Imagine you’re now in a high-stakes situation in your business. It’s that moment when you KNOW you need more than just your hard work and expertise to tackle. Can you rise to the occasion? Can you build your risk-taking muscle so you prevail?
How do you overcome fear, emotion and the inner voice that’s harshly negative so you make the right move and not the easy move more often?
In this episode, pro poker player Melanie Weisner shares the secrets only the pros know on what it takes to harness luck, how to master emotion , and how to take smart risks to achieve the success that’s only accessible to the disciplined few
Melanie shows you how you can too!
- How sibling rivalry kickstarted a successful pro career in poker
- How poker skills translate to real life
- How to overcome fear and do what’s right for you, even when you can’t think straight
- How to play to your strengths regardless of what they are
- How to neutralize the harsh inner critic in your head
- How to move on after making a mistake, and still stay ahead
- How to make self-knowledge your secret superpower
- Why risk-taking is key to success in any endeavor
- How to get comfortable with taking risks, even when your mind screams at you not to
- How to use psychological shopping lists as a strategic behavioral tool
- How to be authentic and still win in a competitive world
- How to start building your risk-taking and smart business skills in easy and low-cost ways
Links & Resources
MelanieWeisner.com – Melanie’s personal website
Poker Power – Advocacy organization that teaches women poker to succeed in life and business
Shubha Chakravarthy: Hello, Melanie. Thank you for coming on our show today. We are very excited to have you.
Melanie Weisner: It is my pleasure. Thank you!
Shubha Chakravarthy: You are one of the few female professional poker players in the world. How did that happen? Tell us a little bit more about your background and your journey to becoming a pro-player.
Melanie Weisner: My story is kind of interesting and I feel like a lot of women with siblings might have it resonate with them. When I was in high school, my younger brother was playing poker online and he won $50,000 and I thought to myself, “If he can do it, I can do it!”
I started playing poker pretty soon after that in college. I was not good at it and I was very stubborn. I did all sorts of things that weren’t necessarily the best decisions. My mom would give me $50 or a hundred dollars for books and food and I would just put it onto the focus item and play. My computer was also a Macintosh computer, so I wasn’t able to run the poker sites on it. I would play on my roommate’s computer while she was out as she had expressly prohibited me from doing that.
I ran a game in my dorm. In college we played 10 cent – 25 cent poker. One night I won $300 and I bought the Motorola Razr phone and I thought, “This is amazing and I want to keep playing poker.”
So, after college I was able to do this and become very good online. I was able to put myself through school and not have a job. It was my job but I didn’t have to wait tables or do anything like that to pay for my school, which was great.
Then after I graduated I went to my first live tournament in Atlantic city. I learned there that I could travel around and I also learned about the potential for sponsorships while doing that and I thought to myself, “What a cool thing to be able to travel around the world and play a card game!” I decided to go to Europe, Australia, South Africa, and all these places that interested me the most and play poker while I was doing it and that was kind of how I got started.
I’m 35 now and I turned pro when I was 20 and started traveling when I was 21. So, towards the last few years of that I began traveling a little bit less because the wear and tear on my body was catching up to me. But then I started becoming more interested in the ways poker has shaped my life outside of the game and focused more on consulting and building resources for people to learn the game for those reasons and those benefits.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I think many of us have this conception, that poker is just glorified gambling. What is the dummies version of poker for those of us who don’t know it?
Melanie Weisner: It is a version of gambling because there is an element of chance, but it is there in the same way if you play a board game with your friends. You are also technically gambling a little bit because you are allowing chance to play an influential role in that world.
But you can’t only look at the gambling element. It is very much like real life. You are interacting with an environment where there are lots of chances that is going to happen to you. You don’t know who you’re going to meet. You don’t know what opportunities you are going to have and you want to play those situations as well as you possibly can. The same is true of poker. You have a lot of decisions to make and ways to maneuver — that are all your choice.
So, you can develop a skill within these parameters that also happen to include luck. There is still quite a lot of skill and the players that are the best at poker will show that they keep winning over and over again. They will make it to the final tables over and over again and that is because they are making better decisions than their opponents. If they weren’t making better decisions than their opponents, then money would just get traded around the table and it would just be just like bingo.
But poker is very much a skill based game throughout which there are elements of luck. I’m trying to figure out what you have, which cards you’re holding, and I’m trying to see what does that mean? If I have what I think is the best hand then that means that I want to put more money in the pot and if I think you have the hand that is feeding me then I want to see if I can try to get you to fold, to bluff and take it from you — that is where all the skill comes in.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You mentioned that for the last few years, you started to see how it translates to real life. Can you speak about that with some examples?
Melanie Weisner: I have actually seen that throughout my whole career, how poker translates to life. It helps me optimize my decision-making. When it comes to how I want to handle the tone of an email or exactly what time I want to leave when I’m going somewhere or how I want to process an emotion or anything like that — I think in terms of probabilities, most likely scenario — I think in poker. You think of the steps ahead and you envision a variety of outcomes and choose which one you think is the best in poker.
