Millions of dollars may be spent each year for executive training with highbrow speakers at wonderful retreats, but I think the most effective place to get trained is at a poker table with peers in your industry. If you really want to find out how great executives think and react to problems, play cards with them.

My best, and most expensive, executive training was held in the early 1980s in the smoky hotel rooms of a Moore-Handley manager’s meeting while playing poker with a bunch of older managers who chain-smoked and drank whiskey. Unlike internet poker of today, to be successful in “old school” poker you had to know how to read people as well as make quick, critical decisions to win. Isn’t that what great executive do every day? 

Poker is a game in which “real money” has to be on the table. Playing poker for fun doesn’t work, because bluffs and strategies go right out the window and it becomes a game of pure chance. Similarly, a person not in the accountability role of the executive finds decision-making easy when nothing is on the line. Advice is free and plentiful from someone with no scratch in the game. (That is my jab at “paid-for” consultants who offer no money-back guarantees.)

The following are some of my rules when playing poker, which I have incorporated into my decision-making as an executive:

  • Don’t bet everything on one hand unless it’s a royal flush.  A "sure thing" in cards, or in business, is rare; evaluate your risks.
  • When you’re dealt a bad hand, fold it immediately. The only one you are going to bluff is yourself.
  • Don’t show your cards unless you have to. Others will use them against you later. Keep them guessing.  
  • Showing a winning hand when everyone else has folded gives others insight on how to beat you. Having an ego in both business and poker can put you out of the game.
  • Never ask someone in the same game questions about your hand. You will not be given good advice.
  • Remember, everyone at the table wants to win, and they’ll do whatever it takes to be a winner.  
  • To win the game, you must be sober. Drunks and drug users are "dead money" who will soon be out of the game.
  • Don’t borrow money you can’t afford to lose.
  • Don’t cheat or mark your cards. If you do, you may be asked to leave the table permanently. 
  • You don’t always have to win with Aces. Don’t forget, three Twos beats two Aces. 
  • Don’t cash out too soon. As long as you are at the table playing, you’re still in the game.
  • No one wins every hand. You can’t dwell on the hands lost. Rather, focus on the hand being dealt.
  • Always be grateful that you were asked to play in the game.

Recently, a group of our managers and I took a little bus excursion where poker was played. Thanks to those lessons from the old days, I was able to collect some money to pay back the training I had received,some 30-plus years ago. It also proved to be a great time to discuss business and to network with the team. 

Should playing poker take the place of executive training? Probably not, but show me an executive who can play winning poker and I’ll show you a person who can make complex decisions quickly and effectively.  The next time you go for executive training or maybe the ProSales 100 Conference next February, find the old guys playing card then shuffle up and deal.