The game of poker is a brilliant microcosm of the profession of sales. It encompasses all the necessary elements: preparation and hard work, disciplined behavior, methodical process, storytelling, negotiation, and winning (or losing). I am excited to share with you 15 lessons I learned at the poker table that can be used in the world of selling.
This is the article I’ve been dying to write since before I began blogging. Perhaps that’s why it took me several months to tackle. You see, I love poker. I’ve been playing it since 2003 when I watched Chris Moneymaker, an amateur from Tennessee, best 838 other poker players (mostly professionals) in the World Series of Poker $10,000 buy-in Main Event, parlaying a $39 satellite entry into a $2.5 million payday. That televised miracle ignited many people (such as myself) who had never even considered entering a casino’s poker room to begin playing. I don’t play for the money; it’s not a secondary source of income. Truth be told, I’ve probably lost slightly more than I’ve won over the past decade. I play for the pure enjoyment—the intrigue, the drama, the strategy, the psychology. I love poker as much as any of my hobbies, and even as much as my professional pursuits that fund my poker play. And so the prospect of writing about it, while natural and exhilarating, is also daunting. I don’t want to mess this up. I will try to write this in a way that makes sense to someone with no prior knowledge of poker, but ask for your forgiveness in advance if I fail to do so at times.
You create your own luck
Poker is a game of skill. It’s the only game in a casino where you aren’t playing against the casino—you are playing against other patrons. That doesn’t mean that luck doesn’t factor into poker. Luck exists in any game or sport—a lucky bounce, an unlucky gust of wind. It happens. In poker the key is putting yourself in positions to get lucky and minimizing situations where you can get unlucky. When you limp into a pot from early position with pocket aces you are asking to get unlucky. However, when you call a small bet after the flop with four cards of the same suit, you are giving yourself a chance to get lucky and make a flush. You, more than the Poker Gods, affect the outcome of most hands.
Sales corollary: Take responsibility for your actions and recognize that most times you create your own luck—both good luck and bad luck.
Play within your limits
It’s not wise to play at a table filled with superior players. Similarly, you shouldn’t play in a game where the buy-in amount and limits being wagered are more than you can handle. You should never play poker—or any casino game for that matter—with money you can’t afford to lose. There are two reasons why. First, sometimes no matter how perfectly you play you are going to lose—you need to accept that. Second, when the money you’re playing with matters—when you can’t afford to lose it all—then that will affect your actions and the way you play. Invariably you will size your bets too small and fold too often. Good poker players will pick-up on this and exploit it. This is called “playing with scared money”.
Sales corollary: You rarely win when playing in a game over your head.
Importance of position
Action in a poker game moves clockwise, starting with the person seated to the immediate left of the dealer. People who must act before others are considered “out of position” because they are forced to make their decision with less information than those seated “in position” who get to act after having observed the prior action of their opponents. Arguably, position is more important than the cards in your hand. The best poker players can win consistently simply be playing hands “in position” regardless of the cards they are dealt.
Sales corollary: In most cases, it is advantageous to allow the other person to make the first move and for you to act last.
There’s a sucker at every table
They say that there’s a sucker seated at every poker table. Matt Damon’s character in the movie Rounders explained, “Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.” You should do an honest self-assessment every time you sit down to play and not let your ego cloud your judgment. Some days you will be the best player in the poker room. Other days you will be a guppy swimming in a tank of sharks.
Sales corollary: Know when you’re at a severe disadvantage and get out before too much damage is done to your bankroll.
Learn to make decisions with incomplete information
“A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.” – George S. Patton, U.S. Army General
Poker is a game of incomplete information. You can’t see your opponents’ cards and you don’t know their intentions. But you can observe their behavior and look for “tells”. You can identify patterns in the way they have acted before in similar situations and apply that knowledge to the present situation. To be a winning poker player requires you to absorb and retain as much information as possible, but ultimately to make a decision with as little or as much information as you have.
Sales corollary: Don’t allow the desire to retrieve more information and conduct more analysis of the data to paralyze you and consume your ability to take decisive action when needed.
Play the hand your dealt
“Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.” – Jack London, American novelist
The odds of being dealt pocket aces (the best starting hand in poker) is 1 out of 221 hands. The odds of being dealt a pocket pair other than aces is much better, but still only 1 out of 17 hands. If you are simply waiting for a strong starting hand to play, you are likely going to be a losing player. Good players will recognize this tendency and will exploit it. You must widen your starting range and be willing to play a variety of hands. Finding a way to win with less than a premium hand is the hallmark of a great poker player.
Sales corollary: Take control of the situation you’re in and make the best out of it.
Keep your emotions in check
“There is no sympathy in poker. Always keep cool. If you lose your head you will lose all your chips.” – William J. Florence, author
Showing emotion at the poker table is understandable, especially after you’ve won a big pot or suffered the cruelty of the Poker Gods. However, making decisions based on emotion or allowing your emotions from a previous hand to cloud your judgment in the current hand is unacceptable.
