The ancient wisdom about being a professional gamer or poker player is, “Grow up and get a job.” This ancient thinking is rude, unfair, and ignorant about what can constitute a “job.” But that doesn’t mean that it’s always bad advice.

In response to that tweet, someone asked me to write this article and share some of what I’ve learned.

Several years ago, I took a year off from being a lawyer to try poker, and I have more friends than I can count who have at some point done the same with Magic, poker, or something similar. This article isn’t about that decision and the pros and cons of trying something like that. This article is about what to do when you’ve tried something different and it didn’t work for you, for whatever reason.

I’ll try below to offer some general wisdom, if I can find it. But mostly, I’ll offer tactical, specific advice for what to do next, and how to put together a resume and pitch that explains those “wasted years” and why that “gap” wasn’t actually a waste. I’ll start with where to look for work, and then discuss putting together a resume and nailing the interview. Lastly, I’ll discuss some good habits that you can start forming even before you land a 9-to-5, as they say.

These are just my two cents. If you’re reading any of this and you disagree with the advice I give, say why in the comments below. I think readers will benefit from different perspectives and there is absolutely more than one way to approach all of these challenges. What has worked for me or my friends may or may not work for you, and a comment below questioning or supplementing my advice might have the wisdom that will work for you.

Where to Find Jobs You Might Be Interested In

The two biggest assets you have entering the job market as a gamer are 1) the analytical, problem solving mind and skills that allowed you to excel at gaming, and 2) the network of people you met along the way.

That second asset, the network of players you have access to, is huge. It’s probably both literally huge in size, and also huge in the advantage it gives you over anybody else who just, for example, graduated college and started looking for a job. I got my job through a friend I made playing Magic (after interviewing at multiple places that I also got plugged into through different people who I met through Magic). I then hired three more people I know because they play Magic. And my story is far from unique.

Do not be afraid to post on social media where other Magic players will see it. “Is anyone hiring entry level ______ (something you’re interested in)?” You might know someone who has a job that you wish you had. See if you can set up a Skype chat with that person or grab lunch if you’re local.

I know that “let’s grab lunch” type of thing might not be a natural conversation for those of you who whose time away from the working world means that the social aspects of it are outside of your comfort zone. My advice here is to be honest about what you’re looking for and don’t overthink it. Short and sweet, with an honest encapsulation of what you’re looking for. Example: “Hey Marcus, we met at GP Pittsburgh a few years back, and you might not remember me. I’m looking to scale back on Magic and reenter the workforce, and I noticed that you work for Amazon, which is a company I’m really interested in. I was wondering if I could pick your brain for 15 or 30 minutes about your experience there.”

One thing that might be surprising to you is that referral bonuses at companies large and small are pretty common. So Marcus or Maria, who you email about their company, might actually be financially motivated to help you, at no cost to you. Even if not, Marcus and Maria probably both had someone help them get the job, show them the ropes, or otherwise mentor them. They should be happy to pay it forward. I know I am when I get an email like this.

And at the risk of offering something that sounds like pickup artist advice… the worst that can happen really is someone goes Patrick Swayze on your email and never responds. The full Casper. The Geist of St. DRAFT FOLDER, so to speak. So what? Tell yourself the person was busy and move on.

What about that analytical brain I mentioned as another asset? Here, you will have opportunities to think creatively about what you might qualify for, but also go grab some new or additional training if you need it. There are coding boot camps, online courses and community colleges, self-study resources, etc. that you can use to get yourself some skills in an area that sounds interesting. Popular choices are coding, data analysis, or financial analysis/trading. My advice isn’t to follow the crowd at all costs, but it does help to locate an intersection where analytical skills and logic meet high-demand in the marketplace for jobs. Right now, tech is the best example but that isn’t the only one.

