You’ve got mail...
“Hey Kara, just following up on the message I left on your phone. We’d like to offer you a job…”
I have never before, or since, moved as quickly as I did right then, frantically scrambling to find my phone before this miraculous ‘job’ he spoke of disappeared.
SKY channel 226. A fledgeling company called ‘PokerZone’ wanted to actually pay me to work as a TV host. Like, with real money and everything. After months of scraping by and eating too many meals of bought-in-bulk rice and beans, I thought it might just be wishful thinking or my mind playing tricks on me. Instead, it was the beginning of everything.
"Live the Game"
As slogans go, it would be hard to find one that better describes the past decade for me. When that fateful email slid into my inbox, I couldn’t have fathomed just how pivotal poker would become. In a very real way, this game changed my life. It introduced me to some of my closest friends, my favourite TV jobs and became a pastime that has been both wildly entertaining and thankfully, rather lucrative. It also introduced me to my husband (where else would I have met an Italian online poker player) and it’s taught me lessons that I apply to my life and work every day.
I’ve always been a believer in learning through experience. When I was (briefly) a teacher in London, I could deeply relate to the kids who fell into the category of ‘kinaesthetic learners’. They needed to live something, touch it, act it out, hold it in their hands and turn it over to truly get the most out of an idea. This same approach is how I was able to make a career out of both poker and broadcasting, although I started without formal training in either.
I learned a lot about how to do my job (a job that quickly turned into a career), through this game and there are some enormous similarities between the two. As someone who has embraced the phrase “Live the Game”, here are some of the lessons I learned.
Aggression Isn’t Always Bad
I was a fairly timid person before poker, believe it or not. Fifteen years ago, if you told me that I’d be doing live broadcasts on ESPN to a million viewers, I would have passed out. Or thrown up. The smart money is on both.
I was the kind of person who seemed faintly nervous, pretty much all of the time. I didn’t like loud voices, and I hated conflict. I was conciliatory to a fault. I, far too often, deferred to whoever else was in the room. As a teacher, this meant that I often ended up agreeing that OF COURSE this other person was a better choice to head a project, or to take on extra responsibility.
Suuuuure, I didn’t NEED the pay bump (although, oh my god, I really did). I couldn’t fight for the things I wanted or needed because I just didn’t know how and I definitely wasn’t comfortable putting myself forward for things, especially if it meant being in competition with others.
I haven’t entirely lost this. I’m still a sucker for feeling a twinge of guilt when I take chips off some of the lovely but nervous newcomers to the poker table. If I can see that playing an event means so much to someone and they’re having a great time, I’d rather not be the one to knock them out. That doesn’t mean I WON’T do it, but damn if it doesn’t stick a hook in my soft heart sometimes.
One of the best things poker has taught me is that aggression isn’t always a negative. There’s no room for being apologetic and shy in this game. With poker, I could let my chips be loud and assertive in situations where normally I would shy away. It took me a few years to transfer this idea to my wider life, but it made a huge difference.
I realised that aggression and assertiveness were really just tools, and having tools in life that you don’t use is about as sensible as saying, “I’m never going to raise a bet. Ever. It’s rude.” That just sounds ridiculous. Using your chips or your skills to raise your voice and say, “Hey, I’m actually the best person for this job,” just makes sense.
You might think it’s a bit weird that such a timid character ended up working in TV. Yeah, me too. I have this lifelong habit of constantly throwing myself out of my comfort zone to see what happens. That was also the reason that I took up Muay Thai at University, although I was so bad at it to begin with and so hard on myself at first, that my teacher later told me he was amazed I’d stuck it out. I ended up winning a couple of trophies in it, though, (*ahem* not-so-subtle brag) so the hard work paid off. I was never the ‘professional fighter’ that some articles have made it sound like I was, but I wasn’t half bad either. No, the trophies weren’t for participation.
Poker let me take the fledgeling confidence I’d found in martial arts and make it more personal. You learn pretty quickly in Texas Hold’em that there is a large category of newcomers who suffer from a lack of aggression. And this can be true across a vast swathe of people.
I was once at the house of a famous tech executive in the USA, teaching a group of ridiculously accomplished millionaires and billionaires how to play poker at a private charity event. As it was private, I’m not allowed to name drop on this and tell you who was hosting it, but there was a Batman involved. That’s a heavily populated enough category that I shouldn’t get in trouble.
I explained the rules of the game to my newbies and talked in very strong terms about how aggression was vital. I did my best to really hammer that point home. Then it came time to play a small game so they could try out their new skills. I watched as these super talented, smart, wildly successful and clearly competitive people ended up in limped family pots in nearly every hand.
That story is just to say 1) I once did a job for (a) Batman and 2) fear of aggression can happen to anyone. Assertiveness is not a trait that always comes naturally and that’s when you just need to fake it. In both poker and your career.
The old, fake it till you make it thing is a bit of a cliche, but it damn well works.