So, it allows me to take a step back, especially in emotional moments and see what are the outcomes going to be like if I say this or that and instead of just going with what I feel, I can see several steps ahead in my daily interactions and that helps me make better choices within those interactions.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Are there examples from your experience where in a business situation, let’s say when you are negotiating some pay or money that you can really see that skill come into play?
Melanie Weisner: There have been many instances where I have needed to negotiate salary. My instinct is — “Don’t do this, don’t make things tough for yourself. Just accept what it is. It’s going to be an awkward confrontation.” I have to fight through that and I don’t know if people in the audience will identify that, but that is my instinct.
Then I have to tell myself, “Let’s set that discomfort aside and think what’s really going to happen here.” If you go ahead and ask, the worst they can do is refuse but they are going to be pleased that you realized you had value and wanted to be compensated for that rather than being like, “Oh, she’s so disagreeable!” or whatever the typical female fear is.
I just like play it out in my mind and I try to use logic, the more rational part of my brain, the more probabilistic part of my brain, thinking that if you ask you probably have a 50% chance of getting what you want, so why not? There’s no downside.
So, I try to use that kind of logic and probabilistic thinking to combat the more scared aspect of the animal brain we all have, that just wants to avoid confrontation and that has really helped me, especially to even see it as just kind of an exciting thing. Something along the lines of, “Let’s see where we can go from here.”
My boyfriend likes to say, “Make them an offer YOU can’t refuse.” I just like to see, “Where can we go from here and what can I learn from this negotiation that will help me in the future?” It has been very helpful.
There have been times when I haven’t gotten the price that I asked for or a raise that I wanted. I found that it still had a positive effect on a working relationship because the other person understood that I was going to ask for what I believed was my value and I would respect somebody who did that as well. It is this very animalistic fear that you have to overcome and poker has given me the ground to believe that if I can do this at the poker table, then I can do this somewhere else.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Great segue. What does it take to be a good poker player?
Melanie Weisner: There are a lot of things that it takes to be a good poker player. You can come at it from a few different angles. You can come at it from logic. You can come at it from math. You can come at it from psychology. There are lots and lots of ways that you can win.
There are elements of, “How likely am I to make my hand if I have two cards and two more on the board and I need one more to complete my hand? What is the probability that I’m going to do that?” So that’s the math element.
“What is my estimate of the chance that I think I can get you to fold if I make this?” A lot of mathematical thinking like that is useful and then there is a logic, which asks, “What story is my opponent telling me and what makes sense here? Would they really do this if they had what they are saying they have?”
Then there is the psychology, “How is my opponent behaving? Are they comfortable? What are they giving me in the psychological arena?”
So, you can use pieces of all that and you can dominate in one and be a little weaker in the other. But the number one thing you have to do is be willing to update your thoughts and to be willing to adjust.
You can’t think one thing and then have evidence presented to you that says that it is not the case and yet continue doing what you are doing. If you do that, you will lose. As an example, let’s say you sit down at the table with me and I think this lady is very aggressive. She’s gonna bluff me. I just get that sense — that you’re gonna try to run me over. That’s my psychological reflex, right off the bat “reading” of you.
But then I start being shown evidence that you don’t play that way. You’re very conservative and you are only betting when you have a strong hand and I keep paying you off because it is not aligning with my interpretation of you. If I don’t update immediately as I get this new information and change my game plan, then I’m going to lose a ton of money to you and the truth is that most people won’t update. They are very stubborn. They think they are just getting unlucky. They don’t look inward and say, “Well, maybe I’m doing something wrong here. Can I change it?”
So, the best players in the world are able to adapt to changing circumstances and behavior and create a gameplay around them incredibly quickly, which is a skill also very useful in the real world. In case a situation takes a turn that you don’t expect them to, you can adapt and react and especially in business or even socially that kind of skill is incredibly important.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You made a great point when you said that you have to get over your basic human instinct and go with your gut. Which means that you have to admit to yourself that you are wrong or that you could be wrong, which is a very hard thing to do, especially in something like entrepreneurship, where it is your passion. What are some tricks you have used to help you bring that logical part of your head when your emotions are screaming something different?
Melanie Weisner: What I like to do and what I like to tell my students as well, who struggled with this, is that denying the fact that you are an emotional being is really not the way. If you do that you will end up not realizing how you feel or how you need to maneuver all this stuff. It will be all for nothing.
What you want to do is understand where that emotion is coming from. Let’s say that I am playing a poker hand and I start to become fearful. I start to not do what I think I should do because I’m worried about losing or I’m worried about looking stupid and that starts to hijack the part of my mind that is responsible for good decisions. What I like to do is instead of trying to ignore that and fight through it, I like to say, “Okay, what’s going on here?”
You are afraid because you think that if you call here and you try to call some guy’s bluff and then it turns out that he is not bluffing then you are going to feel bad about yourself and you are going to look stupid in front of other people. But there is a reason you want to call in the first place and you think this guy is bluffing. There is a reason you want to make this play.
Do we actually think that is the correct thing to do? If so, then what we need to do is make peace with this fearful and scared part of our mind that is warning us of all these things and then not let it overtake our decisions.
