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A Life Less Ordinary – James Vogl

Former professional poker player James Vogl spent 14 years in the City as an equity trader and portfolio manager before starting his own business, Cerebral Gym, “a new learning experience to challenge your mind”. He explains why professional gambling techniques are not so different from those needed in the business world, and how he’s using his new venture to get more young people intellectually engaged and energised.

James Vogl

James Vogl, Cerebral Gym founder.

I wasn’t particularly academic, but I always liked playing games. I was brought up in a games-playing family, so I played chess when I was very young – and backgammon and bridge. But during my time at the London School of Economics I discovered backgammon tournaments, and that’s when I got into gaming in a serious way. I started gambling for money and became a professional poker player, playing tournaments all over the world. I was 23 when I won my first World Series of Poker tournament in Vegas.

I didn’t really want to go into the City, but it just sort of happened. A friend of mine worked at Goldman Sachs and mentioned my Vegas win to his boss. He asked to meet me, we got on well, and he offered me a job trading equities. I thought if I didn’t like it I could always go back to gambling. I spent around 14 years trading before leaving a year ago to start Cerebral Gym.

The biggest cultural difference was having to get up early. As a professional gambler I was used to going to bed at 6am – not being in an office! Obviously adapting to a corporate environment isn’t easy when you’ve had a lifestyle of travelling. But I probably used to spend more hours playing poker per week than I did trading at Goldman. All poker players think they’re free because they don’t have a boss and don’t have to be at the office at a certain time, but they probably put in more hours.

The more poker you play, the more immune to swings you become. If you win 55 games out of 100, you’re still losing 45 games. It’s a very big margin. So even if you’re losing 45% of the time, you’ve got to become immune to the losses and not take them personally.

I think most games players surpress emotions in a way non-gamblers do not. The first time my wife came to the casino to watch, which was a rare thing, I think I lost £7,000. When we left, I was laughing about it because I thought I’d played really well. I just happened to be unlucky, but I wasn’t worried about it. She thought I was being flippant and wasn’t taking the money seriously. The point is, if you get upset and beat yourself up every time you lose rather than playing the best you can with each hand you are dealt, you’re not going to cope with the lifestyle.

“Whether it’s playing poker or trading in the markets, the techniques can be very similar. In the business world, you have to think about risk and reward.”

As long as you’re prepared to apply yourself, you can be a very good player. My boys are four and six, and the four-year-old is already playing backgammon, gin rummy and chess – and now he’s moving onto bridge! I think pretty much anyone can be taught.

I’ve just finished writing a book about risk-taking, called 51% Certain, which is an insight into the way games players think about everyday problems. Whether it’s playing poker or trading in the markets, the techniques can be very similar. In the business world, you have to think about risk and reward. And there are loads of decisions in everyday life: when you cross the road, it’s a risk or reward decision. You just do it without thinking because the risk is very small.

For me, trading is a much more interesting game than backgammon or poker, because the rules change every day. And with hundreds of thousands of people playing the markets around the world, you’re pitting your wits against everyone else. With poker, you can see the people around the table with you. As a macro hedge fund manager, I enjoyed the geopolitics and psychology behind market moves.

Does a brain trained to think about risk give you a competitive advantage business-wise? Yes, but there are psychological elements too. I’ve just come back from a conference in LA called Summit, and one speaker was former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, who’s written books about negotiating techniques. Instead of getting people to say, ‘yes’, he’s very keen on trying to get them to say ‘no.’ For example, if you say, ‘Are you against giving a talk at Investec?’, they’ll say, ‘No, I’m not against the idea.’ Which now opens my mind to the possibility that I’ll do it. He uses that approach in hostage negotiations.

Setting up Cerebral Gym was a huge shock to start with. In the real world, I find nothing gets done unless you push and push and push. I had to be a team player, which is not a skill I had before, because everything I’ve done, whether it was tennis training as a teenager, or backgammon, or trading, or poker, was as an individual.

I had the idea for the Cerebral Gym around the time Trump won. I didn’t want to look at Bloomberg headlines about Trump and Brexit every single day for the next four years. I fancied doing something a little bit different after 14 years of macro trading. I go to a lot of talks and then, after the talk, I always leave; the setting isn’t conducive to chatting afterwards. Conversely, at Summit, they have dozens of speakers but, because you’re there for the whole weekend, you meet lots of people and eat and drink together. The talks are good icebreakers. With Cerebral Gym I want to get more young people engaged and learning, in a friendly way. I want Cerebral Gym to be a cross between a subsidised cultural centre like the JW3 centre and City Lit and a private members club. I want to make it cool.

Of course, start-ups are hard work, but if you enjoy what you’re doing, time passes very quickly. I used to play poker for 15 hours straight (though never longer), and looking at a Bloomberg Terminal all day was similar. I’m fortunate enough that everything I do is either playing a game or feels like one.

To learn more, see James Vogl in conversation with Victoria Coren Mitchell about the vision for the Cerebral Gym:

Cerebral Gym founder James Vogl, 38, is a former professional backgammon and poker player turned hedge fund manager and business owner.