Women Business Execs Learn When to Hold and Fold 'Em

PHOTO: Alexandra Lebenthal and Michelle Smith host Ladies Poker Night at
Maserati of Manahattan, New York, New York on December 3, 2012.

Beth Bronfman, the managing partner of View, a New York advertising agency, never knew whether to hold 'em, fold 'em, or do anything else with 'em. In fact, poker was never on her radar until she was invited to a women's poker networking event in Manhattan.

"I figured I'd go, even though I had never played poker before," Bronfman told ABC News. "It sounded fun."

On December 3, Bronfman joined forty other high-powered financiers, lawyers, artists and fashion executives at the Maserati showroom in downtown Manhattan for an evening of full houses, straights and lots of schmoozing.

The evening was hosted by Alexandra Lebenthal, the CEO of Alexandra and James, an asset management company for high net worth investors and her former business partner, Michelle Smith, the current CEO of Source FA, a boutique wealth-management firm. The two have been hosting quarterly, women-only poker nights since 2010 as a way of bringing clients together while attracting new ones.

"It's a chance for women to do something fun, meet people, and learn a new skill," Lebenthal told ABC News. Poker, she believes, is actually quite instructive business tool: "It teaches you how to negotiate and how to read other people, something many women need to learn," she said.

"It's so much about strategy and risk-taking and smart risks," said Smith, who has been playing for about four years. "There's something about not playing every hand, not feeling like you have to play every hand, that resonated for me. You shouldn't play 80 percent of your hands, and the 20 percent you do play you should play well."

Ellen Leikind, the founder of Poker Prima DIVAS, who runs Lebenthal and Smith's events, agrees. A former marketing executive for Fortune 500 companies, Leikind quit her job about a decade ago and began playing poker, a game she had learned as a child. She attended poker tournaments, and was distinctly aware that she was one of only five female players amid a sea of testosterone.

"I thought to myself, 'This is golf all over again'," Leikind, the author of Poker Woman: How to Win at Love, Life and Business Using the Principles of Poker, told ABC News. "Golf has traditionally been a men's sport. When I was in the corporate world, I'd go to sales meetings and the men were on the golf course making deals and getting promoted, and the women were at the spa, where there was no action. Some women held meetings in spas, but in a spa you're having a massage by yourself. The biggest camaraderie was when you were standing in the dressing room together."

Poker, on the other hand, provided a great opportunity for networking, but women were mostly excluded from the game. So in 2004, Leikind founded her company and has since hosted poker events for women at 40 corporations, including Pfizer, Hearst, and Morgan Stanley. But her focus is not just on the game itself, but also the strategy and negotiating skills that go with it.

Maryann Morrison, founder of the Women's Poker Club and Woman Poker Player magazine, believes that women are better poker players than men, because women tend to have a stronger sense of intuition and are more detail-oriented.

Also, "men still have a hard time thinking women will bluff them at the poker table," she said. "You get some young girl coming in and the men think she's really sweet and innocent. A woman who knows her game and knows how to read people well will do really well."

On the flip side, women are usually more risk averse and less assertive than men, a trait that carries over into business. "Assertiveness at the table is demonstrated by how you bet your chips, and women are reluctant to give up their chips," said Leikind. "Because women play not to lose, as opposed to playing to win. But it's not enough to just keep what you have; you have to get what everybody else has. That applies to business as well. You have to know how to manage risk and recover from lost."

On this night, Leikind and her card dealers spent about a half-hour teaching guests the basics of Texas Hold 'Em. After a few practice hands, the tournament began, albeit with fake chips. But the women, not surprisingly, were highly competitive--and upset when they lost.

Tracy Stern, the owner and CEO of Salontea, had been winning until another player--someone she "least expected"--bluffed her by putting in more chips. "I doubted myself, and I lost! It was a great lesson in life," said Stern. "You have to read the players. You have to play to win."

Bronfman did play to win, but no one was more shocked than she was when she discovered she had raked in $18,500 in chips, taking first place. "I had never played before. I had no clue," said Bronfman, who was given a trophy and a seat at a future tournament. "My strategy was reading people's faces. That's what I do. I own an ad agency. You create brands, and figure people out. I was watching people's faces. I didn't even know I won."

Leikind maintains that every businesswoman should learn poker, because it teaches her her value. "We always say--'if you want to be in the game, you have to be at the table," she said. "You need to take your seat at the table, even if no one invites you. In essence, the message is, 'You can learn everything you need to know at the poker table to give you an edge at the conference table.'"

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