What I mean by that is that when people have this kind of looming idea that something terrible is going to happen, they always feel like it’s going to be so much worse than it actually is. So, if I break it down in the moment and say, “Okay, what is going to happen here? This guy has made this bet and I’m deciding if I want to try to call his bluff. He is looking at me and I’m trying to make my decision and I think alright, let’s say that I am wrong. What’s gonna really happen here? Let’s play it out.” If I do that and I say, “Well, I’m going to call and he’s going to show me the winning hand and I’m going to have to push my cards in the middle and he’s going to win the pot and I’m not going to win and I’m going to feel bad for a few minutes and then that is what it is going to be.”
Then once I’ve made peace with that worst case scenario, I’m okay and I know I am going to live. I can handle that. It is not as scary as when you bring it into the immediate situation. That’s what I’ve found to be true. So once I’ve made peace with that and I do not let it hijack my thought process, this is an outcome I accept. I’m playing a game where I know sometimes that is going to happen and I accept that.
I can then set it aside and I can say, “What is the right decision here?” Now that I’m not being taken over by that fear I can think about it and maybe the right decision is the default. Maybe it is not to make the call but you can’t possibly think through it properly if you don’t separate what is rational and what is emotional in your mind.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, it sounds like there is a lot of mindfulness at play — being aware of the frightened, emotional side, and then still learning to live with it and then coming back to the rational self. Random question, have you ever practiced meditation and is that ever an influence?
Melanie Weisner: I believe that most good poker players are also pretty well-practiced in meditation. I like to think about why I want to make the choices I make, why I’m thinking the things I do, if they are rational, if they are not, and what is behind them. I like to know my own mind and meditation allows you to sit with your own mind.
There’s different styles of doing it, obviously. I find that a huge benefit of meditation is to sit with the uncomfortable, to practice being uncomfortable, to practice not necessarily always having a distraction, and to just be with your own thoughts. You learn a little bit about who you are like that.
I like to say that you learn about who you are when you are playing poker as well. You learn about what kind of a person you are, what ticks you off, and what excites you but it is also incredibly true for meditation. If you sit with your own thoughts, you start to learn why you are thinking in a certain way. You know why something is coming into your mind and why you are getting distracted by this. You start to become comfortable with this inner monologue that we all have and learn to navigate it a little better when we need to.
Shubha Chakravarthy: It sounds like poker is a masterclass in mindfulness!
Melanie Weisner: It really is because you are constantly having to separate what you want to do and all the information that you are processing from what the emotional-reactive competitive part of you wants to do. Not only are you trying to do that for yourself but you are also trying to interpret how your opponents are feeling and what road they might be going down and how you can maneuver to combat that.
It is this combination of hyper self-awareness, which I think meditation teaches very well and being incredibly empathetic and attentive to how others are feeling.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You talked earlier about luck and how luck does play a role in poker and how it does in life too. How do you work with luck? Sometimes it is good and sometimes it is bad. So, how do you work with luck to maximize your own outcomes?
Melanie Weisner: I’m sensitive to luck, I think more so than others. I just have to be aware of the fact that when I play, I’m incredibly hyper-competitive. So, when I play a board game with a group of friends, it turns into a situation where my boyfriend and my friends are there to have a good time and be with people and I’m there to destroy everyone. That’s how I feel about it because I’m passionate about the competition and sometimes the results let you down, especially when it is a matter of luck. You feel bad because there is just nothing you could have done. Then you feel like saying, “I played so well and I still win nothing?”
I try to sort of embrace that as part of the reason that the game exists. So, if it was 100% based on skill, if the better player won every time, it wouldn’t be interesting and the bad players wouldn’t play and there wouldn’t be this heightened element to it. I would just have the best hand and you would have the worst hand and it would be no drama whatsoever and you wouldn’t play again. So, I try to embrace it as part of the cost of doing business essentially in poker.
I also try really hard to remember when luck is on my side, because the human mind actually processes negative events with more power than it does positive events, which is why you remember all these negative things that happened to you but you don’t always remember the positive things. So I try to be aware of that and I try to pay attention to the moments when I’m ignoring the good and I try to have that balance out.
So, if I am eliminated from a tournament on what’s called a bad beat — it is where you get unlucky. You have the best of it, but then the cards just don’t fall your way. I try to remember, “It’s okay, yesterday you did this to someone else. Just remember that.”
I just try to give myself a little bit more perspective that way and that helps me in everyday life too. I think when something unlucky happens, one of these things is going to happen to you this year and it is a certainty and you are just getting it out of the way. Now, just try to have a little bit of perspective on unlucky situations.
Shubha Chakravarthy: Can you talk about the role of risk and how does that carry over into real life, especially in business?
Melanie Weisner: In poker, if you sit around and wait to be dealt the winning hand, you’ll just lose because you have to commit chips. It is called blinds and they are bets you have to place in every round. If you just always simply fold and wait for the hand then it is really hard to win like that. So, you have to be aggressive.
You have to take the risk when you think you might have the best of it or when you think you can push someone off their hand. I think that especially as a woman, that is something I’ve had to fight really hard to overcome because in a lot of ways that our society is civilized, we’ve made incredible progress socially, culturally, and technologically but our bodies and our biology and chemistry have not necessarily had time to catch up to where we are as a society. For example, we still have an appendix!
