It's All in the Game

Business
By Wendeen H. Eolis
Women's Business

High stakes poker games are no longer the sole province of men. Increasingly, women are playing ("power poker"),the mind-bending game of bets, raises, bluffs and calls, that is sometimes played with cards.

It is not that the men who once dominated these tables with iron fists have suddenly turned soft-hearted and accommodating; it is that women have toughened up by hunkering down to their poker studies.

Bobby Baldwin, CEO of Mirage Resorts, Incorporated and a former World Series of Poker Champion, once noted that The only difference between the poker room and the boardroom is the shape of the table and truly, I approach the card tables as I do business meetings; carefully observing the participants and analyzing the risk/reward ratios that apply to the subject at hand. The big winners are the savviest negotiators and women who combine their theoretical studies of the game with their natural intuitiveness, and a dash of feminity are rapidly moving up in the ranks of big winners.

In poker there are four major negotiating strategies:

Betting with absolute strength (a hand that is indisputably the winner, or in poker parlance having "the nuts.") Here there are various betting options to maximize profits, such as betting big and hoping that someone else takes the bait and tries to bluff you out of the hand, or perhaps betting less to draw an opponent into the fray. I usually lead aggressively with strength and often reel in the "macho moron." Women can be macho morons as well as men!

Betting with comparative strength (a hand that is better than your opponent's but not necessarily a strong hand). Here, mediocre holdings can win if you "read" your opponent, expertly, accurately cataloging his strategies or specific actions in prior hands and studying his demeanor and mannerisms, to determine if you have the upper hand. In poker lexicon, a player's unconscious signals of information about his hand are called "tells." If you are lucky enough to discover a surefire "tell" in an opponent, there will be times when you will be playing against him as if his cards were dealt face up!

Betting with potential (a "semi-bluff" hand). This hand is probably inferior to your opponent's at an early stage in the betting. You must "draw" favorable cards in a later betting round to beat him. To semi-bluff effectively, you must calculate quickly and accurately the probabilities of winning the hand and analyze, precisely, the long-term risk/reward ratio to such a bet.

Betting with position (a hand in which you act after your opponent). When you have the advantage of being last to act, you are betting with maximum information about your opponent's holdings. You can often bluff effectively in this position, when your opponent checks his hand or otherwise signals weakness. In effect, you are betting more on your opponent's view about his hand than you are about the quality of your own.

After thoroughly understanding these strategies, you need to develop a mix of workable techniques that play to your own personal strengths and avoid revealing your weaknesses.

For example, I am better at sizing up people than recalling hand histories, so I can "bet with position" more often than average, while I act more cautiously when a perfect assessment of comparative strength is necessary to get the money. I mentioned earlier, I usually lead aggressively with "the goods," because both in the poker room and the boardroom I can identify and therefore target players who are bullies, the ones who refuse ever to give me credit for a good hand until I prove it in a showdown.

I have also learned through experience that women can win more by bluffing less than men. The men who call you when you have absolute strength,convinced you have nothing, will also call you when you have nothing in your hands but perspiration. In poker you take responsibility for your actions,instantly. The showdown arrives in seconds. In business, the consequences of your actions may take years to catch up with you.

What I learned in the conference room gave me the tools to become the first woman to finish in the money at the World Series of Poker. What I have learned at poker tables is like a graduate curriculum for fast, clear, thinking on your feet.