James Bond beats a villain with it in Casino Royale. Robert Redford sets up a con with it in The Sting. Long the battleground of choice for magnates and superspies, poker went mainstream and is now emerging as an effective method of routine networking.
In recent years, hundreds of poker networking events have sprouted up across the US, ranging from high-stakes games among Manhattan hedge-funders to team-building corporate tournaments. Poker is the new darling of the charity circuit. And a growing number of Ivy League schools are offering tutorials.
“It’s the greatest tool for networking I’ve ever experienced,” says Bob Crimmins, founder of Seattle-based Startup Poker 2.0, which hosts events in four cities. Startup Poker participants must be tech startup founders, executives or investors, the hope being that a guy building software in his garage might end up sitting next to the manager of a $400 million venture capital fund.
Poker has always been popular: More than 100 million people play, including 60 million Americans. But its newer popularity is fueled by convenience—poker is easy to learn, fast, and can be played at night—and the fact that the largest demographic of working Americans, millennials, aren’t keen on golf. Some 200,000 millennials gave up golf in 2013.
“With golf you have to take lessons, spend $1,000 on gear, and play for months before you’re ready to keep up,” Crimmins said. “If you spend 20 minutes learning the rules of poker, you’re ready to play.”
Startups are helping people learn, too. Poker Prima Divas, founded in 2006 by former Fortune 500 marketing executive Ellen Leikind, has taught clients like the New York Bar Association and Wharton Women in Business how to play. “In order to get ahead in business, now you need poker,” Leikind says.
In recent years, poker tournaments have also surpassed golf outings on the fundraising circuit. The New York City Ballet has hosted two poker fundraisers in the last year. The JED Foundation, a suicide-prevention nonprofit, held its first poker fundraiser in February. The event attracted A-listers like Montel Williams and Rocco DeSpirito, as well as a sizable Wall Street crowd.
“Poker is trendy now,” says JED chief executive John MacPhee.
The trend is also catching on with the kindergarten set. Two prestigious Manhattan elementary schools have started after-school lessons in poker. Both classes have waiting lists.
Teacher Mark Golden says playing poker develops “math, strategy, moral education and social emotional behavior.” Perfect qualities for future masters of the universe.