I played cards all through college and on and off since then. I don’t have a regular card game right now and I miss playing cards.

I was talking to a friend of mine recently and she complained that her son was more interested in playing poker than going to college. I told her that I thought he could learn more from poker than some schools and many majors.

I don’t think playing cards is a replacement for reading the great novels and I don’t think cards can replace the fundamentals of writing, math, and science.

But I do think that cards are a great compliment to all of that and I think there are things you can learn from playing cards that are hard to learn elsewhere.

Here are a few of the things I have learned from playing cards:

  • How to evaluate risk and return quickly
  • How to trust your instincts and comfortably act on them
  • How to read a room and size people up
  • How to bluff (a better word than lie which I used in a recent post)
  • How to keep large sets of numbers in your mind and available to you
  • The joys of a group of friends getting together frequently and regularly

There are many more but those are some of the ones that come to mind at this moment.

I think playing cards is a great way to learn many important life skills and I have found it to be very helpful in the venture capital business. So if your child seems obsessed with cards, I wouldn’t lose a lot of sleep over it. It might be a great learning experience for them.

#life lessons

Comments (Archived):

  1. Richard

    First study probability then play cards. Edward Thorpe may have done this better than anyone. In the end it’s optimizing bet size that matters.

  2. William Mougayar

    I like backgammon these days for distraction 🙂 I find you can control your strategy better than with card games where you depend on your luck on a play by play basis. I think of backgammon as kind of in-between chess (all skill) and poker (luck + bluff).

    1. WA

      Agreed. Now I’d look forward to that some time… 😉

  3. sigmaalgebra

    As a teenager, Dad would give me a few dollars to play cards, and I’d promptly lose it, mostly at draw poker.I learned a lesson: Even against players who are not very good, if come to the table without some good preparation then expect to lose.The lesson was a grand bargain: The amount of money I lost was not significant, but the lesson was and was good enough to save me significant money later!In particular, if the boy wants to play poker and a recommendation is to read, then have him read good material about poker. Also have him read about blackjack and, there, card counting. Then have him write the software to evaluate card counting, just really easy to trivial to do now. That software was in the E. Thorpe, Beat the Dealer, but he also wrote Beat the Street or some such which was an early version of the Black-Scholes work on pricing stock options and doing “covered call writing”.Then have him learn the math behind the Black-Scholes formula and more generally pricing exotic options — the probabilistic approach to potential theory, optimal stopping, stochastic differential equations, stochastic processes, Markov processes, Brownian motion, measure theory, mathematical analysis, linear algebra, calculus, analytic geometry, trigonometry, plane geometry, algebra, should keep him nicely busy! Have him try to get an interview with James Simons and pointers on what he did out on Long Island.A simpler lesson from cards and more generally in life: If you are at the table and don’t know who the sucker is, then it’s YOU.For the great works of literature, have him start with the CliffNotes to see CLEARLY and EXPLICITLY what are the accepted “meanings” from the belle lettre set — since flatly, bluntly literature NEVER makes even a little clear, makes less clear than Mississippi mud, what the HECK the intended points are and even less clear what the real evidence for those points is. So, the accepted meanings are NOT visible just from the literature itself but have to come from the entrenched belle lettre set.Then one of the common responses of the Belle Lettre set is that there are “multiple truths” so there can’t be just one truth!!!!Explain that most of Belle Lettre is actually not intended to be information in any meaningful sense but is just art as inThe communication, interpretation of human experience, emotion. most often presented in the framework of “formula fiction”. There mostly get just light entertainment as in VEFEEE — vicarious escapist fantasy emotional experience entertainment. One lesson MIGHT be able to learn is some insight into the emotions of people who enjoy VEFEEE.Information? Not really. Entertainment? Maybe. Great pillars of civilization? NEVER!!! And never essentially forever, and why? Because the methodology is total sewage suckage. With good methodology, as in the work of James Pebbles, who just won a Nobel prize in physics, can get shockingly good details of the first 400,000 or so years after the big bang; with the methodology of literature, never really know even what the heck Lady Macbeth had in mind.Want to learn about human emotions? Okay, good goal. For now about the only worthwhile source on paper is from the clinical psychology community — that community does not have very good understanding of human emotions, but compared with everything else, especially literature, what they do have is the Boston Patriots against some junior high 11.Of course, the accepted meanings might not be recognized by the authors of that literature, a nice joke made in the really nice movie Back to School, a really good and on target take down of a lot of academics. E.g., as in…the college lit prof trashed a paper on Kurt Vonnegut’s work written by Kurt Vonnegut!!!!

