Ingo Fiedler is a German academic who spent years studying the economics of poker. He discovered that, on average, the player with the strongest hand wins just 12% of the time: less than one game in eight.
In other words, success in poker is much less about what cards you have – and much more about how you play them.
That’s because poker, like life, is a game of partial information (which is why academics like using it as a model for complex decision-making). There are some things everybody knows, some things nobody knows and some things only each individual player knows and everyone else has to guess at.
Even if you’re lucky with your cards, you can never be certain that one of your opponents hasn’t been luckier. So the best poker players never worry too much about what cards they’re holding.
Instead, they rely on a mix of memory and maths to help them understand the statistical likelihood of different outcomes. And behavioural psychology to help them understand what their opponents are likely to think and do – and how they’ll react to different cues. ‘Play the man, not the cards’, as the legendary Amarillo Slim once put it.
Leaving aside the casual sexism (Slim played in a time before many of the world’s most successful poker players were women), that’s good advice for any business operating in today’s rather uncertain conditions.
Don’t worry about the stuff you can’t control: the market, the weather, global macroeconomic issues. Those are the cards everyone can see and you can’t do anything to change them.
Instead, focus your attention on what you can control. Watch your opponents carefully and use your experience and analysis to figure out your best way forward.
Is their customer offer or market position likely to be better than yours? If it is, can you dilute their advantage by launching earlier or promoting in a more eye-catching way? If it isn’t, can you anticipate how they might try to do the same to you?
The most successful poker players are the ones who think rationally, not emotionally.
Who are clear-eyed about the relative strength of their position – and adapt accordingly.
Who don’t let themselves get manipulated – or compound a loss because they’re too invested to walk away.
And who are constantly alive to everything around them, absorbing information and learning from their mistakes.
Because in poker, as in life, you get a lot luckier when you work at it.