Internet entrepreneur Heidi Messer started her females-only poker nights a couple of years ago, as a place where professional women could network and talk deals in a relaxed environment.
What began as a cozy weekly game inside her Manhattan loft soon morphed into one of the most elite poker nights around. Messer's poker game now attracts some of the top names in business, executive leadership, sports and entertainment. Most games now accommodate about 70 players, whittled down from 1,000-plus person waiting list.
"We're taking a page from men who have long used golf for pleasure and business, but moving from the greens to felt greens," the 45-year-old entrepreneur said. "I think anyone who is good at business has a natural knack for poker."
Poker is "just one of those games that translates beautifully. With poker, like business, you learn patience, how to make conversation and slowly learn about your opponent before going all in and taking risks," Messer said. "You think about what you want, how to accomplish that goal and carefully do what you need to do to get there. Poker helps you rein in emotions and think very clearly and strategically before taking action."
Men are allowed to participate—but only as dealers, or croupiers, to help guide and instruct any novices on the finer points of the game.
The most recent outing, moved to Minton's Playhouse in Harlem to accommodate the expanded guest list, included former NBA player, Shaquille O' Neal, actor Richard Kind ("Inside Out"), Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson, and former chairman and CEO of Time Warner (as well as Citigroup's former chair) Dick Parsons.
And not all of the players are Vegas pros.
"I am really not a very skilled poker player," admits Etsy's Dickerson. "I used to play when I was a kid with pennies and nickels. The real reason I am here tonight is to meet talented businesswomen."
Etsy is committed to "fostering local entrepreneurs and artisan markets across the globe, [and] more than 85 percent of our sellers are women, so we are proud to be a platform to boost entrepreneurship," Dickerson said.
Although males are welcome as dealers, the y chromosome prevailed at each poker table.
Start-up investor Kelly Hoey explained why this was not a the typical networking event where executives simply exchange business cards.
"The evening was all about bringing together powerful women in business, media and philanthropy. Powerful connections were made and alliances formed as the cards were dealt," said Hoey. "The only thing missing from this high-powered evening of poker were the cigars!"
Wendy Diamond, a pioneer in the pet world and founder of Women's Entrepreneurship Day, said the connections made were invaluable, and empowering to female businesswomen. "I won some money tonight, but I really hit the jackpot from the invaluable business connections and camaraderie of fellow female executives," she said.
Kay Koplovitz, an angel investor and founder of USA Networks, said "this is something we've learned from the boys. We are here to play the game in the same way. To really connect the business relationships that really produce business partnerships."
Twyla Garrett, CEO of Investment Management Enterprise, described her strategy this way. "I'm going to start small, bet in increments, wear my opponents out, then then go all in when I think everybody looks desperate."
Koplovitz takes a different tactic, relying on her experience as CEO to help her win the game. "In negotiation, everybody kind of knows if the other side has to get out of the negotiation," said Koplovitz. " But I think you have to keep your 'must-haves' to yourself, and at the poker table, you want to keep your winning hands to yourself, until you win the pot."
Ultimately, added Messer, "This kind of networking event is successful because these women are Type-A executives. They are going to multitask to make networking connections that are super important and very useful."