Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
This week on The Cut, Jazmín Aguilera talks to professional poker player and strategic adviser for Poker Powher Melanie Weisner about how she uses her card-playing skills to navigate life decisions and understand her emotions. Jazmín also attends Poker Powher’s business course at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management with co-host B.A. Parker, where they learn about the art of a good bluff — or at least try to.
To hear more about poker and how you can use it to place your bets in real life, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also find the full transcript below.
JAZMÍN: In April 2014, sitting at a blue felt table at the Grand Casinò di Sanremo in Italy, Victoria Coren was one of two final players of the European Poker Tour.
POKER COMMENTATOR: And Vicky once again really taking her time in one of these huge moments just to make sure she has the situation assessed correctly.
JAZMÍN: This was the second time Vicky found herself at the final table of a major poker tournament.
POKER COMMENTATOR: Oh boy, two pair for Vicky.
JAZMÍN: Vicky had two pair, with a pair of queens, and a pair of jacks.
POKER COMMENTATOR: Stop it.
JAZMÍN: While Giacomo Fundarò — the only player between her and a multimillion-dollar pot — had a pair of aces.
POKER COMMENTATOR: This is not the time you want to make a rookie mistake — realize the guy’s got more chips, or it’s not your turn to act. She’s just kinda overthinking everything right now.
JAZMÍN: Vicky had the winning hand, but she didn’t know that. And Giacomo was betting like he did.
POKER COMMENTATOR: I think he’s going to be shoving.
JAZMÍN: They bet and raised each other through each card flop, until Giacomo went all in. And then.
POKER COMMENTATOR: He shoves! And Vicky calls!
JAZMÍN: Vicky called Giacomo’s bet.
POKER COMMENTATOR: What a sweat.
JAZMÍN: And so they revealed their cards to each other, with one card left to flop. That flop would determine the winner.
POKER COMMENTATOR: Just an unreal, tense moment right now. Giacomo Fundarò needs an ace, king, 10 or 7.
JAZMÍN: The last card flopped.
POKER COMMENTATOR: Oh! It’s a brick! It’s a brick!
JAZMÍN: Vicky had won the 2014 European Poker Tour tournament.
POKER COMMENTATOR: Vicky Coren has done it!
JAZMÍN: In post-tournament interviews, Victoria confessed she didn’t think she would win, that she was a natural pessimist. She had set her sights on eighth place, then sixth place, then fifth place, then third. But somehow, her pessimism didn’t affect her game, even to the last moment, the last hand of the tournament when Giacomo’s aggressive all-in bet might have scared others off.
I recognized the look of shock on Victoria’s face. It was utter disbelief. The look of someone who didn’t have faith that she would come out on top, and yet by some alchemy of skill, sweat, and fate, there she was. I’ve made that face a few times in my life too. Each time I’ve won an award, or landed a job, or even when people I consider way out of my league match with me on Tinder. Trying to win anything is a mindfuck if you think about it: You put yourself out there and hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. I want to believe that I am qualified and capable and totally deserving. I must be a shoo-in. But I also need to protect my heart from disappointment if reality strikes and I lose.
But could it be that getting caught up in what I want to happen and what I’m afraid might happen is actually messing me up? Is it possible that getting in my head like that might actually prevent me from getting what I want?
Turns out, yeah. We do get in our own way, and poker can help.
MELANIE WEISNER: To build this skill set that I think women are actually rarely exposed to: raising the stakes, negotiating, strategizing, understanding risk, capital allocation … I feel very strongly that poker is very much a vehicle for the skills to predict success — in work and in life.
JAZMÍN: Melanie Weisner is a professional poker player who I met when I heard about this program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and an organization called Poker Powher. That’s P-O-W-H-E-R. POW! HER! The idea is to teach women poker strategies as real-life tools.
Now, I’ll be honest here. Because at first the idea of teaching female business school students poker in order to “win at life” just sounded too “finance bro” for comfort. Part of it is definitely that kind of “girl boss, you-can-do-it-all, queen” energy. But it turns out Melanie’s poker-forward approach to life is so much deeper and more emotional than I ever could have imagined.
MELANIE: Poker puts you in situations where you have to struggle with yourself. Because these situations come up over and over and over and over again. You’re playing a card game, but you can very easily tell, Oh, I’ve been in situations like this before. This is modeling something I’ve done in real life.
JAZMÍN: Poker is a card game, but it’s also a mental sport. A show of psychological gymnastics, probabilities, and risk. It’s betting on how you read people. How you can control yourself so you can’t be read. It’s math and it’s performance and it’s chance. It’s up to the player to make the best out of it. And from the very beginning, Melanie was hooked.
Did you immediately start gambling with money or did you start with Monopoly money and trying to get more comfortable with it?