For my readers who have no idea what they could do or what they want to do, that’s okay. You’re not alone in feeling that way when reentering the workforce, I promise. One thing to keep in mind is that you can start with a job—you don’t have to start with a career. For example, if you have no idea what you want to do and you’ve never had a “real” job before, you might check job boards in your area for things that are entry level, grab whatever pops up that provides a livable wage for you, and start there. Even if you’re a host at a local restaurant and you end up wanting to work at a tech company, you can work that job, do some online/self-study that awards a certificate or e-certificate of some kind, and you’re on your way. You will meet more people, see more normal jobs in action that you wouldn’t have otherwise, and be a better entry-level candidate down the road if you do decide to pivot in 6, 12, or 18 months’ time.

Think outside the box if you have to, and never underestimate the network of players that might be out there with advice to give or introductions to help you on your way:

Get That Resumè Together

Whether you end up blasting it out “cold” or handing it to a friend who has a “warm” lead and will pass it along to her recruiting team, you will likely be in need of an updated resume or CV. If you remember only one thing from this section it should be this: let your friends and family members who have been working a while help review your resume. They can find typos, tell you if something is worded in a confusing way, or help you fix formatting if things simply don’t look aesthetically pleasing and professional. If you’ve asked two friends and relatives for their help and they’ve said no, send it to me and I will help you.

But the first draft should be your own, since you are the one who knows the most about what you’re looking for and what skills and experience you have.

Here is a made-up, sample resume I put together that you can use to get started, or at least to start thinking about this stuff:

Spike Emptypockets   sampleemail@gmail.com

999 Glendora Ave., Apt. 8         (805) 123-4553

Long Beach, CA 90803

Summary

Analytical thinker and problem solver seeking full-time, entry-level employment as a programmer or data analyst. Extremely fast learner who has completed online coursework in Python programming and MySQL. Deep background in high-level competitive strategic gaming; looking to transform the skill and discipline used in competitive gaming into the next chapter of my life.

Education

California State University, Long Beach, Long Beach, CA

B.A., Communications, 2011

Skills & Certifications

  • Certificate of Proficiency in Python Programming from samplecodingwebsite.com
  • Microsoft Word, Excel, & PowerPoint
  • MySQL

Experience

Self-Employed Gamer and Strategy Article Author

Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour, 2015–Present

  • Compete in the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour and Grand Prix circuit, earning Top 16 and Top 32 finishes among fields of hundreds or thousands of the world’s best players.
  • Preparation for each event is a collaborative effort (in groups of 3-15 players) to make complex, strategic choices in a limited amount of time.
  • Competition requires both composure and sound decision-making in contexts of uncertainty, hidden information, and high-stakes outcomes.
  • Write Magic: The Gathering strategy articles for a major trading card game retail website.

Pizza Delivery Driver, Irvine, CA

Dominos Pizza, 2012–2014

  • Employee of the month, June 2013

Interests

  • Soccer, strategy games, trivia

This made-up example is thin on directly “relevant” experience and thus provides a good starting point whether your resume is similarly thin or if you’ll be adding things to it to flesh it out more. But even with this basic resume, you’ve gotten over a major psychological hurdle by putting it together. You’ve kept the fear and anxiety at bay and made something tangible as a first step in the job hunt. This required you to admit that you were ready to start looking seriously, and it required you to examine how you’ll make lemonade out of your work history (or lack of it), rather than dwell on the negatives.

The items I have highlighted under Magic PT experience deserve another look and some discussion:

  • Compete in the Magic: The Gathering Pro Tour and Grand Prix circuit, earning Top 16 and Top 32 finishes among fields of hundreds or thousands of the world’s best players.

Magic is really hard. You’re good at it. People will be impressed by this, and the weird stigma around gaming is not what it might have been 25 years ago. Don’t run from it—embrace it here.

  • Preparation for each event is a collaborative effort (in groups of 3-15 players) to make complex, strategic choices in a limited amount of time.

I’ve led meetings on PT testing teams. I’ve put together and moderated group discussions. I’ve worked on spreadsheets and models for organizing information about our preparation. These tasks are not so different from valuable tasks employees need to perform in “the real world.” In fact, some of them are quite a bit more valuable than college coursework, if you are competing against a recent college grad for a position.

  • Competition requires both composure and sound decision-making in contexts of uncertainty, hidden information, and high-stakes outcomes.

