Last week, the co-owners of a successful digital marketing agency were attending a conference in Florida. The two men, one from Minnesota and the other from the UK, could not be more different from one another, and inevitably, the question of how they met came up. “Oh, we used to play online poker together,” came the offhand reply.
While the other conference attendees might initially have thought the answer was a facetious one, academics from universities across the United States would not be surprised. A study that took in data from 35,000 serious poker players (meaning those who played more than 100 hands during the three weeks the test was running) showed that those who can adopt the best “poker face” are the most successful at making money, and not just at the card table.
The research was led by Seth Fry from the University of California-Davis, along with co-researchers from Indiana University and the University of Connecticut. They looked at what it is that makes professional poker players successful in what is, after all, a game in which winners and losers are dictated by the turn of a card. The answer lies in how they assimilate, manage and share information.
Poker is a game that is enjoying increasing popularity, particularly in the ever-growing online gaming sector, where video poker has made the simplest of transitions from the casino terminal to the smartphone. However, while thousands play, only around 10 to 15 percent of them do so profitably. The study sought to understand the factors of their gameplay that gave them the edge, and how these skills can be used in other settings.
The best poker players are always hedging just how much information they will give away about themselves, while trying to ascertain as much as possible about others. Dominic Albino, one of the co-authors and himself a former poker professional, said that while luck is always going to be a factor in poker, the more a professional plays, the less influential luck becomes. Experts leverage all the information they can glean about their opponents, while using bluff or misdirection to make it difficult to, themselves, be “read.”
The power of uncertainty
So what lessons can the study deliver for aspiring business people? One is that the concept of uncertainty, often touted as a bad thing or a business risk, can sometimes be your friend. A successful player makes the best use of the information available, while accepting that this information will always be limited and encompass unknowns.
Annie Duke, another former poker pro turned business guru, agrees. She said: “Embracing uncertainty and thinking like a poker player can get you very far in business. Really good poker players recognize much more than amateurs that their opponents’ cards are unknowable.”
She went on to say that poker players are far more focussed on processes than outcomes. They will not over-react to a single adverse outcome, for example a deal gone bad or a single unexpected stock market turn, and will instead concentrate on the steps and events that led each situation to develop.
Poker players are also expert at thinking logically and rationally under pressure, and not allowing emotion to cloud their judgement or make sudden changes to a carefully crafted strategy. These are skills that are vital for those working in the finance and investment markets, for example.