When he sang in "The Gambler" about knowing "when to hold 'em" and "when to fold 'em," Kenny Rogers imparted sage advice for poker players — and those engaged in the game of life. How you bet, stay, check or raise says a lot about how you handle your money.
"Poker can teach a person a great deal about their finances," says Joel Ohman, a certified financial planner. "Even novice players can gain surprising insight into the financial risks they're willing to take or their relationship with money based on the decisions they make at the table."
‘Such a rush’
Similarities abound between personal finances and poker. "In both, you have to manage money, calculate risk and deal with uncertainty," says Ohman. You also have to keep your emotions under control.
Lillian McNeill, 52, of McKinney, Texas, has had to learn that lesson. She's played in a local weekly poker game for more than 11 years and has participated in poker tournaments across the country. "I love the thrill of the uncertainty," she says. "It's such a rush.
"I have found myself taking chances with my finances because it replicates the thrill I get playing poker," she says. "I've pushed off paying bills or made risky moves with allotting retirement funds. I really have to be careful to keep the thrill in check and make sure it continues to work for me instead of working against me."
Similar to when she places her bets, McNeill has learned to keep the euphoric "rush" experienced by poker players in check to prevent it from landing her in financial hot water. "I have a mantra. I take a few deep breaths and tell myself 'Be cool,'" she says. "It helps me regain my focus and decide if I'm making impulsive decisions or sound ones."
Novice poker player Jerry Rayburn of Chicago says another way to keep yourself from giving into that rush is tucking the queen of hearts, ace of spades or other favorite card in his wallet in front of his credit cards. "Having to pull those playing cards out in order to get to your credit cards takes your mind off the purchase long enough to decide if it's a 'need' or an 'impulsive want,'" he says.
When dealt a hand or making a table raise, facial expressions and body language reveal to others at the table how confident you are in your hand. "It can also tell a lot about how a player's relationship with money," says Melodie Schaefer, executive director of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology Counseling Centers in Los Angeles.
How poker reveals financial character
Here are a few ways your facial expressions, body language and other poker table traits reveal how you think about money, along with some tips to improve your financial game.
The card shuffler
Your financial style: You lack confidence about your finances, which can lead to denial of money problems.
"A person who fumbles with their cards, rearranging them repeatedly, most likely is lacking confidence in their financial decision making or is anxious about their finances," says Schaefer. "And that can lead to avoidance and denial of your finances."
His advice? Snap back into financial reality by thinking of yourself as a dealer. "Dealers don't deal all the cards at once. They deal in rounds," says McNeill.
Instead of sitting down with all your bills at once and getting overwhelmed trying to figure out how much to pay, or attempting to overhaul your entire financial picture at once, deal yourself a smaller hand. Pull out one or two bills and formulate a plan to pay them off. Then deal yourself a "flop" and tackle three more bills. "Add a sixth bill or financial goal, and then the 'river' your seventh," says Ohman. "Easing into finances will decrease the odds you'll become anxious."
The single peeker
Your financial style: You go with your gut, know how to stick to a budget and are in control of your finances.
A player's gut reaction to his hand can also be indicative of how likely he is to stick to his budget. For instance, Schaefer says taking a quick peek at your hand and then leaving your cards face down on the table means you're very confident in how you manage your money. "You know what you want to do and don't second-guess yourself," she says.
To tap into the confidence you have at the table, McNeill suggests reminding yourself of big pots you've won or great bluffs you've pulled off. Frame a dollar bill from a big pot you've won and keep it in sight when you're balancing your checkbook or paying your bills. "You'll be reminded of the good decisions you made that lead to winning that pot and will be bolstered by those memories," she says.
Your financial style: You're not sure. You may not trust your financial intuition, either.
Conversely, McNeill says players who constantly sneak a peek (or two) at their cards are not sure about their hand, or lack confidence in their initial gut reaction to it.
"That means they're probably unsure about their financial intuition, too," says Schaefer.
Having confidence can help to establish budgets, allot retirement funds or even make out your grocery list. "You'll trust yourself to make decisions that are in line with your financial goals," says Schaefer. So chances are you won't blow your budget.
Wondering how to cultivate confidence? "Play for fun," says McNeill. Instead of playing for money, play for candy or with your family for household tasks. Being able to experiment with different styles and seeing what works for you will build your confidence in your poker skills. That confidence should flow into your finances.
The bet, bet, better
Your financial style: Throwing down bets on sure-fire losing hands hints that you could run up large amounts of debt.
Schaefer says how much and how often you bet can indicate how likely you are to amass hefty debt. "If you regularly bet even when you aren't holding anything that has a chance at the table, you have a greater chance of having mounting credit card debt or paying hundreds in bank overdraft fees, because you're prone to ignoring the signs of danger," she says.
To rein yourself in, visualize losing a lot of money at the poker table, or even worse — losing your home or car due to mismanaging your money. According to psychiatrist Kenneth Settel, people are often inclined to take financial risks or place high bets based on past financial victories. "Their self esteem may be unduly inflated by past victory, and give them the courage to take risks," says Settel, who is also a clinical instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. But picturing yourself losing money and then picturing life post-loss can help you learn to make solid financial decisions and avoid making risky mistakes.
Something for everyone
Regardless of the ante or the odds, Ohman says every game is packed with lessons that can help build a credit score or pay off a debt. "And once you know what you're looking for, you can put a fun hobby to work securing your financial future."