Applying to MBA Programs as a Poker Player
THE WEEKLY SHUFFLE, 2013-03-31, by OzoneBe forewarned: this article runs the risk of only appealing to a fairly narrow group of people. In the past year I have identified that there are people out there with a background in poker who have some questions about what it might be like to try to enroll in an MBA graduate program coming from experience as a professional or semi-professional poker player.
This is not a particularly peculiar position for one to find themselves in. There are strong links between the mentality needed to succeed at poker and the mentality needed to succeed in business. And since Black Friday, many American poker players have begun to look towards other career alternatives in the culture of poker prohibition.
You've really got three options as an American poker player right now. First, you can relocate out of the country to continue playing online poker. I did that. When I arrived in Playa del Carmen, Mexico in September 2011 with my laptop and ambitions to make piles of money clicking buttons, I was one of maybe six or seven American poker players in the area. By the time I left a year later, there were 60 or 70 lost poker souls testing out a life in sunny Mexico. It's not a bad gig if you can make it work. I wasn't having the success at the tables I had envisioned and decided to return to America in order to pursue other opportunities.
One of those opportunities might have been to grind live poker cash games. Many Americans are doing this with a degree of success. The games are good and very beatable if you put in the work. For me, the lifestyle of working in a casino seemed too distasteful to seriously pursue this option. I already have a hard enough time tolerating casinos during the handful of weeks in the year I play major live tournaments.
That leaves one final option: leaving poker altogether.
For myself and I am learning a few other poker players, looking into going back to school to earn an MBA has a certain appeal for igniting a post-poker career in the U.S. The big question for people in my position seems to be: how do business schools look upon the poker stuff?
Having spent a significant amount of time in the past year immersed in the process of applying to MBA programs, I can weigh in a little on my experience with how poker translates to getting an MBA as well as a few other things worth noting about the overall MBA path.
What do MBA admissions personnel think of a poker player?
This is the big question. In going through the process of applying to schools, I was fortunate enough to have career experience to speak of other than just poker. I've never truly been a professional poker player. While I have played the game very seriously and at the highest levels at various points over the past eight years including at the World Series of Poker every year since 2005, I have had a "real job" in the resume sense. Since graduating college, I have worked for an Internet-based marketing and content company through which I have managed various websites, like this one, and some of the people who help keep them in orbit. Additionally, I have started a fantasy sports-related venture of my own which has amounted to something of a spin-off on my poker career. Being able to talk about these things on my MBA applications has taken the pressure off of needing poker to be my end-all, be-all career experience. So the particular impression I have as a poker player applying to MBA programs should be viewed accordingly. I cannot speak from the experience of a person with only poker on their resume who is applying to an MBA program.
However, what I can tell you is that in my experience MBA programs either don't really particularly care that much about poker or get excited about it and view it as an interesting and cool differentiator. The good news is that, best I can tell, it's not a deal-breaker for them in any way. It's either cool or, at worst, just not that big of a deal to them.
It's worth remembering that at some schools, particularly the highest rated programs, the admissions office encounters a lot of very interesting and bright people who have done cool things in life. So just because you've had success at poker doesn't mean you're going to stand out in an interesting way to an MBA program. But what I don't think you have to worry about is an MBA program being downright disconcerted about what your ability to excel in the competitive and demanding environment of a professional poker player means to your stock as a potential MBA candidate at their school.
I was pretty relieved to find that my experience participating in the World Series of Poker was regarded as cool and impressive to (at least some) MBA admissions personnel. At the onset of my journey towards applying to schools, I was concerned that my involvement in poker might come across as "shady" or "gambling" but I don't think that's really a legitimate concern one needs to have in speaking about their poker experience when applying to MBA programs. So my advice would be to not hold back on this aspect of your application. Talk about it with confidence and hope that it serves as a net-positive in helping you to compete with other applicants for a coveted spot in an MBA program.
Is an MBA right for a poker person?
The $100,000 question is: is an MBA worth it for a person with a poker background? My answer is: it depends. If you think you can get into a top school, I think it could almost never be a bad idea to go for it. And by "top school" I mean any school ranked in the top fifteen or so on most MBA ranking lists and certainly those within the coveted top five (Harvard, Stanford, Wharton (Penn), and to a slightly lesser extent, MIT and Kellogg (Northwestern)). If you can get into one of those schools or a school not too far behind them in the rankings, it's a great bet for your future and I say go for it.
Where MBA programs begin to get a bit more questionable is when you drift outside of that top 15-20 and into the land of schools ranked beneath this threshold. The undeniable fact is that at some of these schools, especially schools ranked outside of the top 50 and beyond, it might not be worth the money you spend to go there and opportunity cost you forfeit by taking two years off from working to pursue an MBA. It really requires a lot of soul-searching and evaluating your specific situation to see if an MBA from one of these schools makes sense. It also depends on a lot on your particular career interests. For some people, an MBA might not really be the best decision for them at this time based on their interests and ambitions. It's hard to really speak about it in an all-encompassing sort of way since it depends so much on each individual's particular career situation.
That's my take on some of the MBA-related questions that some poker players have. I am happy to dive into some more specifics on a case-by-case basis. If you are a poker player who has questions about if the MBA path is right for you, track me down on Twitter or reach out in an email to coryalbertson [at] gmail and I'll be glad to share with you my two cents about what I've learned throughout this process of applying to MBA programs as a poker player.
I suppose it's fitting to conclude by where I am at currently in the process. I applied to only three programs: Columbia, NYU (Stern) and Notre Dame. I failed to gain admission to Columbia or NYU but was admitted into Notre Dame with scholarship. In the near future, I will decide on whether to enroll in Notre Dame this fall or postpone entering an MBA program for a year in order to beef up my overall application package and take another crack at applying to top schools (more than just three this time) for Fall 2014 enrollment.
The Weekly Shuffle is our Sunday column with our observations and commentary on the poker world. Have an idea for an article? Leave a suggestion on the feedback page.
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