Poker pro Annie Duke says know yourself, know your rival

Poker pro Annie Duke advanced to the finals of reality TV show Celebrity Apprentice, where Donald Trump fired her rather than comedian Joan Rivers. Executives can learn more from poker than chess, says Duke, 43, who spoke to USA TODAY management reporter Del Jones about the leadership lessons of Texas Hold'em. Following are excerpts, edited for clarity and space.

Q: Poker is known for the bluff. Is there an art to bluffing in the business world?

A: The bluff is a sexy concept but widely overused. It's not the most important tool. If you use it too often, it's going to get you in trouble, because people will suspect you are untrustworthy. Bluffing works sometimes when you are in an adversarial role, but not in a partnership.

Q: What poker tools do apply to business?

A: In poker, you look for patterns from your opponents, how they behave in certain situations. How do the behave when they're comfortable or uncomfortable? How do they play when they're drawing for a hand? How do they play when they have a made hand? Gather data on your opponents so you can predict what they actually have. Understand how they perceive you. It's an extremely important tool in business negotiations. Poker is really just a negotiation. If I know people are perceiving me to be too conservative, then I'm going to play in an unconservative manner until they readjust their perception of me.

Q: Business leaders wrestle with playing it safe vs. taking a risk. How do you decide when to fold or go "all in?"

A: It's mathematical. I'm much more likely to be risky when the return is huge. The smaller the return, the less risky my behavior. It has to do with pot size. People lose sight of that. They want to be right. They are afraid of being wrong. It's not about being right, it's about being right often enough. If you make a $1,000 investment and the return is $10,000, you need only be right 10% of the time. Shrug your shoulders when you are wrong. Great players free themselves from the worry about being wrong.

Q: Do you fear what you might lose?

A: I never think about that, or I would be playing out of my bankroll. It would be ridiculous for a $100,000 business to take a single $100,000 investment risk. That changes when you have very little money. Then you can risk it all. For example, if you're on the street with $5, you could risk all $5 because you could probably beg for $5 more.

Q: You were defeated on the final episode of Celebrity Apprenticeby Joan Rivers. Any lessons learned?

A: The lesson is that business is not always fair. The person who does the best job doesn't always get promoted. I raised the most money, I worked the hardest, I was the most creative and the best leader. Things are not always fair, and I know that from poker. You can put your money in with aces and your opponent has fives. You're supposed to win that pot 82% of the time, but 18% happens. Poker teaches you that there are things you have control over and things that you don't. When you have a bad outcome, you analyze the decision chain and try to figure out if it was a decision that went wrong. If it's out of your control, the deal of the deck, don't get "tilted," which means emotionally upset. That's unproductive and will make things fall apart in the future. We all make very poor decisions when we're out of emotional control.

Q:During Celebrity Apprentice, you were called a passive-aggressive back stabber. Is that true, and do you think great leaders must have a mean streak to succeed?

A: I was called that only by Joan Rivers. I am not passive-aggressive, and I'm certainly not a back stabber. Business leaders need to make decisions in their self interest, but self interest is not being overly greedy in the short run. We can see an example of that in subprime mortgages. There were greedy short-term decisions that devastated the industry. When you make cookies for yourself, make some for your neighbors.

Q: These are tough economic times. How can leaders get through an unlucky streak that is no fault of their own?

A: Good things happen to companies, and the leaders get credit for it when it's literally dumb luck. Those in the right place at the right time get promoted when they're not particularly good at their job. It happens in poker, as well. Those on a good streak say "I'm the best player in the world. Look at me, I'm so wonderful." When they're losing they say: "Look at the bad luck I'm having." If I'm having an extended bad streak that is affecting my decisions, I take time off.

Q: Must women approach poker or business differently than men?

A: Only in the sense that others perceive them differently. It has to do with the way that people react to you. Some poker players think losing to a woman is the worst thing that could happen. You play differently against them. In business, it can be an advantage. Instead of fighting it, use it. If somebody doesn't give you respect, don't try to convince them that they should. Let them underestimate you. If they think you're dumb, let them think so. Women spend too much time trying to prove themselves instead of just saying, "I hope everybody underestimates me." If I see a woman at the table, I'm going to assume she's not that skilled. But the minute they put their first chip in the pot, I start updating my opinion.

Q: Poker and business seem to have a lot in common. Would a good CEO make a good poker player, and vice versa?

A: Poker players have intelligence, game theory and mathematical knowledge. But it's an individual game, so they may not be good managers. I've played poker with CEOs. The mistake they make is thinking they're going to be great players. Their egos get in the way. They have to set their egos aside and say, "I'm obviously a very talented individual. I could become good at poker, but I have to be willing to learn. I have to be willing to open my mind to the possibility that I'm wrong and to listen to other people." That's hard for someone who's gotten to the top.