  4. WA

    Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke. A most excellent, must read. As is her interview by Shane Parrish on the Farnham Street / Knowledge Project podcast.

    1. RudySF

      unfortunately Annie Duke is a fraud, I always liked her in the past but she screwed a lot of people which isn’t really reported in main stream media.

  5. Noah Rosenblatt

    I so miss the holdem games we used to play regulary in nyc. Everyone just got their life going and no more time for stuff like that. Luckily, we all get together once a year and holdem is a big part of that gathering. I often find myself wondering about the strategies learned in holdem and their use in the everyday world, and the startup world in particular. I feel like it has served me quite well over the years, especially when it comes to “sizing people up”, which you mention as one of your key points. Throwing in a loser is another good trait. Dont chase the sexy but unfeasible ideas. Know your odds, know the math. Play your position. But overall I think the “sizing up” is the highest and best skill to try to master. You just have to get to know people to size them up. Its the new guys Im most afraid of. Great post Fred

  6. Mike

    Texas Holdem is a great game. I first started playing about 15 years ago like a lot of folks when it became popular on TV. I gave it up when I realized, like with many things, you really need to put in your time to hone your craft and I had other priorities. But so many interesting parallels to business and investing.

  7. iggyfanlo

    Many of the top world class poker players also played chess which I doubt parents would frown upon

    1. sigmaalgebra

      Apparently at this point, for an unaided human to beat one of the better chess programs is about like such a human with a plastic T-spoon to try to dig a canal faster than a D9 Cat:…But from some general work in such board games (perfect information), for chess from perfect play there are just three possibilities:(1) The player who moves first should always win.(2) The player who moves second should always win.(3) All games should end in a tie.For chess, IIRC, so far we don’t know (i) a computationally reasonable way to play a perfect game or (ii) which of (1)-(3) is the case.So, at this point, what would be interesting for chess would be how to play a perfect game using only reasonable computational resources and in particular discover which of (1)-(3) holds.Curious math problem!!!How to attack it???? Hmm ….

  8. Justin Fyles

    Love this. I was in high school right when WSOP was becoming a TV thing. We played poker nonstop. Funny enough, two of the guys we played with went on to be professional players, and one went on to win WSOP for Omaha.Update: now I play squash

  9. JaredMermey

    Combines IQ and EQ…and — much like life — there are so many ways to play the game well.

  10. DANN

    So true FW. Poker teaches the concept of Expected Value and the dangers of “resulting”, as Annie duke would say

  11. Lawrence Brass

    “How to trust your instincts and comfortably act on them”… ahh, I need to learn this. :-)Saludos, señor Fred.

  12. reggiedog

    Note to self: VC’s bluff.

    1. Richard Carlow

      I always thought the trick was to understand when they were not.

  13. Andrew Cashion

    Favorite move in poker is pretending I have a good hand every time.Do you talk a lot while playing? I can’t see you as a big talker.

  14. Vendita Auto

    Used to play until a new player Arti Ence sat in & killed the fun, will play again once my receptors get an upgrade … sooon

  15. kenberger

    Many MANY of our Crypto Explorers attendees have been in and out of professional poker playing, spanning differing cultures and walks of life, yet having something in common.

    1. Adam Shapiro

      I remember being in Vegas for a bitcoin conference in 2013. Sat down the night before at a 1-2 NL table and was astounded to see pretty much the whole table playing skillfully aggressive, unpredictable poker of the sort you pretty much never see at a Vegas low limit table.After about 15 minutes the penny dropped and I asked whether anyone else was here for the Bitcoin conference. We were all -ev to the house, but the table turned into a pretty good social and networking event.And amen to Fred’s post. I’m teaching my kids to play poker right now.

  16. Mac

    In college we had a fraternity brother who cheated at cards quite regularly. The weekend poker matches contributed to his stash of spending money while in school. We figured he would either get shot one day or end up making millions. The latter proved to be the case.After a couple of successful resort and hotel developments, the value of the final hand approached eight figures. You may be onto something, Fred.

  17. jason wright

    …and chess?