Convert the challenges and tasks of Magic preparation and play into abstract challenges and tasks that people can relate to regardless of experience with Magic. You didn’t “figure out the best sideboard for Merfolk,” you “developed strategies and counter-strategies to outwit the other competitors.” You don’t want to make it sound like you cured cancer, but you also don’t need to use any jargon or downplay it.

Creativity counts too. I haven’t used it here but you can probably come up with a narrative about how deckbuilding, for example, requires creativity and outside-the-box thinking.

  • Write Magic: The Gathering strategy articles for a major trading card game retail website.

Think about what you’ve done on the periphery, not just the core of winning matches. “What problems have your teams faced over the years, and how did you solve them?” is one exercise in coming up with ideas. “How did I pay the bills besides winnings?” is another.

Nailing the Interview

First of all, if you end up interviewing for a technical role involving anything that sounds like coding or is data-based, you should read online about how to prepare for those interviews. There is a ton of good information out there.

The non-technical parts of the interview are critical as well. You are not starting at square one, you’re starting at square zero sometimes where you have to both explain a gap or nontraditional background, then explain why you’re the right person for the job.

When we worked on the resume, we already prepared some highlights and talking points about the “gap” that represents our pro gaming experience. For the interview, develop a highlight or two and a story or two that are not on the resume so that you can have something to go to. For example, you might prepare to discuss how you organized and led the team Facebook group in case they ask you about the Magic prep generally or just “tell me a time when _____” and that kind of group task fits the bill. You might also prepare a story of the time they changed the format of the tournament just two weeks before the event and you had to start from scratch, but your team was able to work faster than the other teams and you quickly updated your model for what was most effective and why.

But the interview won’t just be about Magic. Research what the company does, what they sell, how they describe the team or culture on the website, etc. This might be new to you. One tip is to research who the founders of the company are/were and you can often use that as a lens into why the company exists, how it grew, what type of personality is at the helm, etc.

You’ll want to read up on and follow general interview advice, like preparing thoughtful questions, etc. I like to ask questions that get people to talk about their experiences, not just the company generally. Example: “Tell me about the company culture” is a bad question. It makes the interviewer feel like they are on the spot and the answer won’t be very helpful. But “What is something you’ve seen the company improve on while you’ve been here?” is a good question. You’ll get useful information more often, but more importantly it gets the person thinking about and speaking about their experience, or something they actually noticed, not the values on the company website. Just try to think of some examples, and since this is prep work, use your friends and family to help you brainstorm and narrow down your list.

Everyone has something (likely more than one) that makes them nervous or question themselves about interviewing. I’m bad with eye contact and posture. But whatever it is you’re most nervous about, practice can help some, and the rest you just have to muster the courage to power through. None of us will ever give the perfect interview, but most of us can land a job we want.

If you don’t get a job, remember that it may just mean a more experienced candidate came in and got it, or even a candidate with better timing or better connections. Try not to internalize the outcome, though I know for many of us it is unavoidable. It really is a numbers game where you might have to interview several times to get one offer, but there is no grand scorecard or judgment day coming for you if it takes five interviews, or ten. It takes what it takes and at multiple points in my career I’ve been turned away and then found something better. “Thank goodness I didn’t get the job at _____” is also a common part of the process, once you get a little further along and get that perspective.

Habits to Start Working On

I have a friend who has played poker for a living for so long—playing cash games that go all night, with no scheduling responsibilities—that he gets anxiety if he has to take his daughter to an appointment at 2 p.m. on Tuesday because he is afraid he will sleep through his alarm. For a 2 p.m. appointment.

I can give my friend a hard time about his schedule, but at the end of the day we all develop different routines, habits, comfort zones, etc. based on our situation. And being a professional gamer doesn’t involve the same routines, doesn’t form the same habits, and doesn’t lead to comfort in the same areas or anxiety in the same areas. My friend’s anxiety about sleeping through a 2 p.m. appointment is real.

