Poker is often used as a metaphor for life, war, and pretty much anything that involves high-stakes decisions. However, as apparent as the game’s practical applications may be, we don’t always see them put to use. That was until the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University decided to push the envelope and empower women in business through poker.
In April, the school launched an extracurricular program designed to introduce future female MBAs to No-Limit Texas Hold’em. The six-week course provided a unique mix of theory, practice, and time at the table. After what was considered a successful trial concluded in May, Kellogg has decided to offer it again in January 2022, this time as part of its Executive MBA program.
For the pilot run this spring, 99 women signed up and attended Wednesday night online sessions.
In addition to lectures from business leaders, students heard from poker pros — including Melanie Weisner, an accomplished tournament pro and winner of two EPT women’s events, and Maria Konnikova, the bestselling author and Erik Seidel’s protege.
Guest speakers provided a poker context to business theories being discussed, and put an innovative spin on concepts such as aggression and position, which apply in both poker and business.
From leaning in to going all in
Gail Berger knew little about poker when she met Erin Lydon, managing director of Poker Powher, a Chicago-based corporate events company with a mission of introducing more women to poker. But it didn’t take long for Berger, a clinical associate professor at Northwestern and deputy director of the Kellogg Center for Executive Women, to see the conceptual crossover between poker and business.
“During that first conversation, I just knew it was a magical idea,” Berger said. “I was over the moon excited from the beginning.”
Berger spoke with CardsChat News about the unique and ambitious endeavor she and Lydon helped create for future MBAs. She says they knew that if they could get women behaving differently at the poker table, these lessons could lead to change at the conference table.
“I’ve always believed people learn best through experiences that will shape their behavior,” Berger said. “Poker is, in many ways, a great corollary for life and it becomes an absolutely phenomenal platform to teach the concepts that we teach at Kellogg.”
For example, in a lesson about being courageous and taking risks, students were taught about aggression and position — concepts poker players know well.
After the lectures, they would take a seat at the poker table and try to implement their new skills in an emotionally charged setting.
No money changed hands and the games were conducted under the watch of Poker Powher’s guest pros. The aim was to provide a live experience through which the women could put their newfound knowledge into practice. Taking the students from the classroom to the felt provided an anchor point that made the lessons about decision-making and negotiation more poignant.
Taking a seat at the table
Overall, the collaboration between Kellogg and Poker Powher seems to have been +EV. Berger reports that students, now with more confidence and self-awareness, have spoken up to CEOs when they wouldn’t have previously. Others have been successful in interviews because of lessons learned from the poker program.
“For me, the course is about helping to elevate women and boost their confidence,” Berger said. “It’s teaching them to understand the traits and characteristics they need to be effective in business. This, in turn, is giving them a voice.”
The course also provided advice on how to act in real business scenarios, including how to handle escalating commitments, which is a key skill for any executive to develop. Berger notes how poker is great for highlighting this concept.
As an example, she explained how many people understand that, in layman’s terms, throwing good money after bad is a poor strategy. During the course-run poker games, women were given a hands-on demonstration of this concept and were taught to reevaluate their poker hand on every street based on new information.
Berger said it’s important for women in business to be self-aware and to remain grounded in reality. To that end, she said, the concepts like courage, aggression, and being calculated that help player find success at the poker table also translate to the conference room table.
“We’re helping [women] to understand how they can be more effective decision makers. How they can make decisions that allow them to overcome biases,” she said. “That means understanding how to take calculated risks, how to interact with others, and how to be aware of their own behavior.”
Learning to read the board
Berger further explained how the women who took the course now understand how to make effective decisions based on their own skills and how people perceive them. In poker terms, they’re able to read other people, understand their table image, and play their hand accordingly.
Lessons like this have been “transformational,” according to student reviews. First-year MBA student Marilia Teixeira shared her enthusiasm for the course that she called a “one-of-a-kind experience” on her LinkedIn page.
“One of the many insights that stuck with me from the first class was how many of us judge if a decision was a good or bad decision depending on the results we get,” Teixeira explained. “But the reality is that, when we are making decisions under uncertainty, good decisions can lead to bad results and bad decisions can lead to good results. This insight is not only valuable in poker but for our personal and professional lives.”