Matt Hunt: "The path to poker success isn't blocked off - it just looks different"

Ethan 'Rampage' Yau at the World Poker Tour
Professional poker player Matt Hunt at the WPT World Championship
Matt Hunt
Posted on: May 10, 2023 24:07 PDT

There’s a lot of talk these days about what the road to ‘becoming a poker pro’ looks like now, in comparison to days gone by. Where once it used to be possible to run up a $50 deposit playing micro-stakes and eventually end up playing in Bobby’s Room, the rags-to-riches stories seem to be few and far between in the modern era, since Black Friday crippled online poker in the USA and low-stakes online games outside the US became a lot tougher.

One could be forgiven for thinking that higher rake at low stakes, tougher games all around, and a more restrictive legislative environment for poker have made life as a poker pro a much less attractive prospect than it used to be - and on some level, that’s true. There’s no denying most games are more difficult to beat now, and there are problems poker faces now (like Real-Time Assistance and various other new forms of cheating) which didn’t exist a decade ago.

But despite the poker landscape being seemingly more unforgiving than it used to be, the path to success isn’t necessarily blocked off - it just looks a little different to how it did in the past. The opportunity for talented players to work their way up the stakes still exists, but it does require a different skill set now. 

The new skill set of a modern poker player

My own journey to becoming a professional poker player began (in the year 2010, which feels like a lifetime ago) with joining a micro-stakes online staking group, and becoming a tournament grinder from the bottom up. The only skills I really had to learn during the early years of my career were poker skills - and in the era before solvers, learning was very hard. It required being very attentive to the strategies elite players were using, and how they changed over time.

Matthew Hunt at the 2022 WPT World Championship

In the era of GTO and solver technology, players don’t need to pay anywhere near as much attention to how those above them on the ladder are playing, because for the most part, everyone’s trying to play the same way - optimally. Instead, up-and-coming players nowadays need to be extremely well-versed in how to harness the power of technology as part of the learning process.

I also never had to put much effort into managing the business side of my poker career - being part of a ‘stable’ of online tournament grinders meant most of the bankroll-management side of things was taken care of for me. Players these days need to be very aware of how to balance their poker investments wisely, because when nobody is out there winning at 20bb/100, investing smartly can make all the difference.

It also took me about five years as a poker pro before I really understood the value of networking - of knowing the right people, who might be willing to buy your action in a tournament or get you a seat in a really good cash game. Today’s younger pros - at least from what I can tell - are acutely aware of how valuable it is to be known, respected and liked by the right people.

Social media has changed poker

Which, in turn, brings me to the biggest difference between the poker journey now, and ten years ago - the importance of building a personal brand and a following. Back in the day, it was the young online crushers who were the most talked-about in the community; these days, it’s the content creators. The ones who, whether through sheer likability and earnestness, or through humor and entertainment value, are able to attract eyes and ears on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, or whatever other social platform you might choose, are the ones who ultimately gain more rapid access to opportunities within poker.

Ethan Yau NEIL STODDART

Witness the meteoric rise of Ethan ‘Rampage’ Yau, whose career at the tables has gone from strength to strength in recent years alongside his popularity on social media - a great example of a player whose path to success would never have been open to someone like myself, or anyone from my generation of poker players.

It’s pretty common to hear poker pros reminiscing (usually during a downswing) about how much softer the game was back in the day, and on some level we’d all love to go back to those times when nobody knew what the right play was in any situation. But with the increase in the game’s popularity, came an evolution in what the journey to being a ‘poker pro’ really looks like.

There’s no going back now - poker has undoubtedly changed, but not necessarily for better or worse. The opportunities are still out there, and the rags-to-riches stories still exist. But if you want to be one of them, you should focus on a lot more than just nailing your three-bet ranges.

Matt Hunt is a pro player and Solve For Why instructor, and writes a regular column on finances and variance in poker.

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