Shuffle Up and Deal: The Early Years

I was around eight years old when my mom introduced me to penny poker. (I know what you’re thinking: “What kind of vice-ridden household did you grow up in?!” But trust me, that couldn’t be further from the truth.)

Ours was (and still IS) a competitive gaming family. Board games, card games, video games and car-ride pastimes (punch-bug, anyone?) were integral parts of our everyday life. There were fringe benefits, of course, in addition to the intrinsic joy of a distraction—we could also apply our strategy skills, engage in smack-talk, and make liberal use of winners’ bragging rights.

Of all the games I’ve played, however—and they are legion—none has influenced my life more than poker. No, I didn’t like losing my hard-earned chore money (at first) to the family matriarch. Yes, our house rules were sometimes squishy (“jokers wild”). But being “schooled” in the art of deception and psychological cat-and-mouse games was eye-opening. It introduced me to some truths about life: that you can’t always take things at face value—and the best hand doesn’t always win.


Maxim-ize Your “Hand”

I’ve learned a lot from my decades of playing poker, not just about the mechanics of games like Texas Hold ’em and Omaha Hi/Lo, but also life lessons as well. Here are just a few of the poker maxims that I’ve tried to apply to both my personal and professional worlds:

  1. Learn the rules. Read contracts thoroughly, understand policies, follow through on commitments. You don’t get to claim “victim” when someone holds you accountable for something you’ve agreed to, just because you didn’t take the time to fully understand the rules.
  2. Calculate your odds. (And know that they can change over time.) In business, it can mean understanding the path to promotion and taking the steps needed to get it. If you’re competing with dozens of other ambitious workers for a coveted position, don’t dismay that your odds aren’t good—do something about it to increase those odds and position yourself for success.
  3. Read the room. Get to know the people around you. Ask questions. Engage in friendly banter to reveal more about their personalities. Understanding someone’s preferences and objectives not only helps you develop an authentic empathy for them, but it could be used to establish common ground for achieving your own objectives as well.
  4. Look for “tells.” Body language and tone of voice can convey underlying feelings that words alone cannot. Try to tune in to the non-verbal cues that someone is angry, stressed or sad—and go the extra mile to understand what that friend/co-worker needs. Uncovering “tells” involves listening more and talking less, and trying to be objective, not defensive.
  5. Mix up your game. Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” It can be easy to fall into a rut and write the predicament off using an arsenal of excuses. But a more “winning” approach might include taking a class, switching departments or even careers. It might also include talking with a therapist or life coach who can help you develop new skills for initiating and coping with change. (See corollary Lesson # 3.)
  6. Maintain a “poker face.” It can be easy to wear your heart on your sleeve, and there are times and places where that’s the right thing to do. But there are many times when presenting a neutral front is the best course of action. Like maintaining client confidentiality even though you’re super excited about a new product they’re launching. Or putting on a brave face when a boss/client disparages your work. In today’s heightened atmosphere where tensions are running high, maintaining a poker face can be the key to self-preservation on many fronts.
  7. Bluff if needed. (Also known as, “Fake it ’til you make it.”) Posturing can be a powerful tool. Walk into any crowded room and you can easily pick out the confident people. (Or at least the ones who project it.) By no means am I suggesting that you misrepresent your capabilities, but rather that you find ways to tamper down the insecurities that are holding you back. Instead, tap into a memory of when you felt invincible—and let people engage with the confident, powerful you from that day.
  8. Apply some psychology. My favorite professional poker player of all time, Daniel Negreanu, describes the different levels of poker this way (which I’ve paraphrased): “Level 1 is knowing what range of hands I have. Level 2 is guessing what range of hands other players might have. And Level 3 is knowing what range of hands other players think I have.” In short, seek to understand how others perceive you and then figure out how to use those perceptions to your advantage. (Revisit Lesson #3.)
  9. Position matters. In poker, the last person to act has the greatest amount of power. They’re able to leverage Lessons 1 through 8 to their competitive advantage and apply pressure to other players. No matter how much you calculate, bluff, and posture your way through a situation in regular life, there’s no getting around the fact that position matters. It could mean, in this distressed economic environment, you have to yield to a hard-to-please supervisor or customer. Or it could mean lowering your rates or taking on projects you normally wouldn’t have because you’re simply not in a secure enough position to argue.
  10. Know when to fold ’em. “Know when to walk away and know when to run.” (How could I NOT quote Kenny Rogers?) It’s not always clear when you should persist through a difficult situation and when you should cut your losses. “Folding” might involve simply abandoning one idea in search of another, or it could involve a more extreme decision like walking away from a steady (but dead-end) job. I don’t think it means running away from conflict just because things get tough—after all, we all have to earn a living. But it does come down to a judgment call and calculated risk. (For you poker players out there, I liken this to folding an ace-high flush on the river when there are full-house possibilities on the board.) Sometimes making the decision to fold, no matter how difficult, could save you more in the long-run.


 The Winnings

While I’ve enjoyed my fair share of poker winnings (and losses), I’ve also learned that a sense of accomplishment comes in many forms, not just in monetary gains.

For me, it includes the confidence that I can sit down at a poker table of complete strangers and hold my own. There’s a thing called “stereotype threat” which is when you use someone’s bias against them. For example, I can’t count the number of times that male players have dismissed me outright. Many assumed that I couldn’t possibly understand the complexities of the game, calculate odds, or demonstrate the courage to engage in a psychological game of chicken. It’s because of the stereotype that women aren’t wired for these kinds of things. And anytime I can turn that stereotype bias into a stereotype tax, I feel a sense of accomplishment.

Even though the number of women in the field is growing (both in poker and in the workplace), many of us still face outdated perceptions that we’re not good at math, that we’re not willing to take risks, that we can’t have a seat at the table with men. But thankfully, I think we’ve seen some good momentum in recent years that society is moving towards inclusiveness and mutual respect.

So I’m grateful for the lessons that poker has taught me. About how to read and interact with people, especially in high-stakes situations. About developing strength, resilience, and resolve. And, I hope, about how to be a better team player with the people in my life—both personally and professionally.


P.S. If you’re new to poker and want to learn, I highly recommend checking out Daniel Negreanu’s Masterclass series!