4 poker-playing tips for start-up success

One of the world’s top poker players, Liv Boeree reveals how the ice-cool techniques she uses at the table can be applied to succeed in business

Liv Boeree, an astrophysics graduate from Kent, was just 25 when she won the 2010 European Poker Tour (EPT) in San Remo. One of the world’s biggest and most challenging poker tournaments, the EPT jackpot was a whacking €1.2m (£910,000).

It was a major highlight in a career littered with cash and top finishes in tournaments around the world. A Pokerstars Team Pro, Boeree has cemented her status as a top player and has a reputation for keeping a cool head in pressured situations.

Overcoming odds (winning the EPT is technically about 1,250-to-one) and making good decisions when others are losing their minds are two key traits of not just great poker players, but successful entrepreneurs too.

In fact there is considerable cross-over between the ingredients that create an expert card sharp and those required for business success. Here, Boeree offers her advice to help you become one or the other.

Make decisions; and make ‘em good

Poker players are forced to make decisions every hand they play. Some hands involve a dozen or more decisions in a few minutes: should you check, call, raise or fold? If raise, how much by? If fold, when and how much loss are you prepared to cut?

Players make these decisions based on imperfect data. There are ‘known knowns’ (your cards), there are ‘known unknowns’ (who is in and what they are betting) and ‘unknown unknowns’ (what cards do they have?).

But start-ups make decisions with imperfect data too. Founders know what they are good at and what their business has to offer, they can guess at future trends in the economy and customer behaviour, but it’s hard to predict what your competitors will do next, or indeed if any new ones will spring up in the near future.

Making decisions, good and bad, is a vital component of securing business growth. People who gather information and take proactive action will do better than those who dither until they are forced to jump.

“Making judgements will either earn or lose you equity,” says Boeree. “There are always bad cards that will mess you up, but if you continually make good decisions then you are profiting from equity that a lesser player will not be making.

“It is about capitalising on an opponent’s mistakes. If they make an unprofitable play that means someone else will have to profit. If someone is betting too much on a bad hand, well that’s unprofitable play. Who’s going to benefit? I’m going to make sure it’s me.

“You must learn what the profitable course of action is. If you keep getting the answer right, even if it means throwing in your cards, then you will win more in the long-run.”

Win wars, forget about battles

Poker can be a heart-breaking game. It’s easy to bust out early and some of your biggest losses take place when you have great cards (but your opponent better ones). Therefore you should not aim to win every hand, but instead try to come out on top when the game is over and the chips are tidied away.

It’s the same in business. An old truism is that you’ll get 80% of your sales from 20% of your customers. But, more than this, you must be prepared to cut losses, drop bad bets and not chase lost causes. Know when to raise and when to fold.

“A few years ago it would have taken me a while to learn to stomach it. I would bust early or do really well but fail to make it to the final table and I would get really frustrated, but now I have learned to become detached from the outcome.

“Enjoying the process, being patient and having confidence in my abilities are the best things I have learned in recent years. It’s a combination of practice and self-discipline and self-reflection instead of breaking down.

She adds: “It’s good to piece apart what you did well and what you didn’t and you don’t need to be mad at yourself, it takes a bit of experience to get to that stage.”

Study the game

On the face of it, poker is a really simple game. But delve a little deeper in to poker theory and a galaxy of variables bursts out. Each hand has a percentage chance of winning, which changes as each new card is drawn or if a player folds their cards. Game theory, an important part of poker strategy, is a subject in itself.

The best players don’t just play the game, they study it. The same is true of good businesses. You need to know your industry inside-out if you are to master it. Market data, demographic trends and recent innovations are all useful points of knowledge. Start-ups in particular should study their environment before jumping in with both feet.

“The more studying you do and the better technical understanding you have of game theory and decision-making the better decisions you make,” says Boeree.

“Recently I have been playing less and studying the game more, because I feel I have slipped behind the curve a bit. I felt like I was behind not just the very best but even the medium-strong players. I have been taking some time in the last six months to get back up there.

“It made me rethink ideas that I had held for quite a long time. It reinvigorates your love for the game and I find that in the last few months I have just been really enjoying it so much more, experimenting and seeing something working. It’s very satisfying.”

Know your opposition

Business should obsess about the value of their own products or services, but it’s important to know what your rivals are up to as well.

Poker players are sticklers for information and some collect crazy amounts of data on opponents. It isn’t the famous ‘tells’ – supposed physical reactions that let you know whether a player is bluffing or not, but patterns in the way they play. Are they aggressive or subtle? Do they try to scare rivals off early even if they have bad cards or do they play a long game and only bet on strong hands?

Entrepreneurs need to know the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents too. This information will give fundamental clues as to whether you should start in the first place, when to launch and in what form, plus what USPs you could bring to the market and whether there are dissatisfied customers out there you could take under your wing.

“Study and read as much as you can about what you do,” advises Boeree. “In poker, once you have played a session you should look back at your hands and invest time going over them and consider your thought process. I didn’t do it for a long time, never any hardcore analysis of what I did – it makes me a better player.”

Liv Boeree is one of the world’s top poker players and has been a Pokerstars Team Pro since 2010. As a TV presenter she hosted Mind Control Freaks on the Discovery Channel.

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