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Coach Joel’s Poker Origin Story

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

I’ll be honest: For many years, I did not think it was in the cards for me to become a professional poker player. Through my early twenties, I cared about prestige and was someone who typically took a more conventional, risk-averse path. Due to my upbringing, choosing a career that does not require any formal credentials and has no salary or health insurance would have seemed unthinkable. I was a high academic achiever that graduated from a top university and immediately enrolled in law school. That seemed like the surest way to make a stable, predictable living.


Navigating the Nine to Five Corporate World


It did not take long before I realized this was not the right path for me. I spent the next six years moving between jobs that made better use of my math and data skills, but there was always something amiss about the corporate world that felt intensely confining. The opportunity to move up within organizations often just meant more meetings, more screen time, more entanglements, and more office politics. Even the promise of stability that the 9 to 5 world seemed to offer frequently proved to be a myth. As I moved into my late twenties, I realized that I was not looking for a way up the corporate ladder, but a way off.


I enrolled in a data analytics graduate program to sharpen my skill set, explore other work environments, and catch my breath. Without a steady paycheck coming in, I looked for a source of income that would be enjoyable, stimulating, and would fit around my course schedule. A series of serendipitous events happened next.


Early Poker Success in Tournaments Followed by Cash Games


First, I decided to try out a bar poker league that a friend of mine had raved about. Another friend loaned me the Harrington on Hold’em tournament books to help shake off the rust. Through some force of sheer dumb luck, I won the first tournament that I played in. It was not significant money, but the joy from this experience rejuvenated my interest in poker and left me wanting more. I began reading every poker book I could get my hands on, watched more training videos than I can remember, and essentially treated poker study time like its own graduate school course. I eventually transitioned from tournaments to cash games because they allowed for a steadier income with a more flexible schedule. I enjoyed a strong run at $1/2 NLHE cash games which helped fund my grad program, and my study habits lifted me to higher stake success. When it came time to graduate and “get a real job,” I found myself at a crossroads because I knew my poker journey was only just beginning.


Coach Joel Wald, PTO Poker

Deciding Whether to Quit My Day Job to be a Poker Professional


My life as a data analyst still had a certain momentum, so I took a full-time job to put my degree to good use. At the same time, I moved up to $2/5 NLHE and then to $5/10 NLHE and continued to fine-tune my strategy with a win rate above 10 BB/hour over a significant sample. It had become apparent that my night job was paying better than my day job, and that the intensive study time for my night job never actually felt like work. I debated whether I should make the leap to become a full-time professional, but many well-intentioned people warned against this because of poker’s inherent lack of stability. As Covid-19 hit, I transitioned to online poker and enjoyed similar success. Soon after, my day job went through a period of massive unpredictability and transition, and it was no longer the right place for me. I could not help but laugh at the irony that I had found stability in poker while the more traditional path had produced turbulence.


Becoming a Poker Coach, Moving Up in Stakes, and Launching PTO Poker

An internal shift happened at that point where I decided to stop fighting my passion and to lean into poker more fully. It meant letting go of preconceived notions of how my path was supposed to go, and it meant no longer pleasing all the people closest to me. But ultimately, it was the right decision. I was soon hired by a popular poker training company as a coach, and this opportunity opened my eyes to the many ways I could help other players with the same love of the game. My data skills came in handy as I carved out a niche by analyzing heads-up display (HUD) data for online poker players. I worked with over 150 different students, many of whom went on to win major tournaments and/or substantially increase their hourly rates. I also continued to work on my own game and successfully moved up to $10/25 NLHE after Encore Boston Harbor reopened their poker room. And now, I intend to apply the best of everything I have learned to further develop PTO Poker.


Looking back on my recent journey, poker has taught me so much in terms of emotional discipline, money management, reading people, and the importance of following my own path. I have reached a point where the aspect of poker that brings me the most joy is no longer a big winning session, but instead, the process of passing on my love and knowledge for the game to other hard-working players. I suspect they will encounter many of the same obstacles that I did, and that many of their biggest challenges will be tangential to the game itself. I never expected to be here, but if you share the same love of the game and desire to improve, I hope it is in the cards for us to work together.


Contact Joel Wald today at joel@pto-poker.com or book a free 30-minute Zoom call and discuss how PTO Poker can help you achieve your poker goals!

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