Working on your sleeping schedule is something I do recommend, but different people will need to find different paths with this stuff. For me, I’m more likely to apply for jobs and get some exercise at 10 a.m. than I am at 2 a.m., even if my sleep schedule has shifted. Something about my likelihood to actually do what I need to do is inexorably linked to the time of the day. But more generally, that phone interview you get won’t be at 11 p.m. The on-site interview you land won’t be from 7 p.m.–midnight. So it’s probably wise to work on this.

One skill that’s easy to start picking up and is more valuable than you might realize is using a calendar to organize your time and manage your to-do list. Google offers Google Calendar for free as part of its Gmail suite of apps. This is as easy a tool to sign up for and use as you will find. Many of you already have it (because if you have an @gmail.com email, it’s included). Open up a browser tab with calendar.google.com open and install the app on your phone. These two will always be in sync if you sign into your account on both devices, and this will help you start to put things on the calendar wherever you are.

What do I mean by “organize your time and manage your to-do list” on a calendar? I mean a few different things. The most useful is that if you have a call with someone, a lunch you set up, or a doctor’s appointment, you can put it on the calendar and know when you are available or unavailable, and get important reminders. You can also decide that you want to spend an hour tomorrow working on your resume, and instead of just hoping that you both remember and find the time, you can block the time on your calendar and again get a nice reminder that it’s time to get that done.

This might seem so elementary or so basic that it sounds silly, but I’m trying to shift your mindset and approach based on what I’ve seen my friends struggle with—going from a world with relatively few competing demands on your time to one where you want to have habits that make you reliable and give you predictability.

What About Jobs in Gaming?

This one is going to be somewhat controversial, but that’s fine. There is room for different vantage points on this topic.

Plenty of people have pursued gaming jobs and found happiness. I absolutely can’t tell you it won’t work for you or not to try it under any circumstances. But please be careful with any field where there is more supply of talent than there is demand. My wife used to work in the entertainment industry and it is as clear to her about that industry as it is to me about gaming: if you’re working for a diva, are grossly underpaid, and/or treated as if you’re replaceable, you are not in your dream field.

So my advice is very much to not follow your passion.

By “not follow your passion,” I mean find something where you can add value and where that value is appreciated and rewarded. Happiness follows that, not from the subject matter of the field, necessarily. Again, this isn’t something everyone agrees with. If you can find the job in gaming where you can add value and that value is appreciated and rewarded, that might be the best of both worlds. But my two cents is that you’re better off avoiding jobs at WotC, mobile gaming, fantasy sports, whatever, unless you have an inside track or some other compelling reason to try.

Wait a minute. The guy who said to go be a host at a restaurant if you have to is saying not to apply to gaming jobs? Like I said, do whatever you want, but in my experience there is value in doing some different and knowing that you are less likely to get stuck in it. But I’m not really saying don’t apply. Just be aware of this other side of the “dream job” equation.

Final Thoughts

There is a real sense in which Magic, poker, and the like have been massive drains on the productivity of our generations. Some of the very smartest people I know spent years or decades trying to get better outcomes inside a fake game system instead of applying that logic, creativity, and passion to a pursuit that has productive outputs. It’s not just that a few thousand random people stopped building brick walls and started working on winning prizes, it’s that specifically obsessive, highly intelligent people are the kinds that got sucked away. These are the same types that can have transformative impact in other industries.

But as I said at the top, this article isn’t really about crying over that spilled milk. I just want those of you who get to the place where you want something different to know that you can find something different. It might be really rewarding for you to do so, not just financially (I love my job, as an example), and the things that you feel are blocking you from getting there are things tons of people in the job market are working through too.

Looking for a job sucks, so people tend to avoid doing it. And to make matters worse, Magic and poker have addictive elements—both the games and the lifestyles—which create even more inertia than normal. But your friends can help.

Let’s continue to pick each other up when someone says that they need a hand with something or are looking for something new, as I’ve seen so many times already over the years. The other networks I’m a part of—university alumni networks, networks of similar professionals, etc.—these don’t hold a candle to the pro Magic network.

Good luck, and don’t sell yourself short.