UW Alum Argues Poker Should Be Mandatory at Biz Schools

How to succeed in business without really bluffing.

By Matthew Halverson, James Ross Gardner, Karen Quinn, and Laura Dannen April 24, 2012 Published in the May 2012 issue of Seattle Met

On a below-freezing night last February, a 64-year-old man stood before a crowd of business students in a University of Washington auditorium. A Clintonian shock of white hair sat atop a face tanned in the way only the Nevada desert tans a face—deeply bronzed, as if rotisseried by the sun. In from Sin City, and with the top three buttons open on his collared shirt to prove it, Barry Shulman told the budding entrepreneurs that the world is changing fast, and if they want to seize it they need take a page from card sharks like him.

Shulman didn’t set out to be a poker impresario. He made his first money, right out of UW business school, in real estate. But cards were his passion. And when he presaged the Seattle real estate nosedive in the ’90s, Shulman cashed out and moved to Las Vegas, set on retirement. Instead he bought a magazine. Card Player is now the centerpiece of Card Player Media, which includes poker websites and licenses the Card Player name to magazines in a dozen countries. And as a player Shulman has won more than $4 million at live poker tournaments.

Five points crucial to successful business never came up when he was at school, Shulman says, and he had to learn them at the poker table: risk of loss (that is, the realization that losing your chips early can be a blessing in disguise); people-reading skills; protection (amassing enough capital during fat times to get you through the lean times); discipline (knowing when to fold ’em); and bluffing.

That last item is an outlier. Shulman doesn’t say one should bluff in business, so much as know when others do (a lesson that buyers of millions of subprime loans could have used back in 2008).

Shulman isn’t a lone knight charging at pokerless MBA programs. “One thing you can’t emulate in class is how prominent a role emotion plays when it comes to making choices,” Greg Dinkin, a Los Angeles literary agent, motivational author, and poker evangelist, told us. “But get stuck a few grand in a poker game, after your aces have been cracked and you are tired and irritable, and then we’ll see how well you think strategically and make decisions.”

But even poker has its limits. Back at the UW talk, when a student asked Shulman for advice for aspiring professional poker players, Shulman left no room for interpretation. “Get a job.… If you’re smart enough to make it at pro poker, then you’re smart enough to get a job where there’s real security.”

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