MELANIE: It’s funny. I actually got into poker when I was younger, when I was maybe 17 or 18. My younger brother had been playing online when he was 16, and he had won an absurd amount of money. It was this very classic brother-sister thing where I thought, Well, if he can do it, I can do it. That’s how I got started, and [I] played in these little dorm games in college and got my feet wet and I just totally fell in love.
JAZMÍN: Okay, so what was your first big win? The first win when you were still an amateur, but you’re like, Whoa, I could do something with this?
MELANIE: My friends and I ran a game in our dorm. I think it was one of these small-stakes games — I’m talking about like 10-, 25-cent poker. I had a great night once, and I won like $300. I remember the next day I bought that Motorola Razr phone. I was just like, This is what I want. I want to play poker! And I want to win! And I want this to be how I make money.
JAZMÍN: But to make that money, first she had to learn how to play the game. Emotionally. Mentally. And literally.
MELANIE: In poker, the person with the most information wins, so the better you are at taking all of this mess and noise and picking out the right pieces from it. Which is life, right?
JAZMÍN: So we’re told that poker is a game of chance. But really, it’s not. You said it’s a skill game that has an element of chance. Can you explain that a little bit? What does that mean?
MELANIE: The whole idea of poker is that you don’t know what I have, and I don’t know what you have. So we’re operating under this information asymmetry, this lack of information. But whoever can get the most information — whether I’m using your betting patterns, whether I’m reading your face, whether I’m understanding how you’re feeling about a specific moment. Maybe I remember something you did in the past that makes it more likely you’re going to do something else in the future. So, it’s a game about who has the best information when nobody has perfect information.
JAZMÍN: But poker is a game. It’s a competitive game where you’re fixated across somebody. You’re in opposition to somebody else. It’s a win-lose game. And to apply that to life, is that how you see the world?
MELANIE: The answer is yes and no, because in poker situations, you can’t both win. One of you is going to win, and one of you is going to lose. However, the person that loses is often going to come away with greater experience to mold themselves into a better player than the person who’s winning. That’s why I would always seek these better players to play when I was coming up, because that’s what I wanted. I was willing to pay that price to have that lesson. If you’re already beating somebody, then you’re not necessarily learning something new from that or improving your game. You’re executing a strategy and you expect to beat that player. But, you give that opportunity now to the other player to make themselves better.
JAZMÍN: Losing is a chance to learn. Not in that toxic positivity, “get back on the horse” sort of way, but really, truly every time you lose, you learn what not to do next time. Lose enough, and eventually you’ll see exactly how to win.
So in the same vein, in the game of poker and also just in life, you got to “know when to fold them.” Folding to me feels like a failure. When I play, I’m just like, Oh I hate this, I hate this. Do you get that feeling still or have you learned to accept folding as part of life in poker? And in your life?
MELANIE: It’s never going to be as fun to fold. But once you realize that’s a competitive element as well, that recognizing when you have to walk away from a decision — a relationship decision, a business decision, anything like that. Recognizing those spots and becoming comfortable with them, that’s one of the greatest lessons poker has taught me and not falling into this sunk-cost fallacy. Oh, I’ve invested so much, I must see it through. You start to become aware of these cognitive traps.
You’re trying to make the best decision every time you play, every time you make a decision, period, in life. You have to recognize that sometimes the best decision is to walk away. Sometimes the best decision is to save your chips, your ammunition, for a better opportunity. If you don’t, when that opportunity comes along, you’re not going to be able to make the most of it. I view it that way. It never feels good to concede a hand, but you are preserving the opportunity to win by doing so.
JAZMÍN: Yeah, it’s like preserving your bandwidth in regular life to do things.
MELANIE: One hundred percent. You can’t win every pot. Every day can’t be a good day. It’s managing those elements, understanding what’s going on, distancing yourself from that emotional, knee-jerk response and asking yourself, What’s the best decision here? Am I winning or am I losing? Forget the fact that I want to win. Clearly, you want to win. Do I have a good opportunity here or not? The more you play, the more you become comfortable with those situations.
JAZMÍN: After the break, how the cold, analytical game of poker can help you get real cozy with your emotions.
JAZMÍN: Early spring in New York City can be absolute misery. You’re ready for picnic blankets, blunts, and rosé out of a can, but a lot of the time it’s just puddles of sewage water. So I thought I’d outsmart the weather and fly out to California, my home state, to ride out the last of this damp, cold New York spring with some West Coast sunshine. Seems like a safe bet, right?
Wrong. The day I landed it was 80 fucking degrees in New York, and in California, it was drizzly and chilly for three straight weeks. Which just … doesn’t happen! I felt stupid for betting on this weather when clearly it wasn’t a sure thing. But according to Melanie, I should make that same bet again.
