About 10 years ago, following some work I had done for a very well known online gambling company, I was quoted in a number of newspapers and on the BBC News commenting on how skills learned in poker can be applied in the workplace. I claimed that playing poker could offer lessons for success, even in non-mathematical lines of work. For instance, being given an assignment or a particular team to manage might be akin to playing with the cards that you have been dealt. Playing with the cards you have is a winning strategy in poker. And top poker players are insatiable in their desire to win. Being this focused is an important leadership skill in the workplace. Then there's the art of deception, not normally seen as a desirable skill, but in poker it's all part of the game. In many workplace situations the ability to get away with white lies to save face or be diplomatic, or to smooth over or disguise mistakes and errors, is a big advantage.

Whether it is an act of problem solving in a work meeting or a major corporate decision, we act in the hope that we will achieve the desired result, even if it is unknown before we start. To some extent, this sounds like gambling. A book by Harvard academics Howard Stevenson and Eileen Shapiro called ‘Make Your Own Luck’ argues that the best gamblers serve as an ideal role model in how to get on in the workplace. They argue that the best gamblers are those that use “predictive intelligence” in their day-to-day lives. These are the types of gamblers who in the face of uncertainty know how to bring about the desired outcome by assessing the decisions they make on the basis of relative impact and uncertainty.

Using these two variables, Stevenson and Shapiro created a “gambler’s prediction map” of four zones based on two factors: the degree of certainty and the impact. These four zones were called the ‘wallpaper zone’, the ‘wild card zone’, the ‘ant colony zone’ and the ‘ strategic rat zone’.

• The ‘wallpaper zone’ is where decision-making has high certainty and high impact and is (the authors argue) like wallpaper because it is often ignored but can be very powerful. This is the classic low risk, high return gamble.

• The ‘wild card zone’ is where decision-making has high uncertainty but high impact and is the classic high-risk gamble with huge rewards if it comes off.

• The ‘ant colony zone’ is where decision-making has high certainty but low impact and is so-called because when ants act together they can still have a positive effect. This is the low risk but moderate pay back gamble.

• The ‘strategic rat zone’ is the worst scenario for decision-making because there is both high uncertainty and low impact that in effect is putting all your money on an absolute no-hoper.

It is claimed that by using various strategies in the right zones, gamblers with good predictive intelligence will come out winners in all walks of life. So what are these winning strategies? In a nutshell, winning gamblers:

• Identify big goals: Winners imagine the future they want to create and formulate a strategy that will help them achieve their goals.

• Weigh the upside/downside: Winners calculate the possible upsides and downsides to decide if the risk is worth taking in the first place. They know all the rules of the venture they are getting themselves into.

• Jump bets: Winners are able to change plans at the appropriate moment. They may have to decide very quickly whether to stay or shift from their chosen path. Gamblers with high ‘predictive intelligence’ jump before all the available information is to hand so that they can grab the opportunities that they think will not be there later down the line.

• Have an implicit strategy: Winners make sure that it is their actions (and not just words) get them to where they want to go. They focus on the micro-details as well as the macro-goal.

• Create a real alternative: Winners make sure they have a back-up plan in case their main strategic decision-making plan goes wrong.

• Use prediction maps: Winners are able to forecast all the major potential influences in their chosen strategy by assessing the relative impact and uncertainty of the situation.

• Risk splits: Where possible, winners calculate how to reduce or spread risk to others and consider all possible outcome scenarios.

• Know what’s the ‘it’ they’re betting on: Winners know in advance what they are going to do, why and what the expected outcome is likely to be. This helps clarify whether the decision is the right one in the first place.

• Assess possible domino effects: Winners know what actions they will take in the future based on the ones they are making now. They can assess very quickly if they will be locked into a series of follow-on bets as a result of their decision.

• Know when it’s game over: At the simplest level, winners know when to call it quits.

The message here is simple. Good gamblers with high predictive intelligence possess many life skills that in the right circumstances can be transferred to the workplace environment.

References and further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Exploring gambling practices in work and educational environments, Casino and Gaming International, 3(1), 17-25.

Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Can gambling be a transferable skill? i-Gaming Business Affiliate, April/May, 58.

Logan, T. (2004). Gaming helps traders score big-time. BBC News, October 10. Located at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3723922.stm

Parke, A., Griffiths, M., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.

Shapiro, E. & Stevenson, H.H. (2005). Make Your Own Luck: 12 Practical Steps To Taking Smarter Risks In Business. New York: Portfolio.

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