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.