I think that a lot of women, not all, and I’m saying this as someone probably less risk averse than most women, but I do find myself fearing risk a little bit more than I think the average male counterpart does. It is something I have to think about and don’t get me wrong, there is an amazing side to embracing risk as well but when I first started poker I had to get over this hurdle first.
The way I dealt with it was by always being too conservative and always playing tight. I just had to see how it was done and know that it would work. There was a guy who was a friend of mine, who was an online poker player and he posted all of his hands that he had played on this public forum and he was this maniacal super aggressive player. Reading that I thought, “Okay, I get this. I understand” — and it just clicked! It took me from this end of the spectrum to the middle of where I really needed to be.
I think that when people find that something works — like a bluff, it is really scary. You don’t have anything so what if they call you? You are going to lose all this money, but if it works, if you make the move and you see that it works, now you have the confidence to do it next time. I think the same carries over to the real world — taking the first step is always the hardest, not that you are necessarily going to be bluffing in business but there are plenty of arenas of risk and risk tolerance predicts the success in business.
If you do these little casino games with people and you give them $20 and a chance to win $2,000 and you give them the odds of one in 80 or something, which would be a very profitable thing to take but you are going to lose it 79 out of 80 times, they will never take it because they fear the loss more than they welcome the profitable opportunity and I think things like long-shot investments and decisions in business that are going to be risky, people fear the failure of but they don’t think about it in terms of trials.
If I were to do this situation a million times in like a million different multiverses, my overall expectation would be incredibly profitable. If you have determined that that is the case and you know it, then you just have to quiet that voice inside your head that says, “I don’t want to lose, I’m afraid” — and that’s like part of the playing to win rather than playing not to lose — you end up losing when you play not to lose! That is the helpful first step you haven’t experienced, you take a risk and you get to see that it work.
So, a little success early on is actually really helpful in the risk arena but I think that just forcing yourself to take a risk that you’ve determined is profitable even when you don’t want to is very helpful in building up that skill and building up that tolerance and it’s not easy at all. If there is a person in your life who is really good at that kind of a thing, I would say that you should try to learn from them. Ask them, “How do you feel about these situations? What would you do in my situation?” Finding people that have skillsets that are complimentary to yours is really helpful in that way.
So, my poker friends all had the skills that I didn’t, I was great at reading people and setting traps and they were great at bluffing their opponents and muscling them out of the hands and stuff like that. They were great counterparts for me to learn from.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You talked about early success being important but what if you took a risk and it backfired, how do you get over that? How do you combat the voice in your head that is criticizing you and saying, “I should have never done this. I’m an idiot.”
Melanie Weisner: That is a really important thing to ask. One of the professors at Northwestern in this program that partners Poker Power has called it the “Itty-Bitty-Shitty Committee in your head.”
It’s just so true and the thing about it is that I’m very self critical. So, this is something that I really work on and I think you really have to be careful to separate the quality of the decision from the result. So, for example, if I were to ask you, what is the best decision you ever made, what would you tell me?
Shubha Chakravarthy: Marrying my husband.
Melanie Weisner: It had a good outcome, right? So, it may not actually be the best decision you’ve ever made. You just view it that way because it’s paired with a good outcome. The best decisions, not to say that yours was not the best, but no one will ever tell you, “Well, the best decision I ever made was taking this shot that didn’t work out but for these reasons, it was so good.”
This is because humans have a super hard time separating results from the decision point and poker is all about making the right decisions irrespective of the outcome. You do that and in the long-term the outcomes will come to you and you won’t have to worry about it. So, when reviewing something, you have to say, “Well, am I upset because I lost here and am I looking for a reason to be unhappy with myself and criticize myself or did I make the right play and it just didn’t work out? Would I make it again knowing what I’ve known?” — and that’s where the review of your play comes into play and sometimes it’s the other way around.
Sometimes people want to let themselves off the hook. I think this is more typical in men but sometimes people want to let themselves off the hook and they are looking for an excuse that says, “It wasn’t my fault because this happened.”
But if you can become very practiced at separating the decision point from the results and if you’re able to really separate the two and trust yourself on the quality of your decision in the moment, then you’re going to become a better decision maker overall. Sometimes they need to be connected and sometimes they are useful. Sometimes you make a bad decision and you get a bad result. That’s fair, sometimes.
It is really hard to do but if you have a kind of a methodology to say, “Wait before you start critiquing yourself, hold on, let’s look at the actual decision. Was that bad or was that good?” If it is bad how do I not beat myself up over it or say, “I’m so terrible. No one will ever think I’m any good.”
Ask yourself, “How can I make sure that I don’t make this mistake again?” Then you learn from your own mistake and you correct it and the best players will do that. I also think the best business people do that. They learn from their own failures.
Shubha Chakravarthy: It almost sounds like you are recommending having a checklist of what makes a good decision and improving that over time as you make these decisions, having an expected outcome and then an actual outcome.
It sounds like you should have something going in to say, “I expect these five things to come out” because you don’t have clear odds and routes like you do in poker, in business.
