Henry Steele
Henry Steele
Managing Editor

So, you’re a rounder? Good for you.

Poker is a tough and stimulating game requiring a wealth of skills, from understanding people to taking smart risks to remaining impervious in the face of failure. Moreover, people play poker for a huge variety of reasons, from bringing in income to challenging themselves to doing it for the pure love of the sport. And it’s just plain fun.

Whatever your reasons, though, know this: Poker can help you significantly in business. Whether you’re working at a Fortune 500 company or launching your own startup, the basic tenets of the game are widely applicable. If you want to succeed in the bustling world of commerce or entrepreneurship, sales or marketing, finances or risk analysis … poker should be your off-hours pastime of choice.

Don’t believe it? It’s true, and here are 12 points to prove it. Without further ado, poker can teach you to:

1. Increase Your Skills

Poker is a complex game, with many rules and endless strategies. It is a perfect metaphor for business, in that it is literally impossible to master every skill involved. Rather than shooting for the highest outcome, poker is about giving yourself the best shot of winning one game at a time and becoming a little bit better as you go.

In business, this is a crucial ability: if you become so focused on the end goal that you’re blinded to the small opportunities for development along the way, you will quickly find yourself outclassed. Similarly, if you only ever shoot for the royal flush, you’re unlikely to win with the hands you’re actually dealt.

2. Assess Risk

Business is a constant process of risk assessment, and so is poker. Going all-in when you’ve only got two pair might be a good strategy … if your opponents are similarly shaky. On the other hand, if there are four hearts on the table and you don’t have one, chances are good you shouldn’t make the bet. Learning to assess risk is a skill that takes work, but with enough practice, you’ll start looking for clues and signs on autopilot.

3. Persevere

Poker is, by definition, not a one-and-done game. The whole point is to play hand after hand, and sometimes those hands don’t go so well … often many times in a row. That’s the whole reason we have the phrase “losing streak,” after all, which applies equally well to poker and business. Learning to push through when things aren’t going well will substantially increase your chances of success overall.

4. Improve Mental Math

Sometimes poker is a simple matter of mental math. Counting the cards on the table and in each person’s hand doesn’t tell you who holds what, but it can help you rule out some possibilities and make a better bet. Literally. Opportunities to practice your mental math should not be underestimated, because the application is equally clear in business, such as in salary negotiations, when closing a trade or when taking out a loan.

5. Hold Up Under Pressure

Both poker and business create huge amounts of pressure, and the natural human inclination is to crack: usually either by running or by acting in ways counter to your goal. Poker, luckily, presents plenty of high-pressure scenarios, which in turn gives you plenty of time to practice dealing with the feelings appropriately.

6. Read People

Knowing when someone else is sincere, bluffing or even being downright dishonest is crucial in the business world. If you can read emotions, your chances of making the right deals, holding successful meetings and managing well increases quite a bit. Poker is a field ripe with opportunity to read people, catch their tells and improve your interpersonal fluency.

7. Remain Optimistic

Optimism, like perseverance, is a crucial skill in both poker and business. If you don’t believe good things will come your way, you’re far less likely to stick with it. Unfortunately, too many people fail in business because they’re unable to convince themselves to make one more cold call, talk to one more potential investor or pitch one more product to the CEO. Don’t lose your optimism; instead, play poker and practice it.

8. Bounce Back

No matter how optimistic you are, however, perseverance and optimism don’t always pan out. Failure is sometimes inevitable, and it leaves its scars. That’s okay; you’re allowed to be cut when a coveted opportunity slips through your fingers. But if you can’t rally after that, then your career in business could be over. Just as you take a deep breath and play another poker game, or enter another tournament, you must be able to do the same thing in business.

9. See the Value of Failure

Failure, moreover, isn’t just an experience to be weathered. In fact, as you’ve no doubt heard, failure is an opportunity to learn. It sounds trite, but people who believe this and dismiss the value of failure are the same people who don’t last long as entrepreneurs, innovators, salespeople, etc. Only the people who can look failure square in the face and ask themselves “What went wrong?” will succeed … in poker games and career alike.

10. Maintain a Poker Face

Naturally, you have your own tells too. Sometimes, you need to hide those tells in poker to pretend your hand is good when it’s bad, or bad when it’s good. Business is the same, often requiring you be discreet about who your business partners are, for instance, or hide details of a trade deal until after the deal is publicized. During that time you must look as though nothing has changed, however, which means maintaining the infamous “poker face.” A poker face simply means hiding your emotions behind a neutral mask, and it is endlessly useful both in the game and at the boardroom table.

11. Win Graciously

Losing is hard, but winning can be surprisingly hard as well. Perhaps you barely beat someone to the punch of the “next great idea,” or maybe you win a coveted grant that one of your close colleagues would have dearly loved to get. Sometimes you get the big promotion, are chosen to lead the team, or land the startup capital. These are all amazing achievements, but they come with a cost: someone else’s dreams.

That’s not to say that all business is a zero-sum game, but it’s important to remember that your gains may be someone else’s losses. Being gracious will go a long way toward preserving those relationships and avoiding a reputation as a steamroller.

12. Calculate Internally

Lastly, poker helps you form a habit of internal calculation. Though related, this is slightly different than mental math. Mental math is the skill of counting or tallying, multiply or dividing, or otherwise performing simple or complex equations in your head. Calculating, on the other hand, just means assessing available evidence and coming to conclusions – without having to open your mouth. This is an invaluable skill for negotiations and other situations where you don’t want to “give away your hand.”

Business is a tough world, and it takes a serious skill set to be able to compete within it. Much like poker, you will face opponents both stronger and weaker than you, will stumble upon situations without clear-cut answers, and will frequently have to make decisions without “holding all the cards.” Poker helps you learn to take the calculated risks and make the gambles that often lead to massive success in the business world.

Next time you’re looking for something to do on a Saturday evening, therefore, skip the movies and opt for a round of Texas Hold’em instead. The benefits might be greater than you think.

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