Lloyd Garver: Is Wall Street bluffing?
According to the Los Angeles Times, some Wall Street firms don't care if a new job applicant went to business school or studied finance. The applicant probably didn't even have to graduate from high school. The firms are much more interested in how the young man or woman plays poker. That's right, sometime during the job interview, the interviewer takes out a deck of cards and deals. Another demonstration of Wall Street's love affair with poker is that at least one trading firm has their new traders play poker for one full day a week.
Many of those who apply for investment jobs are good at poker because of their experience playing online and watching on television. What is the typical personality of someone who spends hours alone at home playing poker with other people who are alone in their homes? He or she doesn't exactly sound like a "people person." In televised poker tournaments, the players who are successful are often dressed like cowboys or sport heavy jewelry like Mr. T used to wear. In this time of precarious finances, would you want these people to handle your money just because they once won a big pot with a six-high-straight?
Some financiers take this poker thing quite seriously. Aaron Brown, an executive director at Morgan Stanley, has written a book called "Poker Face Wall Street." In it, he advises investors to embrace risk, not avoid it. Isn't that what got America in so much trouble? Is that what we need now, more risk and less caution? Are these "experts" so unhappy with the economy making somewhat of a comeback that they want to see it fall apart again? Try telling the autoworkers in Detroit that risk should be what guides their pension plans again. They'd be tempted to run you over with that new Camaro.
Some point to the fact that people like Bill Gates, H.L, Hunt, and Kirk Kerkorian liked to play poker when they were younger. They probably also liked to sleep, but nobody is pointing to a good mattress as the key to riches. I have the feeling that there were other things besides playing poker with his buddies that made Bill Gates one of the most successful people in the world. It's just possible that in addition to knowing that a flush beats a straight, Gates is inventive, smart and creative.
I'm not saying that game playing can have no part in preparing one for success. If you were to ask President Obama about games, I have the feeling he'd say that basketball teaches the player about preparation and teamwork, and about winning and losing. I'd have to agree, but I still wouldn't ask Charles Barkley to invest my money for me.
About those poker playing investment traders: While there is something to be said for people having the experience of gambling with their own money before they gamble with a client's, I don't want someone who's investing my money to think of it as a game.
Poker might not even be the best game that prepares a young trader for his profession. How about leapfrog? That teaches people how to jump over others, not caring if they knock them over. That could be a game that helps Wall Street types to get ahead. Tic-tac-toe teaches you that some people will play the same game over and over again even if nobody wins. That's perfect training for grinding out commissions over and over again. One of my favorites is the preschool game of "Duck, Duck, Goose." I have no idea how this game could prepare someone for Wall Street, but I'd still love to see a video of those guys in their three piece suits, telling their assistants to hold their calls while they run in a circle calling out, "Duck, Duck, Goose."
Theoretically, a poker face makes it impossible for anybody else to know what you're holding. Then you can bluff and finally you can put all the money in the pot. They call that "big time poker." A little while ago, that kind of manipulation was called, "selling sub-prime mortgages and worthless paper."
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Home Improvement" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his website at lloydgarver.com and his podcasts on iTunes.