Sales Lessons from World Champion Poker Player, Annie Duke

Self Motivation

I had dinner with world champion poker player,author, and Celebrity Apprentice finalist, Annie Duke last weekend. Well, me and 10 other people. My friend and client, Mike Faith, CEO of regularly holds "Reserve Dinners," where he brings in a celebrity or business titan, invites a small number of individuals to participate and socialize with the head guest.

Annie Duke and Art Sobczak

Annie is a fascinating person, much deeper than what someone might stereotype a poker player to be. She attended Columbia University, earned a double major in English and psychology, and left grad school just short of getting her Ph.D in psycholinguistics. She has won over $4 million playing poker, now is involved in a start-up company, and has a new book coming out next month.

At our dinner, Annie spoke about poker strategies, her career, parenting, business, her charity (The Decision Education Foundation), and Celebrity Apprentice. 

What was especially interesting was her explanation of what often separates the top poker players from the others. It’s what is known as "tilt" in poker circles. It’s a term used to describe the negative emotions a player might feel after a "bad beat." A bad beat is when you were dealt a great hand of cards and fully expect to win. However, against big odds, an opponent is then luckily dealt a card or two and beats you. The negative emotions that linger and then cause a player to subsequently make bad decisions on the following hands is called "tilt," and typically results in big losses.

Of course as I’m listening to this, I’m thinking about how it relates to sales.

Perhaps you’ve felt something like this:

Maybe we feel that we have a sale in the bag…perhaps one that we have worked very hard with, fully expect it to close, and project it as such. However, bam, the rug is pulled from beneath us at the last moment, very unexpectedly. We feel gut-punched. The wind is knocked out of us. Then we let it affect us negatively on our next calls. Our attitude is deflated, and that manifests itself in our tone of voice, rate and level of activity, even our ability to string words together coherently. We are experiencing "sales tilt."

To be an effective poker player and combat tilt, Annie suggests what really amounts to taking personal responsibility for our own actions, and also giving credit where it is due. For example, poor players who tilt regularly tend to blame their losses on outside influences such as luck and superstition. For example, they say," I can’t believe I was just beaten by the worst player in the world, with the greatest amount of luck ever possessed by someone."

However, when they win, it is all them. All skill. Of course, there is a disconnect there. Duke suggests that even the worst player at a table probably does something better than you, even if it is just one thing. You can’t totally blame luck. What you can do is analyze what you did, and what you might have done differently. And also analyze what the other player did well, learn from it, and be prepared for it should you run into the situation again.

See the similarities?

In addition to the big picture outlook, there are other suggestions for poker players to avoid tilt that I researched. I’ll apply these to sales as well.

Separate yourself from the game. After a bad beat, it’s suggested that players completely remove themselves from the game, the table, the casino, whatever the venue. Talk a walk. Go watch TV. Phone a friend. This helps to remove the negative emotions that cause irrational behavior. After a particularly bad call experience, do the same thing. Get up, go outside, take a walk… clear your mind so that when you return you can focus on in-the-moment thinking.

Analyze your hand. To avoid tilt, poker players should also analyze their bad beats afterwards in terms of how they played the hand. Poker is mostly a game of bet management within the context of the odds of the hands dealt to you. There are both good and bad plays. You can and should learn from each hand, and if you played a hand properly, but got beat by a random high-odds draw of cards by an opponent, simply say "Nice hand," and move on. Likewise in sales. Ask yourself after every call, "What did I do well on this call?", and, "What will I do differently next time given a similar situation?" Every call is a learning experience.


Check your emotions at the door. Annie said that good players show no emotions, so as to not tip their hand to their opponents. And also, this means not carrying your outside baggage to the table, such as relationship problems, getting stuck in traffic, or just having a bad day overall. All of these emotions can contribute to bad decisions at the table.

In sales, we DO want to show positive emotions when speaking with prospects and customers.

But we also need to turn off whatever might be gnawing at us in our life when we take the stage. Similar to an actor, our audiences don’t care about what’s going on in our lives, they need a great performance from us so they can get what they want. This is yet another reason that not everyone can do what we do. And of course, not everyone can get paid like we do.

There are similarities between poker and sales. However, what I really like about sales is that we don’t have to gamble with our money to play, yet the payoff when we win is potentially huge, and someone else doesn’t have to lose.

So, who’s all in?


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