Although poker appears to be a simple game, beneath the surface it is rich and full of lessons for life. Cooped up, children and families can learn it quickly, but lessons it teaches you will last a lifetime. One expert wrote: “You can learn that sometimes bluffing works but sometimes folding is wiser; that a lost hand is not a lost game and that a lost game today does not say anything about a game tomorrow. You’ll quickly figure out how to read your opponents, how cockiness can be a cover for weakness and how reticence can be a trap to induce you into overconfidence.”

Poker – a metaphor for life!

  • The type of thinking that allows you to succeed at poker is the same as the type of thinking that allows you to succeed at life and in business. And particularly in the legal environment.
  • Situation assessment, decision, control – these are all tools exquisitely taught by poker.
  • While poker is a game of incomplete information, you nevertheless have to make a decision – are you in or out? If you are in, how much is your bet? You can’t hide and say “I’m not certain enough to bet“.
  • Poker is war. You’re going into battle. What do you need in order to win? It’s exactly the same in every important negotiation. You need to understand where you sit in the negotiation – do you look to quit and save your losses to fight another battle. (Cutting your losses and running is actually a huge skill!) This is ‘resource management‘ at its most pointed.
  • Your table image is a commodity – and you can trade on your table image as you would any commodity!

Indeed, Professor Charles Nesson of the Harvard University Law School wrote, “I believe it’s time for [poker] to shake loose from the awful reputation it built up through its genesis as a gambling game. It has had an equally distinguished history as an academic pursuit… strategic thinking, taking risks based on limited information, empathizing with an opponent, and even showing strength from a position of weakness – are all skills vital for playing poker… and practising law.

Professor Nesson has been on the faculty at Harvard Law School since 1966 and has brought the game of poker, and its higher-level reasoning skills, to countless Harvard Law Students. He says kids need to be taught how to take risks within their means, how to manage their stake in life, and how to keep from going bust. And that’s what poker teaches.

And the game doesn’t need to be played for money to teach those lessons. Nesson said he’d like to see tournaments set up like any other sport, where participants are competing for sponsors’ money and not their own. And, he’d like to get the game added to the official roster of ‘mind sports’ by the International Mind Sport Federation – a distinction currently reserved for Chess, Bridge, Go and Draughts.

Most importantly, Professor Nesson said he wanted poker to be established as a game that can be played completely without the element of chance. To that end, Nesson and his students at Harvard Law tested Duplicate Poker, a concept first published by Bruce Altshuler and Dan Kleinman in 1993[1]. Nesson and his students played with teams of six players at six different tables with identically shuffled cards to diminish the role of luck. The game got its first big showcase in IFMP’s live tournament, held on the London Eye in 2011. This was the first official live game of what is, today, IFMP’s Match Poker.

Maria Konnikova has written about this is a very personal way[2][3]. She hated casinos and had no knowledge of poker, “I couldn’t even tell you how many cards in a pack,” but she rose to success as a professional after conducting her own real-life experiment in learning how to play.

But the most important lessons she learned from poker were psychological ones:

  1. Poker forces you to re-examine your preconceptions, to learn to get past them and to only make judgements based on data, not feelings or initial impressions“;
  2. Because poker is a game of incomplete information it’s truly a metaphor for life;
  3. Poker is a magnet for fans of logic and reason because it requires clear-minded strategy based on the information to hand – what the actions of others around the table tell you about the probability of them having good cards. As Konnikova puts it: “In poker you can win with the worst hand; you can lose with the best”;
  4. It’s one of the reasons why she believes children should be taught to play poker in schools: “If you study and play thousands of hands you start to viscerally understand it. You know what five or one per cent feels like, because you see it playing out”;
  5. And you learn that information is power. Nobody knows what cards you are holding and you can use that. “How many times in life do you just assume that people know that you’re weak? You take it at face value that what other people are telling you is true. That they’re stronger than you. That they deserve more money, the job, whatever it is.” Poker teaches you not to assume that that you can change that impression;
  6. Women in particular can gain from this, she believes: “Poker has also helped me realise how I’ve internalised social stereotypes of how women should behave… and fight against them to become a more assertive, stronger version of myself than I ever had the guts to be before. More than anything else that I’ve done, poker has taught me to take less shit from people – and I think more women could learn from that”.

There is one more thought to add to this:

At the end of the day, there is a limit to the lessons you should take from Poker. Yes, being super-rational, super-focused, assessing every opportunity on its odds, and being hyper-rational, may all be keys to great poker. But choosing to move this approach into the rest of your life – where for you to win, someone must lose – may blind you to the finer things in life, like beauty, morality, friendship, sharing, co-operation and sacrifice.

While poker can give you so much, is that tense, gladiatorial stance what you choose to take into the rest of your life?” – Julius Colman

[1] Altshuler, B. J. and Kleinman, D., 1993. The game of duplicate hold’em… the future of poker tournaments. Card Player Magazine (Poker Strategy).

[2] Konnikova, M., 2020. What poker can teach us about navigating risk in a pandemic. WIRED.

[3] Konnikova, M., 2020. The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Take Control and Master the Odds. HarperCollins Publishers.

We’d love to hear your stories of what you have gained from skills you learned at poker. Write to us!

Professor Charles Nesson congratulates the IFMP on the growing popularity and recognition of Match Poker as a sport.