Melanie Weisner: Well, if you have the framework that you are suggesting, then you have the framework for evaluating how well you did it at your objectives. Otherwise you are just lost in this emotional mess of — “How do I feel about what happened?”
Human emotions are really good for detecting danger, if you hurt yourself doing something that was incredibly dangerous you would have to be like, “Well, I’m never going on that rock or that mountain again!”
But the decisions we are making in business are analytically and academically in that style in the sense that it is not going to cost us our life to make a mistake. So, it’s incredibly important to just learn how to understand those emotions from the decision-making process.
Shubha Chakravarthy: We were talking about risks and how women feel less able or less willing to take them. Are there other tips in terms of how you can get yourself off that perch of, “I don’t want to take risks, for example, I will never invest in equities or I will never stake all this in a business.” What are some hacks or tips that have helped you develop a greater tolerance for risk?
Melanie Weisner: Honestly, it sounds like a bit like a sales pitch but you can practice it in a game! Play poker and learn how to do it in a way that is more controlled. It is like a microcosm. Learn how to take a risk with $200 in a game of poker and then your life savings in a random stock. Not that that’s necessarily what people are doing but just like any other skill in life, nothing is going to come without practice.
It’s work and it’s practice. It is only some people who have the one-off innate gift, like a singer who just has that innate talent. But most of us have to develop these skills and for me this came later in life because from my experience, a risk is not necessarily a prized feminine trait. As little girls my friends and I were not encouraged to go ride a motorcycle, there was always this sense of safety present, whereas the boys were more risk-averse and adventure-y , that’s just what seemed normal. Not that my mom did anything wrong by not sending me on some kind of risky competitive adventures but I didn’t really practice that early in life.
I think that you have to find ways to practice that and it is just like anything else you put the time, the work, and the effort into. You practice it. You are going to become good at it because your mind is going to learn. Your mind is going to understand these pathways that become efficient at it. That is what our brains are supposed to do. They are supposed to adapt and learn. So, if you can practice it in some other way, like in poker, it is a great way of making decisions and overcoming this fear of taking a risk.
You’ll find that that translates for you outside of the game. You might hear someone speak who is in a completely different professional domain than you but something that they say clicks for you. You can apply what they are saying about a different domain to something in your own life and the same is true for poker or anything else that could teach you some risk tolerance.
A fun way to do it would be to ask yourself, “What’s something you’re scared of?” Bungee jumping or whatever it is, having an experience of doing that and after you bungee jump or after you do something like skydiving or whatever, have you ever done any of that?
Shubha Chakravarthy: I went up in Vegas to do that. I was so afraid.
Melanie Weisner: It is pretty scary on the way up, right? But how did you feel right after?
Shubha Chakravarthy: Euphoric.
Melanie Weisner: Euphoric, right? Also like, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad. Maybe I could do it again!” Right?
So, if you can just find a fun way to practice it, a more analytical way to practice would be something like poker but it is not just going to come to you, this dream you have, the dream job, the dream skills, etc. They are not just going to like land in your lap. You have to find ways to create that for yourself. I think it is practice, like anything else that can help you get there.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I’m going to hit on one other thing with this that has to do with women. So, in poker, it doesn’t help your case if you are transparent and I think it is easier for women to be transparent, especially when things are not going well, whether it is in business or poker. How do you deal with that? What are some things women can do in that situation?
Melanie Weisner: Yes, we are taught that wearing our heart on our sleeve is this really great thing. There’s a time and a place for that kind of emotion and sensitivity. But it’s not really what’s going to help you in the business arena. Business and really even simply life is about making good decisions and making better decisions than people whom you are competing against.
Even in a social situation, if I can make a better decision on how I speak to you, for example, if I can ignore something you said to me that was not nice but you just got up on the wrong side of the bed that day and you said something that was mean. So, now I have the instinct to fight back but instead I tell myself, “Let’s remove ourselves from that first instinct that’s not going to get me an optimal result”. If I’m thinking in this way rather than heart on my sleeve, true to my emotion kind of thing, not only am I going to get a better result for myself but you are going to feel better as well, as my friend or my business partner and even if you did something mean to me, it’s not going to escalate.
That is just such an incredibly powerful tool. I think because people are so reactionary they are incredibly quick to fly off the handle. I think I strayed from your original question!
Shubha Chakravarthy: You were talking about how women cannot hide and not wear their heart and their sleeve. How did you school yourself to not react when you had a bad hand come up or something really nasty happened and your competitor was sitting right across the table from you?
Melanie Weisner: That’s interesting. Part of this is about self-awareness, so I would pay a lot of attention to myself because I didn’t want to give anything away.
“How can I know when I’m giving something away?” So when I had a good hand I’d be like, “Okay, what are you doing with your body? What are you doing with your face? How are you behaving?” Then I’d be like, “Okay, whatever you are doing, stop that. Don’t do that again.” But now that you know what your physical reaction was, you can look for that in someone else
So, I’ve been able to take the self-awareness and interpret other people’s behavior from that. The best advice I can give on the display of emotion is to pay attention to yourself and ask yourself, “What are you doing?” Then don’t do that and don’t give anything away.
