 2007 issue, Vol. 20, No. 24) that he didn’t think the tournament circuit was even a viable option for those truly looking for “a source of livelihood or as a career.” Because “the volatility in tournaments is out of sight,” says Harrington, “I don’t think you can consider playing tournaments for a living. I think that is impossible.” Some still try to do so, of course, but I haven’t seen too many folks disagreeing with Harrington’s statement over the past couple of years.
So a lot of poker pros are in fact sticking mainly to the cash tables, where their successes and failures are not part of the “public record.” Of course, even with the tourney players this “public record” is highly incomplete, including only cashes and not the amount spent on entries or overall ROI. Earlier this week another item appeared on the ESPN site, a piece by Gary Wise about the recent sale of T.J. Cloutier’s 2005 WSOP bracelet on eBay. The “public record” of Cloutier (incidentally, a PPI player) is stellar, denoting him as one of the top tourney players of all time. However, it appears the $9.8 million he’s won over the years in tournaments is probably not a true indication of his relative “livelihood.”
Siegel goes on to note how sponsorship -- say, for a televised final table -- doesn’t really provide a trustworthy indicator of whether or not a player is a pro. He also adds a comment about a player having earned others’ respect as perhaps a sign that he or she might have earned the “pro” designation.
In the end, Siegel’s says he considers real poker pros as falling into two groups, although both are similar and both in fact go back to that traditional definition of a “professional” as someone earning a living at what he or she does. The first group, says Siegel, includes the person who has left his or her career in pursuit of a career in poker, while the second group includes those who made poker “their first job with no prior income source.”
Like I say, a thoughtful piece, though ultimately Siegel doesn’t really offer us a different way of thinking about the professional-amateur distinction. He’s right to say traditional ideas of what it means to be a “pro” don’t always apply perfectly to poker. But while Siegel does give us some things to think about, he doesn’t quite offer us a clear way to think differently about the distinction with regard to poker players.
I still like David Spanier’s distinction, drawn in his 1977 book Total Poker, a collection of essays I have come to believe is one of the more underrated and overlooked poker books around. (See a review here.) “A fine line is drawn between the status of amateur and professional at poker,” writes Spanier. “Really, it’s a moral line. How far do you go, how much do you play, how much do you want to win?”
Ultimately, argues Spanier, the pro will come to think of poker as “work,” and thus as part of his or her self-identity, whereas the amateur will never quite get rid of the idea that poker is “play.” “Somehow you can’t imagine a professional saying he is getting down to play,” says Spanier.
That observation, I think, starts to get at the real issue here, and offers us a genuinely different way to think of the amateur-professional problem as it applies to poker. Set aside the idea of identifying one’s “livelihood” as determined by how much cabbage it earns you. What is your level of commitment? When it comes to this game -- it is, after all, a game -- are you playing or working?