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Date Posted: August 1st, 2011 (1:02pm)

In a recent poker Op-Ed article by Steve Ruddock, he took offense to Beth Shak being called a "poker pro" in a New York Post feature focused on her giving away some of her massive designer shoe collection (over 1300 pairs) to charity. Ruddock objected to her designation as a poker pro on the grounds that he felt she was a long term losing player and that the majority of her money and income came from her reputed $50 million divorce settlement from high stakes poker player Dan Shak. Ruddock's reaction mirrors a number of others within the poker world who prefer a tighter designation of who is a "poker pro."

I thought it might be good opportunity to revisit the discussion to see if we can gain more insight into who we should call a poker professional.

According to Dictionary.com, "professional" means "engaging in a given activity as a source of livelihood or as a career". A professional can be:

1. A person following a profession, especially a learned profession.
2. One who earns a living in a given or implied occupation.
3. A skilled practitioner; an expert.

When specifying a poker professional, additional specifications have been informally established:

4. Someone deriving a majority of their income from playing poker.
5. Plays regularly, a majority of their vocational time is devoted to play.
6. Has played as a winning players with some longevity, often stated as three years at minimum.

In some fields, belonging to some sort of organized entity which exerts methods of control on its members helps determine a pro. That organization or controls haven't existed traditionally in poker, as the overriding dynamic is that anyone who has the ability to buy into a game or tournament has equal rights to play. Money is the only determining factor to inclusion.

It could be argued that the launch of the Epic Poker League (EPL), which seems to be modeled on a PGA-type professional organization with eligibility standards, is trying to create a class of poker pro. The EPL is utilizing the new dynamic Global Poker Index to rank players, transparent qualification system, and a multi-tiered eligibility standard for inclusion in their $20,000 buy-in main events.

By many standards, poker would be considered a non-traditional vocation, but most wouldn't argue that if playing poker is all you do, and you can support yourself in a reasonable lifestyle, including contributing toward your significant other and any children, you're a pro. Put another way, a poker pro establishes an income from poker that is capable of sustaining losses and paying for their current expenses.

That poker income is likely generated from multiple sources.

  • Playing live (cash games and tournaments)
  • Playing online (cash games and tournaments)
  • Rakeback/rewards/propping from both live and online environments
  • Sponsorships/endorsements that come from their poker notoriety, marketability and results

So while each of those four sources contributes to the long term viability of being a poker pro, few of those income streams are visible to the casual observer. Live cash game results aren't shared publicly. It is difficult to accurately gauge online cash game results or even tournament profitability. Rakeback and rewards received aren't openly shared. Sponsorship and endorsement income are often opaque at best. This leaves the observer with little conclusive data to determine a pro based off their income and profitability.

There are other difficulties in evaluating the listed terms of being considered a pro. Even if we did know a poker player's accurate winnings and income, what factor does the inherent variance of poker play? Isn't it possible that a competent tournament poker pro could have a losing year and still be a poker pro? Common wisdom dictates that results determine your success, but can't it be argued that a more skilled poker pro could run bad, suffer poor results, but yet still be more adept than another supposed pro who has been luckier? Does the respect of your peers factor into your determination of being a poker pro?

Returning back to the original example, Beth Shak, we can examine the challenge in determining if a player is a poker pro. She claimed to turn pro in 2004, but until 2007, she had only collected around 25k in live tournament earnings which would have been well below profitability. She has played numerous poker tournaments over the years with her lone big result being a second place finish in a 2007 WSOP NLHE event for $328k. Add in less than another $130k in assorted other finishes over the years. So the limited tournament figures would indicate that she is a losing live tournament player if she has kept a regular playing schedule.

Some questions to ask in regards to Beth Shak being considered a poker pro:

  • Is her sample size of play large enough to remove the specter of variance?
  • How has she fared in live cash games?
  • She is a featured Red Pro, or was, on Full Tilt Poker. How did she fare in her online play?
  • She has appeared on Millionaire Matchmaker and some televised poker shows as a result of her notoriety. How have her poker sponsorships and endorsements contributed to her poker related income?
  • Some criticize her because her considerable present fortune (purported to be around $50 million) is the result of her divorce from Hedge Fund manager and high stakes poker player Dan Shak. But is she to be penalized for having benefited from terms of her divorce which created tremendous passive investment income?
  • If she spends the majority of her vocational time learning and playing poker, shouldn't that be considered paramount to determining that she is pursuing poker as her profession?
  • Isn't her intention and desire to pursue poker as her profession and active income stream indicative?
  • Would those that played against her indicate that she wasn't a skilled practitioner of poker?

Ultimately, the purists argue that regardless of love for the game and regularly playing, poker profitability must factor most heavily. For instance, the author Steve Ruddock cited out a number of other examples to accompany Beth Shak, including Shannon Elizabeth, Jennifer Tilly, Gabe Kaplan, Bill Perkins, Laker's owner Jerry Buss and even Beth Shak's ex Dan Shak as players that shouldn't be considered poker pros, but rather passionate hobbyists or simply as high profile people who play poker.

I recall an expansive Daniel Negreanu blog where he revealed long term World Poker Tour results for many players, exposing the reality that most of them were long term losing players from a strictly WPT earnings perspective. I think that approach to determining who is a poker pro in limiting. I've heard similar arguments levied at potential poker coaches who are astute and articulate but can't easily demonstrate a mastery of the game purely from their results.

I would argue that the term poker pro is more expansive. For some, it simply means a respected or top player in the game. For some, it includes the young college drop out who grinds many tables of low stakes online to scratch out a couple thousands dollars monthly. I'm not ready to disqualify those players who bravely tour the country trying to win tournaments only to see their dreams and bankrolls crash and burn after a few years. I won't demean their efforts to succeed as a pro by ripping the title from them because they didn't achieve certain results. Many regard the high visibility poker celebrity pro appearing on multiple televised programs as pros, and yet many of them don't derive the majority of their earnings strictly from playing.

Who knows, some day soon, a true "poker pro" may only be those 300 or so poker players who qualify as an EPL player competing in the exclusive Epic Poker League? To me, that would be a sad day to so rigidly define the term poker pro when many thousands of players around the world aspire and work as their main vocation to pursue their poker dreams on the live and virtual felt. Until that day, I will assert that the notion that Beth Shak calls herself a poker pro isn't offensive to me.

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