In poker you try to do just that, look and act the same through every hand but it is tough especially in high pressure situations but by paying attention to myself and not telling myself, “Don’t think about it, don’t think about it”, but by paying close attention I’m able to see, “Okay, here are the behaviors that I’m doing here. Maybe these are the tells that I’m giving something away. Let’s work on overcoming those and let’s look for those in others.
I just think that there is a time and a place for that. It is not that if you don’t wear your heart on your sleeve, you are not authentic. You can still be authentic in your interactions without displaying every emotion that you feel all the time and I think you get better results when you do that. I really just feel that if are like, “I don’t think so. Why don’t you try it my way and see what happens? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it won’t work for you, but at least then you’ll know.”
People have a tough time straying from the familiar. So, if they’ve always behaved a certain way, it’s very tough to get them to try something else but when you go through that hard process of trying to overcome the habit, often you are very glad that you did. You are glad for the experience and you have nothing to lose by trying.
If you feel like you are not getting where you want to in some arena and you are not getting the results from somebody that you want or the business that you want then the worst thing you can probably do is continue doing the same thing that is not working, which actually brings us full circle to the adaptability part of our conversation.
Shubha Chakravarthy: One of the things in that context that I’ve heard is that when you are really hijacked by emotion go through a routine or ritual that says , “Find five red things in the room or find three circular things in the room”, so that it grounds you.
Has that ever been something you used or heard?
Melanie Weisner: No, I haven’t done that personally, but I really like that. I like that because I think that you should find something that centers you.
When I work with my students, let’s say they make a bad decision or they had a really bad outcome or they got too flustered or whatever, then, I ask them, “Well, you know now that we are removed from the situation. Is there anything I could have told you in the moment or that you could have told yourself so that maybe that outcome wouldn’t have happened?”
So, if you think about it from that perspective, then there is the strong self and there is the weak self and they are not the same. The example I like to use is one that’s very close to me, which goes like, “I’m going to be really healthy this month and I’m not going to eat any junk food, but I go to the grocery store and I buy it anyway thinking I’ll just have it. I’m not gonna eat it, maybe have it once in a month or whatever and then cut to later when you are just eating all the bags of chips.”
It’s because the version of myself who is in the grocery store really believes what she is saying. She’s not the weak version who at the end of a really long day just wants some junk food. So, they are not the same. But if I understand as the strong version of myself that I have to protect the weak version of myself and I say, “I’m going to do something nice for myself and I’m gonna buy some broccoli instead of these potato chips.” Then when I am the weak version of myself, I have been protected by the strong version of myself.
In poker I like people to try to hack themselves that way. “How do I behave when I’m weak? What do I need when I’m weak and how can I put a system into place so that when I’m weak I don’t have to create it then?” because you’re not able to do that in that moment.
Let’s say I am struggling with defeat. Let’s say I lose a pot and then everything goes off the rails and I know that I’m tilted. I just want to get back at whoever got me and that is never good motivation for anything.
So, what if I have a rule where if I lose a hand of poker of some significance, I simply take a break for 15 minutes and that’s the rule so I don’t have to decide in the moment or think, “Should I take a break now? What do I really need?” because I’m not going to want to do it if I leave that to my choice in the moment.
I can just going like, “Oh, this is my rule. I know I have to do it” and then when I come back I’m glad I did that and I feel so much better. So, I like to think about those two selves as different people and this could be in another situation, right? Not a poker situation, how do you perform poorly under pressure? What’s your weakness when in this situation and how could you design something as the you right now who is not under pressure. That is going to help the you then and usually if people sit down and they give it some thought and they write some things down, they can come up with some pretty creative solutions but we just assume that in the moment we’re going to be able to deal with it and we are often not.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So it is the psychological equivalent of having a written shopping list.
Melanie Weisner: Kind of, yeah! Anything that you can do when you know yourself, right? You know what you are like, you know the weak part of yourself and you know, “Well, if I give myself any room in this way, I’m just going to go off the rails.”
In poker, we call it “tilt”, and tilt is any deviation from your best play. So, it doesn’t just mean that you go crazy and you lose all your chips. It could be the other way. Maybe you get scared and you become more conservative. It’s anything that changes you from your best self to worse, in some way. So, great poker players are always looking for ways to mitigate that because if you play in that state then you are compromised. It doesn’t mean you can’t do anything but that you are not going to do your best.
You are always looking to analyze, “What is the way that I tilt, do I get more aggressive? Do I get more conservative? Do I get more scared? Do I get annoyed by everybody? What is the way?” Then once you find the way, you can figure out what is the best counter to that.
If you walk people through logical steps like this they can easily come up with it. But from the outset it seems like this big problem. “What can I do about this?” But if you really break it down you can logic your way into a solution. I feel very strongly about that.
Shubha Chakravarthy: You talked a lot about your inner-self through your development as a poker player, have you faced any inner barriers of self-belief or lack of confidence, especially when you are up against all these men who are trying to take every advantage psychologically to win?