Sometimes, It’s Going to Hurt
Back when I was just starting out in TV, I went to audition after audition where, more often than not, I faced producers who just didn’t think I was right for the role. I had to learn to let the rejection roll off my back because, in TV as in poker, you can’t win every hand. If you let every rejection sting you, you’ll quickly find something less painful to spend your time on. Poker taught me to accept that sometimes, we just lose. And we have to be okay with that.
So often, I would perform at an audition in front of big smiles from all the watching producers . I’d be convinced it was a lock. Then, a week later I’d get the call that they’d decided to go a different way. Without feedback, it was tough to know if there was something in the audition that I had botched, or whether I just wasn't right for the part. I’m sure I had my fair share of both, but telling the difference can feel impossible sometimes.
Sure, there’s a chance that your losing streak might be caused by the ugly side of variance but whatever the cause, it’s a good time to reflect on what you’ve been doing and why it might not be working. After hearing what felt like the millionth “no,” I had to be brutally honest with myself and figure out if there was something I needed to change, or maybe some new skill I should add to my resume to make me more valuable to potential employers.
Losing streaks can feel soul destroying when you’re sitting in the swirling eye of this particular poker garbage storm, but they’re also a good time to work on our skills. Even if the current bad results are simply bad luck, becoming a better poker player (or getting better at your job) is never wasted time. Do the work so that a string of bad results becomes an automatic trigger to digging deeper, assessing your skills and flaws honestly, and working on yourself. That will at least ensure the time isn’t wasted.
Be prepared to see your Aces get cracked, because sometimes we just lose and that’s part of the game. Even when you’re an 80% favourite to win a hand, you’re not going to win every time. That’s just a simple truth. Understanding that will make it feel like much less of an injustice when it happens.
Know when losses mean you need to improve and when they mean you just need to keep working until variance sorts itself out. Being able to tell the difference between these two is vital.
Be prepared to Put the Work In
It’s amazing to me how many people think that both Poker and Broadcasting are easy careers. I’ll whole-heartedly agree that yes, they are sometimes awesome careers and can be immensely good fun, but that doesn’t mean they are automatically easy ways to make a living.
I’ve never called myself a poker pro, despite the fact that from time to time I play on the pro circuit. I know too many actual professional poker players to call myself that with a straight face. I see and hear about the immense number of hours that go into honing their craft. Not only are they sitting at the tables playing regularly, but they’re going over their hand histories, talking through tough spots with people they trust, making calculations to see which lines are optimal, reading on forums and on, and on, and on. The great ones are treating it seriously and pushing the limits of what they know so they can get ahead and stay ahead of their opponents.
I might not be a poker pro, but I do know how to apply that kind of work ethic to my own career. I watch back my TV over work, so I can see where my weak points are, even though watching myself on TV makes my skin feel like it’s trying to crawl into the next room all on its own. I also spend time watching other people I respect in my same position, and I’ll ask for their opinion on different aspects of the job.
Side note: If you ever do anything on TV or some other public performance, get your feedback from the people who are your bosses or those who have opinions you trust. Do not get it from online comments. Trust me on this.
When I was hired for my first American TV show as a lead commentary voice (the Super High Roller Bowl last year with poker pro Jesse Sylvia doing expert analysis), I spent a lot of time listening to other professionals do their thing. In this way, I learned from some of the best (thanks, Lon and Norman!) Doing this helped me bust out of my own patterns and try new things or find new ways to make my work fresher.
Before the first voice over session, I watched the game footage over and over again to figure out what kind of vocal rhythm would be appropriate. I made a note of the time codes for when there was good chatter between the players that I didn’t want us to cover up. I discussed the poker hands with some pros to get their thoughts on the play and I took a ridiculous amount of notes. I also stand by a tried and tested method for preparing, which is practicing in front of a mirror with a hairbrush microphone. Then, after that first session, I asked my producer to go over it with me, as a kind of post-game ‘hand analysis’ to figure out where my weak spots were.
Those months of work were an intense period for me, as I was flying back and forth from Slovenia (where I live) to Los Angeles every few weeks to voice the shows as they were edited for Poker Central & NBC Sports. It was a new challenge and I really wanted to rise to it, so I put in the work.
Although it’s hard for me to be fair about my own work - I usually range from mild dislike to hating everything, without reservation - I feel really good about how the SHRB ended up. Jesse Sylvia is such a laid back character and a great analyst, so we ended up each being great foils for the other. And he made sure that, despite my tendency towards over-preparing, I stayed flexible & ready to change course when it was needed.
As a final thought, remember that no matter what it is that’s important to you, doing your homework is key. I’ve come a long way since those days back in 2005 on good old Channel 226. While a lot of my opportunities came down to being in the right place at the right time, staying there meant putting in some hard work.
Sometimes you have to eat a lot of bulk rice and beans before your payoff comes through.