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Trading firms put their money on poker experts

A new breed of Wall Street recruit gets ahead not through connections or business experience, but through demonstrating a head for numbers, quick thinking and risk-taking – skills from the card table.

May 16, 2010|By Nathaniel Popper, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New York — Chris Fargis thought his big job interview was over. But when the partners at Wall Street upstart Toro Trading finished with their questions, they broke out a deck of cards and a green-felt card table. Mind playing a few hands of poker?

It was a final test, and Fargis was relieved. The 30-year-old never went to business school or even took a finance class. But he knew poker. He had made a living playing the game online for six years from his Manhattan apartment, betting on up to eight hands at a time.

Within a few days, Fargis — with no Wall Street experience — was offered a position trading stock options, a job that entails making multimillion-dollar gambles. His poker skills sealed the deal.

"If someone's been successful at poker then there's a good chance they could be successful in this business," said Toro partner Danon Robinson. "If you have no interest, that's almost a red flag.... It's almost the equivalent of not reading the Wall Street Journal."

There's a part of Wall Street — investment banking in particular — that looks for recruits with sterling family connections and impeccable educations, and that favors sturdy young men and women who played college team sports such as lacrosse and rugby.

Toro Trading is not that Wall Street. Instead, it's one of the new breed of high-speed trading desks that are revolutionizing the financial markets, and making their money on the fractional gains from buying or selling a split-second ahead of their rivals.

They look for job candidates who are quick-thinking, have nerves of steel and a head for numbers — the very skills that lead to success in online poker.

"There's a certain maturity and ability to deal with risk that is hard to get any other way — unless you put the money on the table at some point in your life," said Aaron Brown, a hedge fund executive and author of the 2006 book "The Poker Face of Wall Street."

Susquehanna International Group, a 1,500-employee trading firm based in a Philadelphia suburb, has made the card game a central part of its training program. New hires are given copies of "The Theory of Poker" and "Hold 'Em Poker" and spend one full day a week studying the game by playing it.

"We are trying to teach people how to be good decision-makers under uncertainty," said Pat McCauley, who runs the training program. "It's not the stereotypical stuff with bluffing — it's real science."

The rising popularity of online poker has created, in effect, a huge farm team for Wall Street trading desks. Last year, 6.8 million people played at least one hand of online poker for money, up 29% from 2008 and nearly triple the number in 2005, according to research firm PokerAnalytics.com.

Wall Street's interest in poker players comes with a certain irony in the aftermath of a global financial crisis, which many blame on reckless risk-taking by big banks. The government's recent fraud lawsuit against Goldman Sachs targets just such behavior. And President Obama has proposed limiting speculative trading by banks with their own money.

"There are many overwhelming, negative consequences associated with the Wall Street philosophical fixation on casino capitalism," said John Kindt, a University of Illinois business professor, citing the subprime mortgage meltdown and the derivatives deals that felled insurance giant American International Group.

Even so, gambling appears to be in Wall Street's DNA. The book "Liar's Poker" by Michael Lewis captures the heady days of the 1980s when cigar-chomping executives and bond traders at Salomon Bros. would challenge each other to million-dollar wagers during down times on the trading floor.

Poker was a popular diversion among the Wall Street crowd of the '80s, a go-go era that saw the start of a long bull market and a huge wave of corporate takeovers.

The games of that era were clubby — and played in person. A talent for schmoozing was valued at least as much as playing ability, said Brown, who was a regular player. Poker then was more likely to lead to a job as a deal-making investment banker than as a trader.

The fast-paced online poker games of today are a better proving ground for Wall Street's trading floors, which have long been places for unrefined upstarts and members of minority groups. Trading floors historically attracted loud characters with outsized desires, who made up for what they lacked in social skills and education with moxie.

A penchant for betting big is still more important than connections for a would-be trader. But insiders say the typical personality profile has shifted toward that of a math nerd who understands probability and algorithms — the type of person likely to succeed in the nicety-free world of online poker.

Adam Gilman, at AMR Capital Trading in New York, said young traders like him who honed their skills playing poker alone at home "are more analytical, less in-your-face macho meathead types."

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