Melanie Weisner: Absolutely. This is the question that is very dear to me when I think about my career and what I regret the most is self doubt and not having the confidence to do what I know was right and it is because I was very caught up not wanting to make mistakes and not wanting to look stupid in front of other people and in poker you kind of have to be willing to look stupid and make a mistake and just take a chance. Sometimes maybe your play doesn’t work or maybe your call doesn’t work.
So, I would find myself in these spots, like it would be on TV or in a high pressure situation and I knew the play I was supposed to make but the risk of being caught or looking foolish just prevented me from taking the aggressive move and I just folded my hand or took the more conservative route. I would leave the game thinking, “I avoided looking stupid, right?” But I didn’t really give myself the best shot and I would look back on all these moments of my career thinking, “What if?”
People tend to regret inaction more than they regret action. So, I would find myself looking back and feeling like if I had just been willing to go for it at least I could tell myself at the end of the day that you put everything you had on the table and you went for the win rather than playing it safe.
So I think if I could tell my old self something, I would tell them exactly what I was saying here about the fear and to make peace with that. “Okay. Maybe you’re going to look dumb and run this bluff here and people are gonna say that you are stupid for having made it. So what? That’s not going to kill me. Right?”
I was doing some of this that I was saying — playing not to lose rather than playing to win, so the self-doubt was really harmful to me and I think about it a lot, like, “What could have been?” It is hard to tell people to not care and go for it because we are so protective of our images and so busy with curating them, especially nowadays, but I feel like if you ask yourself before any situation that you encounter, “How am I going to feel if I’m at the end of this and I don’t go for it?” and maybe sit with that scenario and see how that feels versus how I am going to feel if I really go for it and it doesn’t work out. I will feel probably much better than with the first alternative.
If you can make peace with those results I think that can really help with the doubt. You want to compete and behave in a way that you are proud of. If I can see one step ahead, like “What can I do here?” then that is going to make me feel like I did my best and I gave myself the best shot. You will often find it’s with those more daring, more aggressive, and the more risky things that if you have a plan going in, one that says, “This is how I’m going to do it. If I have this fear, I’m going to ignore it, et cetera.” If you think about it and have that plan going in, then you’re going to be more likely to be able to perform than if you just assume you’re going to do it in the moment because it’s very scary in the moment.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, there is this question of bias and I would imagine that poker is probably one of the most male dominated and biased professions there is. Talk to us about how that feels, the impact it has had on you, and how you hack that bias and still perform at your best.
Melanie Weisner: So, there are a few sides to it. I’m usually the only woman at the table that I’m sitting at. Sometimes there’s another one but it’s a male dominated arena and there’s a part of that that is intimidating, which is when they feel like I’m an outsider .
Everybody in my era is not this thing that you see on TV of the underground rooms and the cigars. They are all just nerdy college kids who found online poker and they’re very welcoming to girls, if not terrified of them. So, I was lucky that I had a mostly welcoming situation and I made lot of great friends on the tour but I’ve been in plenty of situations where I’ve been at the poker table and been objectified or talked down to.
Firstly, I did develop a thick skin, which I don’t think women should have to do, but I do think it served me in a lot of ways. What people say just affects me less and I think that’s a powerful trait to be able to have. I like to be in control of how I respond to things and not the other way around. For the most part it has been an okay situation in that regard but there are definitely ways that I have had to prepare myself, such as thinking, “What am I going to do if somebody says this to me, or how should I react in this situation? Am I going to just let somebody run me over?”
There is all that stuff but a pretty exciting part of it is also beating the guys at their own game. That was always really fun for me — to take somebody else’s underestimation of me and use it against them. I always thought that was really cool.
For example, in poker if I know that you are underestimating me and you think that I’m a very stereotypical woman player — that I’m very conservative, I’m scared, I don’t want to take risks and I’m never going to bluff. If I know that you think that about me, then I’m going to bluff you every hand and if if I think you are underestimating me the other way, like, “Oh, she’s some hot shot who thinks she can run over everyone.” Then I’m going to play conservatively against you and you’re just going to be shipping me the pot every time and you’re not going to know what happened to you.
So, I like to figure out the way in which someone is underestimating me and use it against them to beat them because my goal is not to necessarily change someone’s mind about their bad attitude. My goal is to win. So, if you’re going to give me a tool that I can use against you, I’m going to take it rather than feeling like – “He shouldn’t be underestimating me.”
You do what you want and I’m going to use it to my advantage and I think that’s a really great attitude for a lot of situations that you find yourself in and shitty people that you find yourself up against in life. So, that has been the way I’ve proceeded in the world.
But it does, create a super interesting dynamic because there are always these things and these hands or situations where I’ll tell my friends about something and they’ll be like, “That would never happen to me. That only happens because you’re a girl at the table.”
So, I’m aware of the unique dynamic and it opens up more layers of the way people will behave and interpret but I think bring it on. I think I’m going to navigate all that information better than you are and that’s the bet that I’m making. I’ve really tried to embrace everything about those dynamics, especially people underestimating you.
I promise that when you best them in whatever way, either you eliminate them from the tournament or you get the better deal than they do, then they are going to change their mind because if they don’t then they are going to keep losing to you.
