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What you can learn about effectiveness from the world’s best poker players


Whether you are an established business leader, manager, or apprentice, we all have at least one thing in common: we all want to make good decisions and deliver good results. To do that we need the right environment, support, knowledge, skills and mental attitude. And we need those things over the course of our careers and lives too, not just at the beginning, or as one-offs in response to a performance review.

We don’t always get to choose the environment we’re in but we do get to choose our attitude and what we learn, certainly once we leave formal education. Many employers understand the importance of viewing their employees as assets rather than costs and for that reason have training and development at the heart of their business strategy.

Part of improving our performance at work can take multiple forms: asking for and listening to every day feedback, doing vocational courses, studying for a formal qualification, and participating in team building exercises. All these things can and do help us to improve over time. But what happens when those obvious solutions don’t deliver the change and results we were hoping for?

It can be hard to face a situation where you’ve put in a lot of time and effort to develop a skill or acquire knowledge, but the degree of impact or level of change you were hoping it might lead to doesn’t materialise. Yet face it we must.

As Henry Ford once said:

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

It’s time to look for alternatives

So where else can we draw inspiration from? Who else can teach us? Which experiences can we learn from? Outside the office, many of us have hobbies and interests that on the surface might appear unrelated to what we do at work.

Maybe you’re an archer, perhaps you bake cakes, maybe you’re a black belt in aikido – whatever it is, it’s worth taking a deeper look, because on closer inspection it might have developed skills within you which could be applied to work.

Even something seemingly as innocent as baking requires precise measuring, dexterity and judgment to whip the right amount of air into the mixture, not to mention being able to time everything to perfection. Your home life and hobbies might have left you rich with latent skills.

Leaving home and hobbies aside, looking more deeply into how someone else is achieving their goals might give us clues and ways to improve our own performance. Especially if that person is extremely good at what they do. Book stores have no shortage of how-to guides and autobiographies of ultra-successful entrepreneurs and sports stars.

Take the world’s best poker players for example. Believe it or not, they could be your alternative source of inspiration and learning. Their skills and attitude might be worth serious consideration. Why?

Because there’s a reason they got to where they are. They have something the rest of us don’t, or if we do have it then it’s less well developed. If we could learn their secrets and apply them to our own lives and careers, we might all be a little better off. This isn’t a call to head off to the casino either. This is about learning the skills and attitude someone else is already using, and adapting it to our own situation.

According to decisions coach, TEDx speaker and author Greg Dinkin, the top poker players have 13 skills the rest of us don’t. What’s important to realise about these skills though is they aren’t exclusive or restricted to poker players. The world’s top entrepreneurs have them too.

More than that, these are skills we can all learn and apply to great effect. There’s no sleight of hand, black magic or witchcraft. And Greg should know. He not only identified these skills, he then went on to develop them himself and won more than $100,000 at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

So what are these 13 skills?

  1. Winners are considerate and walk in the shoes of others
  2. Winners think ‘win-win’
  3. Winners think ‘it depends’ rather than rely on rules
  4. Winners choose the right game and are market-driven rather than ego-driven
  5. Winners pay attention and can identify ‘tells’
  6. Winners think several moves ahead while anticipating their opponents’ actions
  7. Winners are forward thinking, recognize sunk costs, and take small losses
  8. Winners master the inexact science of measuring expected value
  9. Winners start from a position of strength by playing at the right stakes
  10. Winners have tools to deal with emotion and manage tilt
  11. Winners are selective, aggressive, and plug leaks
  12. Winners know when to keep their cards close to the vest
  13. Winners are life-long​ learners

Anyone looking down that list will notice one thing: these are skills all of us can learn. It’s not algebra or particle physics. Many of us might even possess some of these skills already so all that’s required is a sharpening or refining. We don’t have to do that at the poker table.

We can do it at work, home, or on the squash court, wherever we want. Greg describes these 13 skills in more detail in ‘All In – Skills for winning in poker, business and life’ but let’s take a closer look at three in particular:

Skill 1 – winners are considerate and walk in the shoes of others

This means they take the time to consider the other person at the table. What cards might they be holding, how are they behaving, what decisions are they making and when? Then they think about which cards their opponent thinks they might have i.e. looking at themselves through their opponent’s eyes. Developing this depth of analytical imagination would no doubt be of huge benefit at any negotiating table.

Skill 4 – winners chose the right game and are market-driven rather than ego-driven

If your purpose is to maximise your return on investment, your focus needs to be on finding the least competitive game (or market to operate in). Just as your cards are only good or bad compared to your opponent’s, your skill level is determined in relation to your competitor’s. If you want to win, find the game (market) in which you are the best.

Skill 10 – winners have tools to deal with emotion and manage tilt

They understand which events or situations trigger their reactions, how those reactions manifest e.g. perspiration or a nervous twitch, and which reactions might lead them to make a costly decision or give away their hand. If they lose a hand, they don’t over react or try to take actions that attempt to compensate for the loss.

In fact, they try not to react at all. They understand small losses are part of the longer game and are an opportunity to learn why they lost. This really is about self-reflection. Knowing thyself has never been more important.

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