MELANIE: So much of the game is understanding your own emotion and mastering it and understanding other people’s emotion and mastering that. Before I was a poker player, I don’t think I was processing my emotions as well as I could have been. I wasn’t really understanding probability, because humans are really bad at understanding what that means. The example I like to use is if something really unlucky happens, like you got a flat tire or something, people get very upset about it. But, any of these people who are going to get really upset about it, if you were to say, “Hey, this kind of thing will happen a handful of times over your life. Here’s one of them now, you’re experiencing that volatility, that variance,” they would 100 percent agree. But when it comes down to experiencing it, they don’t react as if these unlikely events are supposed to happen. So I think it’s helped me a lot with processing when the unlikely occurs, and how to feel about it and what to do about it. The biggest one is judging your decisions by the quality of the decision rather than the outcome.
JAZMÍN: What Melanie’s basically saying is that nine times out of ten, it’s a good bet that it’ll be sunny in California when it’s rainy in New York. But even though it didn’t work out for me this time, getting in my feelings about it does literally nothing. And in fact, it just makes it worse.
MELANIE: Because in poker, you’ll fold. Maybe you’ll make a discipline fold. You’ll fold a hand you shouldn’t have played. And it’s like, Oh, I would have had a full house. I would have had … whatever. You learn that those players that think like that, and don’t stop thinking, are the ones that become the losers over the course of time, and the people that recognize, Hey, yes, I would have gotten lucky in this one situation, but this is a bad decision long run, then make winning decisions going forward.
It’s also helped me a lot with preparing myself for situations outside of the context, because when you’re in a heated context, a high-pressure context, you’re not really the same person. You’re the version of yourself that didn’t know better. You’re reacting to somebody. You’re upset because someone said something. You’re calling this guy’s bluff because you didn’t like the way he looked at you, or something he said to you, not because it’s the right decision, but if you create a strategy coming into that situation knowing, Oh, I’m going to deal with it these ways, then you don’t have to rely on that heated animal brain taking care of yourself. You’re protected by the version of yourself that does know better.
JAZMÍN: In the same vein, you’ve also said that, like you think in this calibrated, statistic-driven way, you remove that element of the cognitive biases, of the emotional attachments to things. So, this is going to sound a little aggro, and I don’t mean it to sound aggro, but I don’t know how else to say it. This sounds a little sociopathic, because don’t we need emotions in some way to drive us?
MELANIE: One hundred percent. That’s the thing — it’s not denying the emotion. That’s not what it is at all. It’s not saying you have this emotion and [to] ignore it, play like a robot. It’s understanding the emotion at a really deep level and where that comes from. A lot of the mental game work I do with my students and that we teach in our classes is to figure out, really spend some time and think, where you might skew. Am I more likely to be someone that gets pushed around and maybe respond badly because of that? Am I more likely to be overaggressive? Really spend time thinking about what the root of these emotions are and when you can resolve those issues, they’re there, but they don’t control you. They don’t interfere with your decision-making. And you also want to be really attuned to other people’s emotions at the table, because that will tell you a ton. So it’s not about suppressing emotions at all. It’s about understanding them and not giving emotions an irrational chance at overriding whatever the best decision is.
JAZMÍN: So in your life, are you just cool as a cucumber all the time? Are you levelheaded? Like, nothing can rock you? Because it seems like you would just be amazingly good at processing your own feelings and being like, Well, shit, somebody broke into my car. But that’s the tax of living and wherever. Does nothing rock you?
MELANIE: No, I definitely wouldn’t say that. I actually just think I’m a lot more thoughtful about my emotions.
SARAH, THE LECTURER: You can either play today with the students or you can just put in the code and watch them play in the app. It’s up to you.
JAZMÍN: Great. I think we’re going to play. Right, Parker?
PARKER: Not well, but yeah.
SARAH: Excellent, excellent.
JAZMÍN: Last week on a gray, Wednesday evening, Parker and I actually did the workshop.
SARAH: Okay, perfect. So welcome back! Today is one of my favorite lessons. It is on bluffing and how to be fearless. So we’re going to learn some really fun strategies today. The first thing we’re going to do is we’re going to watch a hand where Maria Ho, the very famous poker player, is going to bluff her opponent Phil Hellmuth, and she is in this hand going to correctly realize that her hand is not the best hand, and she’s going to represent a stronger hand to try to get her opponent to fold. So I want you guys to look at this hand and think about the strategies that she’s using when she is bluffing in this hand.
JAZMÍN: So number one, I wanna know how you felt about the lecture last night.
PARKER: Real talk, it’s like watching paint dry, watching people play poker.