Facts and logic plus a healthy dose of intuition should be a poker player’s guide, not emotions. If you catch yourself in an overly emotional state—the poker slang for this is “on tilt”—stand up and walk away from the table. Don’t return until you’ve regained your composure.
Sales corollary: Decisions made while in an emotional state of mind typically result in regret.
Don’t bleed chips
A typical poker player will only play 20%-25% of the hands dealt to them. Much more than that and you’re probably slowing diluting your chip stack. A dubious title in poker is that of “calling station”—someone who calls far too often than is considered smart play. A calling station wants to see every flop in the hopes of getting lucky, and even post-flop wants to see “one more card” just in case their nothing hand turns into something. This practice reminds me of the story of the boiling frog. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water it will jump out instinctively. But if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not recognize the danger and will be cooked to death. Chips in poker are your ammunition—they are what keep you alive. If you slowly bleed them off by calling and folding, you won’t recognize the danger until it’s too late—you will be out of chips and out of the game.
Sales corollary: Be attentive to the changing conditions around you and be willing to change, adapt or innovate in order to survive.
Learn to calculate the odds
Poker is about much more than just the cards you are dealt and the community cards on the board. It’s also about the cards yet to come and what your opponent is likely to be holding. Since there are only 52 cards in the deck, 13 of each suit, and four of each denomination, the math involved in calculating the odds is pretty standard. At any point you should be able to calculate the odds of having the best hand, improving your hand on a future street, and bet sizing relative to those odds.
Sales corollary: Always weigh the risk versus the reward of your available actions and choose the option likely to result in the greatest return on your investment (ROI).
It would be great if you always had “the nuts”—poker slang for the absolute best hand. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. Even when you have a very strong hand, such as a full house, there exists the possibility that your opponent has a better full house or four of a kind. Sadly, you can play perfectly and still lose. Ask yourself, “Was there anything I could have done differently to affect a better outcome?” If you made all the right decisions and still lost the hand, don’t beat yourself up. Just get ready for the next hand, which is probably already being dealt.
Sales corollary: You must be able to handle defeat. Rather than dwelling on your failures, use them as learning experiences to improve your game.
Bad beats don’t get much worse than this one from the 2014 World Series of Poker $1 million buy-in “Big One for One Drop” event:
Don’t slow play your good hand
One of the biggest mistakes losing poker players make is in slow playing their good hands. By failing to bet and charging opponents with weaker hands a high price for continuing in the hand, you are begging the Poker Gods to punish you with a bad beat. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a great hand (like a flopped straight) get beat on the river by a better hand (like a flush)—all because the person with the better hand failed to bet (or bet too small) and allowed the person with the drawing hand to stick around.
Sales corollary: Close the deal when you have the upper hand—or at least make it painful for the competition to try and win.
Learn from your mistakes
Poker slang for a bad poker player—one who succumbs to negative habits, who doesn’t develop their skill at playing the game—is a “fish”. The fish exists for one reason: to give others his money. To avoid being a fish, you should assess your play constantly. Analyze the big hands you won and those that you lost. How did they play out? Ask yourself, “What did I do right? What could I have done better?” Look for “leaks” in your game—poker slang for negative tendencies. All poker players have leaks.
Sales corollary: Never stop learning and seeking self-improvement. Identify your leaks, plug them, and move onward and upward.
Making correct decisions requires both intellect and intuition
Poker engages the whole brain, both the analytical left-brain and the intuitive right-brain. You must be able to accurately calculate odds and size your bets properly to induce the desired action by your opponents. You must also be able to “read” your opponent to pick-up on behavioral signs of strength or weakness. You must know your opponents’ tendencies and exploit them to your advantage.
Sales corollary: Rarely is it correct to make a decision without applying both intellect and intuition to arrive at the most desirable conclusion.
“Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.” – Cool Hand Luke
Bluffing is an essential skill in poker. Why? Quite simply, you aren’t always going to have the best hand, so sometimes you need to turn the worse hand into the winning hand by getting your opponent to fold. The key to bluffing is in understanding that it isn’t simply lying; it’s telling a believable story (which just so happens to be untrue). Great poker players know how and when to bluff. They don’t do it as often as you might think which is what makes it so effective when they do.
Sales corollary: You should never lie to your customers, but you must be able to spin the facts and master the art of storytelling. Make sure your stories are credible and they inspire the customer to take the desired action.
When you go “all in” you better mean it
No limit hold ‘em—the form of poker I play—is particularly thrilling because the betting can escalate rather quickly. In fact, at any moment, someone can declare “all in”, which means they are betting their entire stack of chips. So, to continue playing the hand, you must match their bet (if you have more chips than them) or commit all of your money (if you have less). Players go “all in” for one of two reasons: either they have a very good hand and they are hoping that you also have a good, but weaker, hand and will call their bet; or they have a weak hand and are hoping that you will fold your better hand to their uber-aggressive move, winning them the pot. Whatever the reason for doing it, once you announce “all in” there is no turning back. You can’t change your mind and reduce your bet.
Sales corollary: When you give the customer an ultimatum you better be prepared for the consequences and be willing to accept any outcome.