Entrepreneurship is a gamble, so it’s no surprise that there are several lessons to be learned about it from blackjack. Jeff Ma is a prime example. Ma was on the MIT Blackjack Team from 1993 to 2001, and won $2 million dollars during that time, inspiring the book “Bringing Down the House” and the movie “21.” When the casinos refused him and his team access to play, Ma turned his (completely legal) card counting skills toward entrepreneurship. The skills he learned playing blackjack have helped him start three different startups, sold to Yahoo, Virgin, and Twitter (the latter selling for close to $50 million). He offered his advice in an article on Inc.com.
The MIT Blackjack team itself was very much like a startup, in that it was funded by investors. The team would recruit new players, who were not allowed to play with the team’s money until months of honing their card counting skills. Ma was designated a big better, which means he only bet large amounts at the table. Other roles on the team included small betters and spotters—those who signaled that a particular table was hot.
It’s the teamwork that Ma says he misses most about playing blackjack. “When people ask me what I miss the most from those days, it’s not the rush or gambling, it’s really the camaraderie,” he says. “I miss the feeling of when the team went into a casino and tried to beat the house. That is why I love working in startups. It’s the same feeling–you get a group of people together and try to tackle a big problem. You’re trying to work together to build something, make money, and win. That’s essentially what blackjack is.”
Teamwork—though technically illegal in blackjack—was essential in winning at the tables. Members of the team were taught to work in teams and constantly recruit new players. “In blackjack, there’s a notion that you can do this on your own: ‘I’m the best at counting cards and I’m good at the math,'” said Ma. “But to be effective, you need to bring in talented people to act as spotters or smaller bettors. The more talent working, the more effective and efficient you’ll be.” The same goes for entrepreneurship.
In his startups, Ma delegated responsibility the same way he did at the blackjack tables. “Your natural inclination is to do everything yourself,” he said, “but you need to trust your employees and give them responsibility, or else you can’t grow as an operation.”
A final lesson to be learned about entrepreneurship and blackjack is the importance of data collection and analytics to drive decisions. “You need to look at situations and understand what you need to be remembering and capturing from the experience,” said Ma. “During blackjack, we collected everything we could.” The same goes for entrepreneurship; when starting a business, you must always be collecting, tracking, and analyzing as much data as you can.
Trust data, not emotion. Ma said that “You need to overcome emotional biases through data and analytics. One thing is to not be myopic, do not be loss-averse. Do not think about what you can lose, but what you can gain. Evaluate the data that is all around you, don’t just use the data that you think will work for you–this is confirmation bias. Cognitive biases influence our decision making, so focus on data and analytics to overcome these biases and think more objectively and dispassionately.”
Vision, opportunity, and teamwork—what Ma calls “the three pillars”—are what it takes to win, both at the tables and starting a business. The vision is something the team believes in and can get behind. For example, the blackjack team wanted to beat the house. Opportunity is related to how big the market is—i.e. will the market be big enough to provide the payoff if the venture is successful. Teamwork, of course, is most important. “Ultimately, the team is the biggest one. You need to believe in the team and believe that the team can execute,” Ma said.
If you would like learn more about how you can learn to implement the learning from the Blackjack table into your business, call Coach Michael Stelter at Advanced Business Coaching, Inc. (262) 293.3166.