PARKER: It’s just so quiet. It’s just like, you’re there. If you’re supposedly a great poker player, you’re steely faced the whole time and you’re not reacting. That was the one thing about bluffing. Life’s too short to try to be deceptive or try to haggle like this. I don’t know.
SARAH: All right. All the way down to Parker. So now Parker, you can call, raise, or fold.
PARKER: I don’t want to straight-up lie.
JAZMÍN: I’m folding.
PARKER: I can’t do it. I don’t know how to fold!
SARAH: She’s playing the long bluff where she’s pretending that she’s just terrible for a long time and then she’s going to take all our money.
PARKER: Okay, here’s the thing. I’m not. I’m not good at games. Playing poker, I was like, Oh, this involves a lot of anticipation and making assumptions and trying to analyze things. And I was like, Oh, this is too much responsibility. This is also me as a person. This is too much responsibility. Like, I just can’t. Is there, like, Trivial Pursuit? That seems more my speed. Poker just seems like …
JAZMÍN: Because you don’t like uncertainty and risk! There’s no risk there. It’s whether or not you know the information or not.
PARKER: Living day to day is already a risk. Why am I adding things to it?
JAZMÍN: That’s the point, Parker! That’s the whole point of this program is living life is already a risk — so learn how to do it better.
SARAH: Bluffing is also important for your table image, right? A good player really needs to keep her opponent guessing at every betting round. People won’t be guessing at all if they know that you have a good hand every time that you bet. The goal of bluffing is to make …
PARKER: But okay, here’s also a thing about me and just perception. I am a dark-skinned, chubby Black woman. When I go into spaces, I’m either ignored, or there’s someone already projecting stuff onto me. So I feel like bluffing is unnecessary, because people are already projecting stuff onto me, so even when I’m cheerful or I’m giggly, that is a pleasant surprise to them. So, trying to bluff is just putting a hat on a hat.
JAZMÍN: That’s a beautiful way of saying it.
PARKER: I mean, poker seems like fun for a very specific group of people. I’m not a type-A person. I’m a kid with social anxiety.
JAZMÍN: It seems like anyone with social anxiety would not do well in poker.
PARKER: No! A person with social anxiety is good at scanning a room like Terminator and just seeing who seems like a threat and who doesn’t? Who will be nice and who will be mean?
JAZMÍN: But isn’t that kind of reading people’s tells? She did talk about that a little bit.
PARKER: I can do that, but I don’t want to have a card game in the mix with all of that. I mean, it’s a real heavy-handed metaphor for life.
JAZMÍN: I mean, yes, it is a very heavy-handed metaphor. You like to learn your lessons directly and not through metaphors.
PARKER: Yes. Like, just break it down for me. Are you gonna make me cry or are you not? Poker seems fine, if it’s what you wanna do. I’m not going to yuck someone’s yum, but honestly, I could take it or leave it. I grew up playing spades. Spades is a team sport. You have a partner and you communicate and your job is to just make sure that you don’t screw them over. You get your pairs and you try to make your bid and you try to get your bid right and get your pairs together. I’m also terrible, well I’m not terrible at spades. I am a competent player of spades. But there is like a partnership to it — where there’s a mental back and forth between people.
Poker is a solitary thing where you have to try to psyche people out by yourself, and you’re trying to figure out how to … there’s too many variables that are out of everyone’s control. But wouldn’t it be better, if you had a partner who can scan the room and tell you who is going to be a jerk? If I could whisper, if we play this version of poker, [where] I could just whisper in your ear and just be like, “The guy in the flashy hat and hoodie that is called Hellmuth, doesn’t have a fucking thing. And he’s mean, we’re going to ignore him.” And you play your cards and you win. Isn’t that nice?
JAZMÍN: So you want to cheat.
PARKER: That’s not cheating! That’s looking out for each other. It’s called the partnership, Jazmín.
JAZMÍN: Okay, so then so then what is a better partnership game? One where we can go into it and learn the lessons that we need to learn from it as partners?
PARKER: Like a card game?
JAZMÍN: Yeah. Is it spades? Should we redo this episode with spades?
PARKER: Listen, if you want to go to North Avenue and hang out with my cousins Chunky and Eric and let them yell at you for an evening while they drink like Clamato juice with with Hennessy …
JAZMÍN: That sounds amazing.
PARKER: That’s a game that brings people together! I feel like poker just tears people apart.
JAZMÍN: Poker is the Monopoly of card games.
PARKER: It is.
JAZMÍN: So if you win at Monopoly, you win at life and you’re the richest dude, but everybody hates you. And if you win at poker, you’re the greatest poker player, but everybody hates you because you have the pot and you manipulated everybody into getting the pot.
JAZMÍN: But at least in spades, when everybody hates you, you have your partner.
PARKER: That’s what I’m here for. You know? To be like, We’ve got each other, we’ll be okay.