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Want to be a Better Trader? Play Poker!

In virtually any field of athletics it is advised that you should cross-train in order to both avoid injury and increase performance. For example, Football players are encouraged to take up pilates, yoga, and swimming. Runners can reduce injury and increase performance by incorporating Rollerblading, Barre, and Zumba into their routines.

So what should traders do in order to "cross-train" that will make them better traders, to help them "avoid injury" (as in lose money) and "increase performance" (as in make money)?

My answer: Play Poker!

Yes, Poker and Trading are both "sedentary" activities where you are sitting at a desk or table. It is the brain that needs to be toned, limbered up, and made flexible, not the body. (Though you need to make sure your body is healthy too!) So it is safe to say that the peak performance trader needs a mental cross-training routine, not necessarily a physical one.

So why is Poker the ideal cross-training exercise for traders?

1: Poker Teaches Risk Management

Unless you're a novice or not seriously playing in a virtual poker App, there's little chance you will go "All In" at the poker table. I can count on one hand the number of times I went "all in" and I won every time. Such opportunities rarely happen. When I did move my pile of chips to the center of the table it was because I knew what was in my hand. I "managed my risk". Likewise, the trader or investor should almost never go "all-in", putting their entire account into asset X, Y, or Z because "the market will market" on you and you will lose it all. In trading terms, you can very easily "blow up your account."

As Kenny Rogers says, "You've got to know when to hold'em... and know when to fold'em."

Good risk management requires that even if you lose say, 5 times in a row, you will live to trade another day. I frequently talk about never risking more than 1% of your account on any single trade. A 5% loss is easy to recover from with two 3-R wins, or one 7-R win. Likewise in poker, with a $100 buy-in, you usually have $1 antes, allowing you to play up to 100 hands (even if you were the worst poker player in the world) risking only 1% per hand.

In poker, only if the "odds are in your favor", that is, you have two-pair, or you have three or four-of-a-kind, or a straight, would you consider raising the stakes to 2, 5, or even 10% of your bankroll. If you can make 20R from a 4R "risk" with the odds in your favor, you are now thinking like a professional trader where Risk Management is "Job One".

2: Poker Teaches Emotional Management

I like to teach that our goal as a trader is to be totally mechanical - totally rules-based. Our goal is to "Trade like a Vulcan" or "Trade like Spock: Trade long and prosper!" What's the poker analogy? Having a "Poker Face". Or as the old antiperspirant commercial said, "Never let'em see you sweat."

We may have an awesome hand, but we can't display a "woo-hoo" face because no one will bet against us. We may have a terrible hand, but we can't put up a "oh, good grief!" face and let others know that they have even the slightest chance of beating us. We have to play every hand waiting for the last card drawn (the river) because that last card can make or break what we are holding in our hand. And very often it is that last card dealt, "the river", that can make or break a poker hand.

3: Poker Teaches You to Play the Probabilities

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, I remember the famous slogan from the New York Lottery: "You gotta be in it to win it!" They threatened (coerced?) every New Yorker with "fear of loss" if they didn't play the lotto... "Well, yeah, we all know the odds of you winning are are actually close to zero, but of you don't play then they really are zero so you better play or you will feel more like the loser than you already are!"

Thankfully, the odds in winning at Poker are much higher than winning a set of numbers printed on ping-pong balls, which teaches you that when you have an "edge"... when you have a "system" that has the odds in your favor (a winning trading system) you can't try to outsmart the system – you need to play every hand that meets the criteria of your system.

As hockey great Wayne Gretzky said, "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." So as Poker players and as traders, we have to play every hand, or every trade that appears that meets our trading plan's criteria, otherwise if we try to "outsmart the market" we will lose every time. And more often than not, even with a terrible hand, say a 2 and 4 of spades, you might find that if you don't fold, every once in a while three spades will appear on the table giving you one of the high-probability hands: the flush. So play every hand. And in trading, take every trade opportunity that appears that qualifies under your rules-based trading system.

4: Poker Teaches You To Stay Humble

My poker buddies and I play every month or so. Early in my tenure when I learned to play poker I realized "Hey, I'm pretty good at this.... I'm gauging the probabilities, I'm keeping my risk-per-hand low, I'm taking small profit after small profit and leaving with twice the money I bought in for or more. Drinks are on me!"

Then I got cocky... Walking into game four I thought to myself "I'm the Vulcan, emotionless, rules-based, odds-calculating poker player, right?"

And that night my proverbial hat was handed to me.

It was one of the worst games I'd played to that point. I over-bid, I bluffed (something I had never done before and my opponents knew it!), and I raised bets on hands I know I should have folded. I re-bought in after losing my original buy-in and lost all of that! And I went home with a valuable lesson: Don't think you can out-smart the probabilities.

The reason we win at poker is the same reason we win at trading. We must always play the odds, we must never play the low probability hands, we must always keep our emotions get the best of us, and when it's time to fold, it's time to fold!"

Last week our poker group met again. I bought in for $50 and left with $135. In trading parlance, that was a 170% return. I was grateful. I learned my lesson. I've got to stay humble and let the hand come to me, let the trade come to me, and never think I can out-smart the table or the market.

5: Poker Teaches You To Set a Financial Target

One of the reasons that casinos give their players free drinks, free upgrades to already expensive suites, and free food is they know that "the more you play, the more you'll pay." You can be up $5,000 for the night, then go get yourself some free lobster tails paired with filet mignon, a bottle of wine, and a decadent dessert. Then you return to the tables all fat, happy, and lubricated and proceed to hand all your winnings back to the House.

I know more than one poker player who has a rule: "When I double my money, I'm done. I may walk in with $500, and when I'm $500 to the positive, I quit and go on to enjoy the rest of my night, otherwise I'll just give it all back."

Similarly, I know many a trader (yours truly included) who may have been up a sizable amount wonderfully early in the trading session, then proceed to give all those winnings back to the market an hour or so later. Setting a daily "win" will prevent you from getting mentally "fat and sassy" where you will become overconfident and then hand your winnings back to the market.

As a Poker player, you may want to make a certain amount of money per game. As a trader, you might want a daily amount of "R" or dollar amount to the positive. In either case, when you hit your goal, even if it's in the first 20 minutes of the trading session you need to close all open trades and enjoy the fact that you did what 90% likely did not do that day: end the day in the green! On other words, "Quit while you're ahead!"

6: Poker Player Are Part of a Vibrant Community Full of Fun People!

Like traders, the number of people who are committed to improving their poker game are few. We need to belong to a strong community of passionate poker players to perfect our craft just as we need to belong to a strong community of passionate (and profitable) traders in order to continually perfect our skill at taking money from the markets each and every day. There are online communities such as PokerStarsVR and there are global in-person Poker communities such as World Tavern Poker. Both communities are free to join and will help you build up the skill to become a proficient and profitable Poker player which will also help you become an even more proficient and profitable trader.

Is there anything else about Poker that you think needs to be added to the list? Let us know in the comments.

Trade well!

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