Why Wall Street Is Recruiting Poker Players

Since the 1980’s, Wall Street has offered some of the most highly coveted jobs in the country. And historically, there have been only three ways to get in: knowing an insider, having a top-flight degree or serious business experience.
Increasingly, though, Wall Street firms are looking for employees with different qualifications: specifically, poker skills. Unlike connections or degrees (which are seldom predictive of job performance), poker skills demonstrate an authentic ability to think and act intelligently under pressure.

Historical Parallels

In a May 16, 2010 article, the Los Angeles Times revealed the aggressiveness with which Wall Street is pursuing poker experts. Danon Robinson, a partner at Toro Trading, was quoted saying that “if someone’s been successful at poker then there’s a good chance they could be successful in this business.” In fact, Robinson said, lack of interest in poker was “a red flag” and “almost the equivalent of not reading the Wall Street Journal.” Hedge fund executive Aaron Brown, meanwhile, said that Wall Street trading requires a steely maturity in the face of risk that is difficult to acquire “unless you put the money on the table at some point in your life.” Rich Blake described a similar intangible in a 2007 ABC News article when he spoke of a “penchant for risk-taking and a dispassionate regard for large sums of money.”

Today’s traders are not the first to spot parallels between gambling skills and trading instincts. In the 1989 classic Liar’s Poker, Michael Lewis introduces readers to Howie Rubin. Rubin, bored with being a chemical engineer, taught himself to count cards and parlayed $3,000 into $80,000 over the course of two years in Las Vegas. Using his skill in blackjack (which is among the few “non-independent outcome games” in the casino), Rubin became a star trader in Salomon Brothers’ mortgage trading department. According to Rubin, “the trading floor at Salomon Brothers felt like a casino “because it required making bets and handling risk “in the midst of a thousand distractions.”

Poker-Themed Training Programs


Some Wall Street firms are going so far as to make poker an integral part of their training programs. Susquehanna International Group, based in Philadelphia, actually issues poker texts such as Hold ‘Em Poker and The Theory of Poker as mandatory reading. The former, described as the “first definitive work on hold’em poker”, was published in 1976 and aims to educate beginners on the basics of the game. Topics covered include the importance of position, key “flops,” semi-bluffing, strategies before the flop, the free card and how to read hands. The Theory of Poker, meanwhile, is a more sophisticated and intellectual treatment of poker fundamentals. Written by poker pro David Sklansky, the book “discusses theories and concepts applicable to nearly every variation” of poker. The value of deception, psychology, heads up play, implied odds and even game theory are thoroughly covered from the standpoint of an aspiring poker player. Additionally, readers are introduced to the Fundamental Theorem of Poker and how it affects game play.

After digesting these books, new hires at Susquehanna are asked to spend a full day each week absorbing poker concepts – by actually playing the game competitively. When asked about the rationale for this unorthodox training approach, program director Pat McCauley said “we are trying to teach people how to be good decision-makers under uncertainty.” That said, the poker-based training at Susquehanna is not just footloose and fancy-free fun and games. Rather, the training program and its poker games are run in a methodical and systematic manner. “It’s not the stereotypical stuff with bluffing”, McCauley insists – “it’s real science”

Poker On The Rise

(Yannick Croissant)

Luckily for Wall Street, poker’s popularity appears to be soaring. On March 28, Poker News Team reported that the TV show High Stakes Poker had seen a dramatic rise in ratings, including a 27% jump among adults 18-49 years old. Ratings among men aged 25-54 (said to be the target audience of the show) are said to have risen by 25%. The Los Angeles Times (citing research from PokerAnalytics) revealed that 6.8 million people played “at least one hand of online poker for money” in 2009 – a 29% increase over 2008 and roughly three times 2005’s poker participation. From the standpoint of Wall Street’s investment houses, the surge in poker’s popularity represents a growing crop of future hires who are both comfortable placing large “bets” and undeterred by occasional losses.

Furthermore, Wall Street offers an opportunity that few hardcore poker junkies can resist – higher stakes and upside. A professional trader routinely makes trades worth several million dollars each. Make more good trades than bad, and you’ll be rewarded with a lucrative year-end bonus. At any rate, it appears that Wall Street’s once-impenetrable barrier of connections, degrees and business experience is crumbling on the altar of raw poker ability.


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