How Poker Is Like the Startup World, From a Real Pro The legendary poker pro Erik Seidel has found success. His path should resonate with many startup founders.

By Jason Saltzman

entrepreneur daily

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

I have a problem: I LOVE to play poker, and I suck. Once upon a time, I had dreams of making a career out of playing poker. In this fantasy, I would win some big tournament that would give me a decent bankroll and allow me to pursue a life of more felted tables, fast cars, and serious action. I would stay up late watching ESPN poker tournaments and say, "I can do that."

Well, like everything else, it's mostly hype. Being a poker pro is a grind. Very few make it to the top and actually make a career out of it.

Sounds like the startup world, right?

What makes poker so much like the startup world is not only the hard work that you need to put into improving your craft, it's the sense of competition. Competition is what drives the essence of capitalism. Facing hard competition forces us to elevate ourselves to come up with better products or services. It's a game, people -- the whole thing is one big game. Much like the most competitive game on the planet... poker.

Poker gives the everyday individual an opportunity to thrive among a field of competitors. Unlike any other sport, poker is much like starting a business because you do not have to be born 6'8'' and have a wicked jump shot to make a name for yourself. You just have to rise above the competition.

One thing I love about AlleyNYC is that you never know who you're going to meet. I was sitting in our lounge area one day, and I looked up and saw who I thought was one of the world's top poker pros. It was the legendary poker pro Erik Seidel. I was thinking to myself, "This cannot be Erik Seidel." An Alley member came up to me with him and started an intro. I immediately stopped her and said, "You look like Erik Seidel. Does anyone ever tell you that?" He smiled and said, "Nice to meet you. I am Erik." (That member ended up being Erik's daughter. Shout out to Jamesin!)

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Fast forward and Erik is now an investor in AlleyNYC and a friend. I naturally hit him up for an interview. He is a poker player, an investor, a true hustler... and he is badass.

Q: How did you get started in poker?

A: I was a professional backgammon player, and started playing a little at the Mayfair Club, which was a bridge and backgammon club in New York. I left the games world to go to work on Wall Street. In 1987, I was working for an options firm on the floor of the American Stock Exchange, and the crash in '87 wiped out the company I worked for.

It was a scary time for me because it felt like the world had changed, and I wasn't sure I'd find work anywhere. I started going back to the Mayfair and playing poker again. After a few months playing, things were starting to click and I was starting to have good results, a few of the players in the game suggested I go to the World Series of Poker in Vegas. I sold most of my action, and played in the 10k World Series. Ended up coming in 2nd, which gave me the confidence to continue playing. I ended up going back to work, and flying out to Vegas for some of the big side games and tournaments, and eventually quit working and moved to Vegas to play full time in '95

Q: Most people associate poker with gambling. What percentage of poker is a gamble and what is pure skill?

A: Over the short term, the variance can be huge, but in the long term, skill will win out and the top pros consistently take home the money. That's one of the cool things about this year's World Series of Poker. You could watch at home on ESPN and see how Martin Jacobson made one great decision after another and eventually that all added up to him taking home the world championship and $10 million.

Q: What do you feel are the most common misconceptions of being a professional poker?

A: I think many people misunderstand the luck factor. They don't understand how complex the games are. You can spend a lifetime trying to understand the various poker games and still have much to learn.

Q: You are an uber-successful professional, but before that, what did your family think of your life choice to become a professional poker player?

A: My mom was always supportive. My dad had a lot of reservations but eventually he was able to see it was something I loved and could also make a living and support a family with, and I think once he realized that he was cool with it.

Related: The 'Real Housewife' Who Is A Very Real Entrepreneur

Q: Poker is a huge business. How would you compare yourself and the business of poker to traditional businessman/business structure?

A: To be successful at poker you need to be adaptable to constantly changing conditions. That's also true of business. I think AlleyNYC is a very good example of a company that is constantly evolving, and staying ahead of the curve. That's typical of the successful Internet companies, adapt or die, and definitely true in poker.

Q: Most startups fail. It's sad but true. Most poker players fail, as well. What advice would you give upcoming poker players and soon to be startup founders trying to grind it out?

A: Hard work and passion are the key ingredients. People need to be open-minded and realistic about what changes need to be made to the business model every day, and not get caught up in closed mindsets. Every day you have to be better and different than you were the day before.

The bottom line is poker is much like every business. It's filled with competition. And what separates us from the rest is how we deal with a competitive environment. Hard work, passion, and determination are all necessary to make it happen. It is people like Erik who inspire us to keep going; the people that make it through the crap and learn what they need to do to make it ahead. I will continue to surround myself with people like this and share their experiences with you. Until then, HUSTLE ON.

Related: Why I Back Eric Ries Over Peter Thiel

Jason Saltzman

Startup Mentor, Entrepreneur, CEO of Alley

Jason Saltzman is a seasoned entrepreneur with a background in sales and marketing. Through his role as CEO of Alley and as a TechStars mentor, he advises hundreds of startups, offering real-life practical application and creative marketing advice.  

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