6 Ways Playing Poker Can Help You in Business (and 2 Ways It Can't)

Many skills needed in the game of poker translate well into being an entrepreneur. A couple don't.

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By John Roa


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Poker and entrepreneurship have both been long-time companions in my life. Starting my first business at the age of 15, I had an earlier start in entrepreneurship than most. Many of the hard lessons I learned from my early experiences helped to build me as a strong poker player -- and even stronger entrepreneur.

When I'm sitting in a poker tournament for 12 hours straight, trying to read the other players around the table, I am often reminded of being locked in the office with a group of executives hashing out the details of a big deal. I end up finding myself using a lot of the same skill sets in both situations -- trying to call bluffs, anticipating moves and playing my cards perfectly without giving away my hand.

Related: 5 Skills That Are the Foundation of Entrepreneurial Success

Here are six ways playing poker can help you in business, and two ways it cannot.

1. Learn to calculate risk.

In poker and business you are constantly measuring potential gain and loss and deciding when to take risks. Both involve quick math, assessments and instinct.

The all-in decision is exciting, because it represents the ultimate risk -- losing everything. But smart players, like smart entrepreneurs, only take that risk when the odds are deeply in their favor. Otherwise, you're just an adrenalin junkie, and your losses will start to mount up.

2. Learn endurance and deal with pressure.

Everything about a poker tournament teaches you endurance and how to deal with pressure. Poker tournaments start out with large groups of players. After several days of play, more and more players drop out and one person comes out victorious.

In the same respect, hundreds of startups are founded every day by hopeful entrepreneurs. The ones that become successful are run by CEOs who are willing to work non-stop for days, knowing the potential for big gain comes with the harsh truth that you may lose it all. Lose your focus, and you could lose your company.

3. Learn the difference between skill and gambling.

Only in the most general sense is poker gambling. Many Vegas games are a coin flip at best. How much skill does it take to guess a roulette number? Zero.

But poker isn't a game of chance. Sure, one person out of hundreds or thousands will win a poker tournament, but the odds of growing a startup into a successful business aren't much better. Out of 1,000 startups, only a few are going to flourish.

4. Poker can make you a better boss.

Businesses succeed when you inspire different types of people to work together toward the same vision. Sounds easy, right? Wrong.The reality is complicated. Business communication is a learned skill and involves a surprising amount of psychology.

Successful poker players learn very quickly to adapt to the people at the table. Not only do you need to be able to read people out of the gate, but you need to track their behaviors to notice patterns and predict how they are going to react to the actions of others. This skill set translates well in an office setting.

Related: Entrepreneurs Don't Have to Be Fearless, Just Brave

5. Poker players are always selling.

Poker players are constantly looking to sell. We have to quickly evaluate the hand we've been dealt, what other people at the table want and what the others are prepared to hear. Business requires the same brain exercise. If you've done your homework, you and the person you are negotiating with are both there to play the same game with the hope of walking away satisfied.

6. Develop optimism about winning, and learn to appreciate failure.

Playing serious poker takes a healthy amount of optimism. You need to believe in yourself and the likelihood that you will succeed. But just as important is appreciating and learning from failure. You can make all the right moves and still lose. That's common in business as well, but even after a loss, you must grit your teeth and start over.

Some skills translate from the poker table to the executive suite, but some certainly don't. There are two abilities that can help you win a game of poker but can ruin your business and your reputation as an entrepreneur.

1. Outright lying

There is an inherent dishonestly in poker. Essentially, you are lying all the time. A pathological liar can be good at poker but will ultimately fail at business, because once you're caught bluffing, you're rarely given a second chance.

2. Playing a zero-sum game

Poker is cutthroat. One person wins, and everyone else loses. Business is actually very collaborative. Even businesses that see each other as competitors come together for trade shows, industry events and networking functions to share ideas, discuss innovation in their industry and learn from one another.

If you work to destroy your competition or win at all costs, you're probably better off staying at the poker table and letting someone else run your business.

Related: 9 Revelations About Toxic Leaders

John Roa

CEO and Founder of ÄKTA

John Roa is the CEO and founder of ÄKTA, a Chicago-based digital design, user experience and development consultancy. In September 2015, ÄKTA agreed to be acquired by Salesforce. Roa also founded and runs Digital Hope, a not-for-profit charitable organization that uses crowdfunding to support underfunded international NGOs.

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