So, I try to not let myself be too worried about it and I’m going to beat you by playing better than you. I don’t have to do anything else.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, just keep in mind what you want. Eye on the prize, as they say, and let everything else feed into how to make that happen. Is that right?
Melanie Weisner: I think take what you are perceiving as potentially negative, whether it is energy or attitude, or you think somebody isn’t giving you the respect you want and figure out how you can use it to your advantage. That’s what I think.
Shubha Chakravarthy: I am now sold. I bought a poker program.
Melanie Weisner: When are we giving you your first poker lesson?
Shubha Chakravarthy: Actually I already had my first poker lesson. Very surprising revelation! I thought I was good at risk-taking because I’m pretty heavy in equities and stuff like that. It was absolutely not the case. I was terrified and this was an amazing experience. I’d love for you to talk about it!
Melanie Weisner: It is, totally! That would be amazing.
Shubha Chakravarthy: So, how does one learn poker? Especially if you’re a woman?
Melanie Weisner: Poker Power is one of the initiatives that I consult for. They are trying to teach a million women poker and there are classes that meet every week and the first section of them are free and they teach total beginners.
It’s a really fun environment with other women who are usually in some kind of business and are from all walks. That is probably the best way for a beginner to learn and then once you learn the strategy, you get a little bit of hands-on play for no money. You don’t have to risk anything.
Then you can try your skills for real, at a tournament or an event or a casino. Then, you can start to really do something with it. Usually what people find is that it is very intimidating at first to do just everything else to do this and afterwards they’re like, “Oh, I’m so glad I did that!”
We hear these stories all the time throughout the company. “I’ve been playing poker for the last few months and because of that I negotiated a deal for the sale of my car 30% more than what I would have done before because of XYZ or that I was able to make a better decision in this deal because I could tell that someone was lying to me because I was able to pick up on it from reading people in poker.”
So, there are so many ways in which it immediately pays dividends outside but the game itself is just super fun. It’s just so fun. So, we can either get you involved in the Poker Power classes or you can come out to the world series of poker and I’ll just put you in an event and then give you a crash course. Then we’ll see how you do!
Shubha Chakravarthy: If I survive. But I have to tell you that the experience was exactly what you are describing. I was terrified, even though I knew there was no money. These were all women and just within four weeks I could see a very clear willingness to look more stupid and to take more risks. It was transformative. So, I’ll put in my 2 cents to pitch poker. What you guys are doing is amazing.
So, as a professional poker player, for women who are trying to get into business and doing all these risky things, what are the top three tips you’d want them to take away and implement tomorrow in their life?
Melanie Weisner: So without playing poker, you mean just from that? Or after they learn poker?
Shubha Chakravarthy: Would it change if it was before or after poker?
Melanie Weisner: Absolutely. From this conversation alone, I think it is really important to recognize when you are getting that mental thought process hijacked by your emotions and instead of trying to ignore it or deal with it in the moment you need to accept that whatever you are afraid of is a realistic outcome and actually make peace with that.
“What is it? What is the worst case scenario?” Bring it into the tangible rather than this looming specter and then you can make peace of it. “Okay. It’s not the worst thing in the world. I’m going to survive.” Set it aside and make your decision and that goes for anything. That would be number one.
Number two would be the tilt tip. I would try to have the stronger you protect the weaker you in any situation where you feel like the weaker you is sabotaging the stronger you and the way to do that is the creation of parameters that the weaker you won’t be able to afford.
The third thing I think would be to try giving yourself an avenue to start learning to tolerate risk, whether that is playing a game that involves a risk like poker or having a monthly activity where you do something that scares you and just teach yourself to create those pathways mentally. After you play poker it becomes very clear — using other people’s views of you to your advantage. You get to really sense that at the table and you have got to have repeated opportunity to do that.
So, I think that is one of the biggest takeaways from the poker table.
Another thing you learn from actually playing poker is that if you want to win you have to bet big and that goes for both ways. So if I’m trying to bluff you but I’m afraid to make a big bet and I only make a tiny bet, well, that’s not really going to do the job, is it? That’s not going to scare you away and conversely, if I have an amazing hand and I’m worried that you’re going to fold and I just make the small bet — then I’m not making everything that I could out of it.
So, I think that learning to go bigger to where it probably feels uncomfortable is a great lesson , that actual poker teaches you and I also think that through the game you start to learn that just because something didn’t have the great result that you wanted it to have doesn’t mean you don’t do it again.
Maybe in poker I tried to bluff you and I had a good reason to do so and I thought you would fold but you just happened to have a hand that was good enough to call me. That doesn’t mean that I should never do that again. You learn. I’m going to make that play again if I think it is the right play and eventually you are going to start to see those results. So, you really get that experience very quickly in the game that decisions have to be separated from results.
How do we improve our decision-making and how do we make sure we’re not tricking ourselves with our emotional view of the results?
Shubha Chakravarthy: I love it. Thank you very much, Melanie. This has been an amazing conversation and I took away a lot and I’m sure our listeners will take away a lot too. Very good luck — and skill to you!
Melanie Weisner: I appreciate it. Thank you!