Playing Poker Leads to Executive Suite

PHOTO: In January in Las Vegas, current and former MBA students from such schools as Wharton, Harvard and MIT Sloan competed for jobs at Caesars by playing poker.
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A poker tournament for MBAs only? Caesars in Las Vegas hosted one on Saturday-- and it wasn't the casino's first. Caesars has been holding them annually for the past eight years. The casino's goal isn't to separate players from their money (the buy-in is as low as $85). It's to see which players have management potential.

Using poker as a recruiting tool might sound like an odd throw of the dice; but it turns out that many other big-name employers host ostensibly-fun events whose real purpose, from the company's perspective, is to separate the MBA sheep from MBA goats—the ones who have what it takes to reach top management.

The practice, says Emily Taylor, associate director of MBA career and education communication at UCLA's Anderson School of management, is called "event recruiting," and it is practiced in some variation by "hosts" who include Amazon, Deloitte, Microsoft and Tiffany. The idea is for higher-ups to watch how prospective hires behave in situations typical to the company.

In Caesars' case, explains casino leadership service coordinator Tijuana Plant, the poker tournament is used to select the right MBAs for Caesars' executive training program—though sometimes a student will be hired to fill an immediate job opening. Not everybody who attends is a current student. Some players are graduates a few years out of school, who come either because they're considering a career change or because they just want to have fun.

Margo DeLeeuw, class of 2014 at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, tells ABC News she played the poker tournament because she's interested in the hospitality-management and restaurant-management aspects of the casino industry.

"I like to play poker," she says, "but only casually. I played mediocre at best. There were 142 players, and I got knocked out when there were still 100 left."

Her performance didn't cause her any worry, she says, because she knows Caesars did not invite her to judge her poker prowess. "They want to see if you've got a sincere interest in the company—are you knowledgeable and passionate? Do you exhibit the behaviors that they're looking for?"

Those behaviors, says Plant, include an ability to take calculated risks, to make decisions on the spot, and to interact in a friendly, helpful way with the public. "We're not selling insurance here," she says of Caesars. "We don't sit behind a desk all day. We enjoy ourselves, but we also know how to network and to get the job done. If one of our executives sees a student who's a great fit, we pay attention."

The three-day tournament consists not just of table play, but of social events. Of the several hundred students Caesars invited this year, says Plant, "We'll funnel it down to 21 who will get one-on-one interviews. We're in that process now." Those who make the cut get job offers.

Players come, she says, "from every top-notch school in the country," including Harvard, Wharton, and MIT's Sloan School of Management.

George Orn of Carnegie Mellon, says Plant, walked off with this year's pot: $7,736. Last year's winner was Thomas Pariso of UCLA's Anderson, who took home $11,287.

"I just checked my tax form to make sure," he tells ABC News. Pariso, asked what he did with his winnings, says. "I wish I could say I did something fun with it—I did take a friend out to a fancy dinner. But most of that money probably went back to Anderson. Business school is expensive!"

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