  18. Pointsandfigures

    Played cards all through college and high school. The trading pit was like playing cards

  19. Scott Reyes

    I became a dad at 19. I dropped out of college to work more. At the time, I was waiting tables and getting a real estate career going. My girlfriend (now wife) and I would have people over to play poker during that time. One of us was usually in the money. Looking back, I think the combination of waiting tables, getting a 100% commission gig going, and playing cards were all signs pointing towards starting company’s. I learned a ton about reading and understanding people from these three things.

  20. awaldstein

    Buddy of mine, serial entrepreneur, to kickstart a few of his companies played Poker.Astounded me.One of the smartest, counter intuitive, individual people I ever got to know well.

    1. Vendita Auto

      Hmmm I’d “bet”there were many more that destroyed friend & family emotionally and financially but hey the fact is wants to read about the dark side

  21. Thomas Capone

    Spot on! My son plays poker, and make good money….. I’m a fan of the process.

    1. Pointsandfigures

      What if he was losing money?

  22. KB

    Friends and I played a lot of poker in college. Great time to do it (low stakes, friendly table games). However, there is an ugly side to gambling that emerges and there are lessons to be gleaned from that as well.

  23. JLM

    .This is one of those blog posts one reads and says — did that really happen?Don’t get me wrong, all that stuff Freddie learned is very cool, practical, and really smart.But, I spent 2-3 hours playing bridge every night (after studying engineering in the evenings) my entire senior year and I didn’t learn a fucking thing.It stood me in good stead when I had to play bridge with senior officers later in my Army career. None of my peers knew how to play bridge. Everybody wanted me as a partner, but it isn’t the smart play to run the table on a 3-star General (maybe that’s what I learned).I did learn how to play better bridge, but I was a dopey 21 year old headed out to the Army and didn’t know spit.I did learn a lot digging ditches during the summers. I learned I didn’t want to dig ditches though I did like the construction business.I also learned a few things playing golf.If I had it all to do over again, I would have gone to bed earlier.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. sigmaalgebra

      Dad was convinced that the three things I should learn outside of school were golf, bridge, and ballroom dancing. He tried hard to get me to like golf, and I never would. My brother liked golf and got good enough to shoot rounds at par occasionally. The dancing was easy enough to learn, but there were no opportunities — my peers weren’t doing that!Much later I got started on bridge — didn’t much like it.Much later in an IBM AI group, one of our programmers was also playing some version of high end competitive bridge. He seemed to be a bright guy at programming, AI, and, as far asI could tell, bridge.Then in our AI software we had a challenge. The solution we had in mind was to be a disaster for our work. The programmer was going to have to write code for weeks, and still the result would have been a disaster.One afternoon he was lamenting the task in front of him. I guessed, no way should anything that awful be the case.I had an idea, got some dinner, stayed all night, programmed my idea as illustrative prototype code, got the code running, at dawn sent e-mail to everyone in the group on my work, went home for some sleep, returned at noon, and learned that our programmer was already well into the work of using my solution. He finished the production quality code that afternoon! I won an award.This was mostly just his work. He was much closer to that work than I was. He was the one facing weeks of ugly coding to produce a disaster. So, he should have seen my solution long before I did. Ah, maybe he had spent too much time on bridge!I would guess that by now some software could win all the bridge tournaments. If so, then interest in humans playing bridge should wane. That is, the role of smart humans for bridge is just to work out how to write good bridge software and, then, do that. It’s like, do we want to dig a canal with a plastic T-spoon or automate the work with a Cat D9? The D9 is also the work of humans and much more productive than a plastic T-spoon.We might generalize from bridge software: What such software does is take in available data, manipulate it, and report results as valuable information. For more valuable results use more powerful manipulations, and for that by far the best path is pure and applied math, the kind complete with theorems and proofs.

  24. Marta Mrozowicz

    I used to play bridge couple of year back and I loved it so much. I wish I had the time to keep doing it but you need a partner for bridge and those are hard to come by. The average player age at the club I used to play was probably 70+ but those guys were so good and so sharp, got beaten up by kind little grannies on the regular. Playing cards definitely keeps the mind agile.

  25. Susan Rubinsky

    Great post. I used to play cards every Friday night when in high school at my friend’s house. It was actually his parents who had people over to play cards and I just started showing up. We played a game called “Oh Shit” and I learned a lot from playing and from playing with people who were 20+ years older than me.

