You don’t have to play the hand you’re dealt.
That’s one of the first lessons in poker, and an important concept to grasp at work, too. Bluffing, rapid risk assessment and reading the person across the room from you in real time are all required skills in business.
They’re also a big reason why so many ambitious professionals learn to play Texas Hold ‘em and other poker variations. And why powerful executives seek the advice of Annie Duke, a cognitive science Ph.D. and former professional poker player who teaches an executive education course on how to become decisive at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Women, especially, are missing a lot of those skills that men are taught when they grow up playing poker, says Jenny Just, a fintech founder who helped start Poker Power, an organization to teach women to play.
Since the group started holding virtual poker boot camps online in the pandemic, the lessons have gone in-person, and more than 200 companies, banks and law firms, including PepsiCo and Morgan Stanley, have held training sessions. They can cost upward of $10,000 for a group of 30 or $150 per person for online lessons.
Patrice Gordon, a London-based executive coach, flew to Cyprus in October for a poker boot camp unsure of what to expect. She learned that in poker you have to shake off mistakes and move on without ruminating—a lesson she says applied to her work life, too.
“As a woman of color around a senior leadership table, you’re given less grace to get things wrong,” says Gordon, adding that she was often one of few Black leaders at her level in previous jobs. “In poker, you can’t let what happened in the last game affect your performance with this game.”
Position of strength
Poker tables aren’t that different from boardrooms in some ways. Roughly 93% of Fortune 500 companies are run by men. And 96% of professional poker players are men, according to World Series of Poker.
Erin Lydon, a former day trader and JPMorgan vice president who helps Just run Poker Power, says that learning to read people and playing to win can help propel women’s careers and close gender gaps.
“Anytime you are undermined, or someone thinks less of you or that you’re not capable, you’re in a position of strength,” says Lydon, 54.
Kyna England, 38, is a professional poker player based in Las Vegas and an instructor for Poker Power. England has earned more than $1 million in poker tournaments since she started playing professionally in 2019. The trick, she says, is to recognize the right opportunity, then grab it.
England, a math-major-turned M.B.A., worked in insurance and financial services until she lost her job during the pandemic. Poker, she says, gave her the resiliency to pivot and make her poker side gig into her main act.
She found investors to stake her and started playing professionally, picking up award money from a few thousand dollars to $180,000 at one tournament. She lost more hands than she won and reasons it’s like most jobs: You aren’t going to win every time.
In poker, if you have terrible cards or a feeling someone has great cards, you can “fold,” which means giving up playing until the next game. Professional poker players fold roughly 80% of the time, giving them the opportunity to study the mannerisms of their opponents so they can form a strategy. Lydon calls it “the power of the pause.”
In the workplace, pausing can mean taking time to think before dashing off a response to an email from the boss, or strategically turning down an assignment, she says.
“Women are so eager to please, we don’t let ourselves pause,” Lydon says. “And pausing in poker is the only way you’re going to win the game, otherwise you’re just going to bleed away your chips.”
Erin Stafford, a 49-year-old managing director at DBRS Morningstar in Chicago, says she got hooked on poker when her employer hosted a virtual workshop during the pandemic. After male colleagues at Morningstar grew a little jealous of the women’s games, the women organized companywide poker nights.
Stafford still plays with colleagues, in charity tournaments and at casinos while on vacation. She’s learned through poker that you can’t dwell on your mistakes, only learn from them. When a board member asked her to write a report about how she would have handled a merger differently—one she had just completed—she says she was initially irritated but shook it off and performed.
“When someone asks us to review ourselves, we can take it so personally,” she says. “But we can reframe it as just part of every day—always evaluating and looking for ways to improve.”
Just, Poker Power’s co-founder, runs PEAK6, a Chicago-based financial technology and capital management firm with $20 billion under management. Just says she tapped her own card-playing skills during a deal with a large European bank, which wanted big changes at the 11th hour.
“When we hung up the phone with them, I asked my partner: ‘What cards do you think they have? And what cards do you think we have?’ Our view was that the bank thought they had a pair of queens, a really large chip stack and a good position at the table. But we thought, at best, they only had a pair of tens.’”
Their takeaway: The bank was probably bluffing. So they folded and walked away. Eventually, Just says, the bank came back to the table and gave PEAK6 the deal they wanted.
Kayla Websteris a writer in New York. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.