The top-earning female poker player of all time has moved from one high-stakes financial world to another — and the career switch makes more sense than it appears at first glance.
Vanessa Selbst, a 33-year-old three-time World Series of Poker winner, recently took a job with Bridgewater, the world’s largest hedge fund, she announced in a Facebook post.
“I think it’s a perfect fit for her,” said Aaron Brown, author of “The Poker Face of Wall Street,” which explored the parallels between making poker bets and making stock trades.
Brown, a lifelong poker player himself, has played against Selbst and considers her a friend. He recently retired from a 30-year career on Wall Street where he worked at Morgan Stanley and other firms as a trader, portfolio manager and risk manager. Selbst is known as an aggressive poker player with a varied background. She worked at consulting giant McKinsey & Company, has a law degree from Yale University, and has used some of her nearly $12 million in winnings to fund social justice nonprofits.
Selbst said in her Facebook post that Bridgewater “feels a lot like poker did back in the day — a bunch of nerdy kids collaborating to try to beat our opponents at a game. It’s also really freaking difficult.” (Selbst and Bridgewater did not respond to requests for comment.)
Indeed, the worlds of gambling and investing have a lot in common, but there are a few key differences, said Brown.
Here’s a look at where they do (and don’t) overlap.
Both poker players and investors must be impartial and well-acquainted with risk…
The most successful poker players and investors know what it feels like to take a serious risk, and they don’t let it rattle them too much. Maybe they’ve even “pushed the rent money into the middle of the table,” Brown says.
“People who haven’t had that experience find it very difficult to separate the decision from the result,” he said. In other words, both gamblers and traders must be able to judge their decision-making process impartially and understand why it worked or didn’t. If they can’t do that, they’ll just start imitating the trades and bets that have made them money in the past. That’s a quick way to “blow up” in both investing and poker. And if you did that? “You’re just doubling up until you lose,” he said. “But it’s a very human strategy.”
…and bounce back from crushing losses
In both fields, it helps to have what Brown calls a “zero memory”attitude, meaning that you quickly forget your defeats and don’t let them throw you for a loop. “You can’t let recent events affect your thinking,” Brown said. That goes for both a bad hand and a bad trade. “People tend to make very different decisions after gains and after losses, and that’s just fatal to trading,” Brown said. “People tend to get more stubborn after taking big losses and stubbornness is a real problem.”
Sharks and traders can make sense of patterns
Both poker players and traders need to be attuned to patterns in their own bankroll or in the market. But they approach “pattern analysis” differently. Poker players carefully watch their opponents and look for cues like changes in body language and other “tells” that could reveal their next bet. In investing, it’s much more impersonal. Traders pore over decades of data to see where the market is headed.
But in both worlds, it’s critical to determine which pattern changes are normal fluctuations, and which aren’t. “Figuring out what’s random and what’s not — that’s the key to everything,” Brown said. “People tend to overreact to random events, and they tend to under-react to signals, things that aren’t random.”
For poker players, it can be lonely at the top
One habit of poker players that doesn’t translate well to trading: working solo.
“Poker is very individual and successful trading requires teamwork and partnership, and sometimes poker players can be bad at that,” Brown said. The inherent loneliness of poker can make the highs and lows feel much different than the trading world’s ups and downs.
In poker, “the highs are not as satisfying because you’re not sharing them,” Brown said. “The lows are lonelier, but you are spared the pain of letting other people down or worrying that the financial world is coming to an end.”