Can Playing Poker Advance Your Career?

March 18, 2024
Kelly McNees

We’ve written about how learning to play golf and joining male peers on the course may help women advance their careers. If golf doesn’t feel like a fit, would you consider playing poker? Casino nights are popular at social and charity events, making poker games potential opportunities to interact with clients and prospects. And the game itself requires you to demonstrate many of the skills used in the practice of law.

The Wall Street Journal recently explored what poker can teach us about winning at work — and how women can excel at playing the game. The most important lesson? Remember that you don’t have to play the hand you’re dealt.

  1. Reading people. The ability to read people and interpret nonverbal cues is crucial to playing poker as well as to negotiating. Watching a poker player — or opposing counsel’s — body language may reveal more about their real position than what they’re saying. For example, how fast did they respond to your settlement offer? Is their “final offer” really final? A power move, or are they bluffing?
  2. Shaking it off. In poker, players must recover from mistakes without ruminating. The same can be said for lawyers. Likewise, poker players don’t control which cards they’re dealt — just like lawyers must deal with circumstances beyond their control. The key is making the best arguments and decisions you can, based on the information available to you at the time. Don’t take setbacks personally. Learn from your mistakes without dwelling on them, and move on to the next game, case or client.
  3. Using the “power of the pause.” If you have bad cards in a poker game or believe your opponent has a great hand, you “fold” — quitting until the next game. Professional poker players use these moments to study their opponents’ behavior and develop strategies for the next round. In law firms, pausing may mean taking time to re-read an email before sending an update to a client, or carefully evaluating a potential promotion or lateral move. Don’t be so eager to please others that you deny yourself the strategic advantage of taking time to make important decisions.
  4. Playing to win. Poker players know you shouldn’t hold onto your chips to avoid losing; you have to play to win. A poker mindset can help you get comfortable taking and assessing risks — skills that easily transfer to the high-stakes environments of business. This mindset also brings a new perspective to moments in your career when you suspect people are underestimating you. Project confidence when you sit at an important table — and always bet on yourself.