Many different paths carry first-timers to the poker table. Some come to poker via other card games, while others find poker after having sampled other gambling games in the casino such as blackjack, craps, or roulette. Sports bettors also sometimes wander from the sportsbook over to the poker room and find themselves in a game — and perhaps find poker intriguing thanks to the sports-resembling competition the game provides.
Those who stick with the game do so for many reasons as well, although most are motivated by the prospect of making a profit at poker. Especially those who win at first — which happens quite a lot — will keep playing to try to win more, with some even being encouraged to think about winning a lot more and perhaps even to become professional poker players.
But while poker is a game that rewards skill, luck plays a role, too. Those who initially win at poker likely do so in part because of getting dealt good cards, hitting draws when they need to and avoiding others' hitting theirs. Only those who take some time to learn poker strategy and gain experience are usually able to sustain that success over longer periods.
In other words, the short answer to the question "Can I make money playing poker?" is obviously that you can, but you also need to be willing to put in the work to increase your skills and have an advantage over your opponents. The fact is, while it's certainly possible to win at a single cash game session or go deep and win a lot in a single tournament, only a small percentage of players remain profitable long term, and invariably those players are better skilled than those who do not.
Let's look a little more closely at the question, however, by asking a few other questions addressing factors that will affect the likelihood of your being able to make money at poker as well as how much money you can make.
1. What is your win rate?
The generic term "win rate" is used to refer to how much someone is winning at poker over a given period of time or hands played, although in truth the term is also used when referring to how much a player is losing, too. A player with a positive win rate is profiting at poker while a player with a negative win rate is not. Calculating your win rate is done differently in cash games and in tournaments.
In cash games, a win rate is usually expressed as the amount won per hour or 100 hands. In no-limit hold'em or pot-limit Omaha, the unit of measurement is often converted to big blinds — e.g., in a $1/$2 NLHE game, making a profit of $10 = winning 5 big blinds.
Meanwhile in limit hold'em, stud games, and others with fixed-limit betting the amount won is usually measured by the number of "big bets" it represents. For instance, in a limit hold'em game where the small bet is $2 (preflop and flop) and the big bet is $4 (turn and river), a player who makes $100 is said to have won 25 "big bets." (Somewhat confusingly, both "big blinds" and "big bets" are often abbreviated as "BB.")
Meanwhile in tournaments a win rate is usually expressed as a player's "return on investment" or "ROI." Divide your profits by your expenses and multiply by 100, and you get a percentage representing your ROI. For instance, if you spend $200 in buy-ins and cash for $220 total, your ROI is $20 (the profit) / $200 = 0.1 * 100 = 10%.
Obviously if your win rate or ROI is negative, you aren't making money playing poker. But even if you enjoy a positive win rate or ROI, you need to consider other expenses related to playing poker and look at whether or not your winnings are exceeding them. If it costs you $10 in gas every night to get to and from a poker room and you're only averaging winning $5 per session, your win rate is positive but you aren't making money. Or if you spend $10,000 over the course of a year traveling to poker tournaments but only have an ROI good enough to earn you $8,000 worth of cashes during that time, you're technically "winning at poker" but losing money overall.
The biggest point to take away here is that if you are interested in making money at poker and don't keep track of your wins and losses, start doing so right now. Find out what your win rate or ROI is, take into account other possible expenses associated with playing poker, then you'll see whether or not you are making money at poker. You'll also likely be encouraged to sharpen your study of the game in order to try to increase your profit if you're winning (or to become profitable if you're losing).
2. How much do you play?
Another question to ask when addressing the larger question of whether or not you can make money playing poker is to consider just how much poker you're playing.
If you're strictly a recreational player who only joins a home game once per week or who plays online poker for an hour or two here and there, you can still win at poker but only a limited amount. Also, those who play poker only sparingly aren't necessarily gaining experience and knowledge that will help them build their skills and win more consistently.
A number of serious players who put in a lot of "volume" at the tables are able to increase their profit steadily even if their win rates are somewhat low. Most tend to consider cash games a more reliable way to make money at poker given the higher variance of poker tournaments.
If you think about it, in most poker tournaments only the top 10 or 15 percent of finishers enjoy any profit at all, so it logically follows that the majority of players finish out of the money most of the time they play. Really only the most successful tournament players are able to cash enough to sustain an ROI as high as 10 or 20 percent (or more), with most who are profitable sitting in the 5-10 percent range.
That means when playing tournaments even good players lose money more often than they win money. But when they win they win enough to more than make up for the losses, sometimes hitting especially big scores when finishing at a final table or winning the entire tournament and getting back 10, 20, 50, or even 100 times the buy-in.
Cash games tend to be less volatile that way, although even there good players will frequently have losing sessions. They may even have more losing sessions than winning ones, although they manage to enjoy larger profits than losses, generally speaking, and thus have positive win rates. Even so, if you don't practice sound bankroll management, you can experience one very bad cash game session and lose everything you've won and then some.
Once you've figured out your win rate, you can think about how much you need to play in order to make a desired amount over a given period of time.
You should also try to gauge what is the best amount of time to play poker for you in order to increase your chances of remaining profitable. Some are better of playing, say, only 10-20 hours per week than 40-50 hours per week, or shorter sessions instead of long ones, because they have trouble focusing and thus playing well over longer periods. Meanwhile others can put in those extra hours and not suffer as a result.
3. What stakes are you playing (and are they right for you)?
Probably the most important question to answer when delving more deeply into whether or not you can make money at poker is to look at the stakes for which you are playing. And — importantly — whether you are choosing well when deciding upon your stakes and sitting down in games in which you can win and win consistently.
One common misconception among new players is that the best way to win more money at poker is to play for higher stakes. A player who wins consistently at the $1/$2 NLHE cash game might imagine simply picking up and moving over to the $10/$20 game will result in winning 10 times as much money, but more often than not such ideas turn out to be foolhardy.
Games of different stakes attract differently skilled players. While the lowest stakes games almost always include the least-skilled and least-experienced, they attract strong players sometimes, too. Similarly, many of the best players can be found in the higher stakes games, but there also will inexperienced or poor players sometimes sitting around the table.
On average, though, the higher the stakes the tougher the games. Thus do the profitable players' win rates actually go down as the buy-ins and/or stakes go up. In online cash games (just to cite one example), NLHE players of the lowest stakes including the "micros" have been known to sustain win rates of as much as 20-40 BB/100 hands over large sample sizes, while the best players in the higher NLHE games online generally top out at around 3-8 BB/100 hands.
That's one reason to be realistic about moving up in stakes in poker — even if you're great and better than most in the games, you aren't going to win at the same rate you did at the lower stakes.
But you also need to be practical about your own ability as a poker player and recognize when the competition is too tough to beat. As you move around and test out which stakes work for you, continue keeping accurate records and note at which stakes (for cash games) or buy-ins (for tournaments) you are winning most consistently, and where you are winning less or losing.
Sometimes you might find it hard to win in a lower stakes game than in one a notch or two above, simply because of your particular skill set and how well you respond to the styles and tendencies of others. More often, though, there will be a stakes "threshold" (of sorts) above which you might take shots now and then but probably shouldn't go on a regular basis.
In any case, be honest with yourself and smart with your bankroll, and your chances of making money at poker will increase as a result.