  26. DJL

    I have two comments:1) Euchre 2019 – It’s not too late Fred.2) Online gaming and poker have shown kids a path to great wealth without college.It is very dangerous but at the same time real. My son is 8 and really good at Fortnite. He sees kids making millions of dollars streaming YouTube. Many of these kids “graduate” from video games to poker. It is like dreaming to be in the “big leagues” in sports. When I was young I wanted to be a pro – but it was highly unlikely. Today the nirvana of getting rich while playing a game seems much closer. And maybe it is? Ninja has endorsements and a line of clothing in major retailers. These are the new heroes.

    1. Susan Rubinsky

      I have a friend whose son is being home schooled because he is so good at these games that the Dad takes him to major events, worldwide, to compete.(My friend, the Dad, is also an amateur backgammon competitor, internationally)

      1. DJL

        Amazing.I don’t know whether to stop him or encourage him! I am doing both, actually. I have set some goals that – if he achieves – will get him more time, better equipment, etc.

        1. Susan Rubinsky

          They didn’t start the home schooling thing until last Fall when the son was a junior in high school.

        2. Susan Rubinsky

          Also, the son of one of my clients is being recruited by several universities to either: play on their online gaming teams OR help start a team on their campus. Some of the scholarships being offered are pretty mind-blowing.

          1. DJL

            OMG. That is scary! Revenge of the Nerds.

    2. Mike

      Youth are inexperienced but their minds are remarkably nimble.

  27. Susan Rubinsky

    Currently, I’m reading “Mendeleyev’s Dream: The Quest for the Elements.” He used to play solitaire on the train ride between Moscow and St Petersburg, but also had been working for years on trying to create an ordered system for the elements. Waking from a short afternoon nap, he recalled a dream in which the elements were ordered in a similar fashion to cards, by type and by number. He then created handmade cards of each element and eventually created the Periodic Table of Elements.

  28. Paul Sanwald

    I don’t play much anymore, but early in my career I played mid-stakes poker at underground card rooms in NYC (and later online) in the early to mid 2000s to supplement my income. Becoming good at playing poker is the second best thing I’ve ever done for my career (going to college was the best). I would add a couple things to Fred’s list:1) Thinking probabilistically: I think of virtually everything probabilistically. When you are hand reading in poker, you “put your opponent” on a range of hands, and then narrow down that range using subsequent actions as input. Thinking of things in terms of probabilities is not always natural for people, and poker definitely hammered this into my thinking.2) Fluctuations: A big part of being a successful poker player in terms of making money is bankroll management. Managing and growing a bankroll over tens of thousands of hands of poker is quite an excellent experience. There is a big difference between intellectually understanding variance and long run vs short run, and feeling those concepts in your bones. Poker taught me to feel those concepts in my bones. Later, when the financial crisis happened, I remember being a bit surprised that in investing, losing 30% of your capital is a big deal, all seasoned poker players are very accustomed to such swings in bankroll.

  29. RudySF

    I completely agree. I used to play Poker semi professionally after graduate school and before leaving the poker world to join the startup world in SF. So many valuable lessons.A big one is negotiating at the end of tournaments for real money $10,000+ with emotional players and another is the ability to change strategies mid game depending on the stage of a tournament as well as the composition of the players around you. You can’t employ the same strategy the entire time and expect to win, you have to be able to change gears constantly.Poker is a lot like startups and investing.

  30. awaldstein

    Pinochle and Canasta were the card games in my house growing up.

  31. Patrick Rooney

    I’m confident that I learned more playing Euchre through college than I did is several of my classes. I certainly spent more time playing it than I did in class.As noted in the post, the ability to read others is a very valuable skill and the ability to converse, about anything, is a strong pull as well. IDKW, but the conversations that emerged around Euchre games were always the most engaging and interesting chats. Perhaps the bluffing mentality of the game did it. The stories that evolved there simply could not evolve in other arenas.

  32. Alexander van der Touw

    And the biggest lesson from poker for a VC: If you have a winning hand, raise your bet!

  33. Zach

    Didn’t realize you played cards too – assuming this is specifically poker?I tell people all the time poker is single greatest thing to hone the skills you outlined above for investing, even more so than investing itself given the quick feedback loop and sample size you can get in poker not possible to get in even a lifetime of investing.That being said happy I wasn’t born 5-7 years earlier as I certainly would have not gone to college and just rode the online poker golden years and probably be a lot less happy than I am now.