Johnson Cook

Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Johnson Cook - Atlanta tech investor. Entrepreneur.

Hollis on Texas Holdem and His Entrepreneurial Competitive Advantage – (Part 3 of 3)


hollisToday the Ron Hollis Mini-Series comes to a close with a bang. This is the grand finale that will NOT disappoint.  Heads up– this post takes come concentration. So find a chunk of time to process it. It took me several reads, but as with all time spent with Ron, I’m a better man for it.

For background on the Ron Hollis Mini-Series, see the opening here and the second post here.


What hobbies are important to you and why do they give you energy?

Interestingly, I have never been a “hobby” guy, but someone that finds activities that can help my overall purpose or role in the world.  I struggle with a concept of doing some activity for the sake of passing precious time in one’s life without some applicability elsewhere.  Of course this is an easy position to allow my rationalization to obscure my hypocrisy.

Typically, activities find me and their alignment creates a strong interest to learn more. I struggle doing things for the sake of doing them. I tried to collect coins, stamps, etc when I was younger, but quickly lost interest when the concept of collecting was mastered and there was little thrill in a perpetual purpose of searching.

As my life has evolved, I considered “business” as my hobby since it has been an area that I have been involved in since my early teens. I became fascinated with the system of commerce, customers, profits, risks, etc. Fortunately, I was also interested in the complex systems of nature and invested many years of my life studying engineering. As my career evolved, I always knew that I would find a way to merge the fields into a common area for me to focus. This allowed me to follow Hill’s guidance of doing what you love and you never have to work. I found this merged purpose with Quickparts, which was a great career and hobby for me. I was able to invest all my career time in the business and my excess time studying about the business. From there, I was able to build a strong foundation of knowledge, wisdom and confidence to succeed.

Since exiting the company, I have been in transition working with other entrepreneurs and their businesses. As has been typical in my life, the universe has aligned my interest in another area that I consider positive and applicable to my core purpose. Many, particularly my wife, would strongly consider this just a hobby, but for me it is an area that I can study, apply new knowledge, assess and improve. This area is amazingly enough tournament style No-limit Texas Holdem Poker.  As most folks, I have played randomly for much of my life, but only within the past year did I realize the real world of Holdem and power of the game.

As an interesting aside, my participation in the game is serendipitous, thus reinforcing the belief that the universe guides our opportunities as long as we are willing to listen and act.  I had stumbled upon Holdem on my I-phone and started playing. I found it mostly dull since most folks were just shoving their stacks with in any two cards, but I was intrigued that some folks had large bank rolls and I thought they had earned them (instead of bought them). I wanted to know what made some players different in a game other than just random luck. So, I started reading blogs online about poker and realized there was an entire world of poker that was spawned in the last decade from online poker, which had become some $16B industry until the US government shut down online poker in the US.

Wow, all of this activity, energy and data that was now dormant and looking for a home. I studied that poker was actually a combination of areas that are interesting and complex. It contains statistics to understand odds that support decisions regarding future events (Analytics), it contained human behavior modeling to understand what action a person is mostly to do in a given situation (Intuition), and randomness (Luck).

So, this became a game that was not just based on the flip of the coin, but one in that you had to make decisions on actions to increase your chance of success. So, there is luck involved, but you can do things to increase your luck and decrease your competitors luck.  Also, it gives the best financial leverage to those decisions (I can bet $1 to win a pot that has $7 in it, so I have to determine my likelihood of success in winning against risking my $1).  The defining factor for me was that I studied the folks that always were at the final table playing for the tournament winnings. I discovered that it was typically the same core folks playing at the final table. So, these were either some very luck poker players OR there was more than random luck involved.

Serendipity at work… After playing on my phone for a month, I wanted to play some live games which created an interesting serendipitous life occurrence. I was at the lake in Cumming, Georgia when I did a Google search for live poker. A result was a poker club in the area that played poker every day of the week. They met at various restaurants to play. And most important to me, it was free to play, so you never risked your money to play and learn the game.

Their business model was that you would eat and drink at the restaurant in order to play and they got paid for bringing in new customers, so a win-win situation. I went to the game that night expecting 2-3 other poker neophytes sitting around looking at the ceiling and walked into a room with 50 folks ready to play. It was amazing that there were so many folks playing in a small Georgia town. This was a blessing for me because I was able to play 100’s of tournaments without risking my money on all of the mistakes that beginners inevitably make. I would play, study and play again the next day. A chapter can be written on the perils of free poker, but for me it was a blessing in that I could improve my game with no risk. Most folks have to learn poker playing in real games with real dollars that they will easily lose in the early days of their learning curve and struggle to really hone their skills. It turns out that Atlanta is a bit unique with free poker in that they have some of the largest free poker groups in the country with some high quality talent. This is the result of a melting pot city in the middle of the bible belt where gambling is illegal.

Anyway, I have moved to an area (St. Petersburg,  FL) where there is no free poker, but a couple of great poker rooms where the real players go. I am able to play and compete in these rooms to risk my money and win more money, which so far has been positive.

Why is poker aligned with my earlier passion of business…Well, it turns out that Holdem has the unique characteristics that are similar to starting and building a business except the process is accelerated so that you know the result of your decisions faster. A poker tournament can last hours to days, while a business can go on for months or years. Some of the common characteristics include the concept of investing in a hand, making decisions about the outcome of  hand based on the information you have (internal knowledge) and the information you don’t have (external market information and competitive threats). You have to decide how much of your cash (chips) to invest and risk as well as the consequences of a mistake in that investment.

If you invest all of your cash (all-in) and you lose the hand, then your tournament life is over just as your business life would be in a similar mistake. When the hands are dealt, there are typically nine other human personalities all making decisions just like you. However, each one has their own personalities, risks profiles, motivations and patience. You have to determine the weak from the strong, the gambler from the analytic, and the proactive (raiser) from the reactive (caller). You have to market your position with your bets and posturing. Do you want others to call your bet or just fold because they think they are beat?

Another key aspect of the game is that it is very personal. You are all alone in your journey on the poker tournament. Most folks never see a full hand evolve and even fewer would understand why you did what you did. There is also the very lonely walk to the rail when you lose all of your chips to a better hand that you decided to compete against. Your decision resulted in your death. This is true of the thriving entrepreneur that bets their life savings on a business idea. They make the decisions and live with the consequences. Being an entrepreneur is actually a very lonely place where few can ever understand or appreciate what you are thinking and how you are handling the decisions. As you become more successful, the consequences of these decisions compound with more lives/families involved.

Sitting deep stacked at the final table against four poker pros that are deep stacked and ready to eat you for dinner can provide a similar emotional isolation that is empowering and debilitating. You thrive on the opportunity of success and winning, but can become frozen from the risk of failure if you make the wrong decision.  Should you play this hand, if so, should you raise or just limp in? You have a pair of Queens, should you go all-in and risk the entire game on the next guy having a pair of Aces? In a Holdem tournament, the structure is designed to force an end of the game. Eventually, everyone will run out of chips except for the winner. So, doing nothing is a path to death but doing something can escalate ones death. So, you have to make decisions on what success really looks like now and in the future. Business is quite similar except that business is crueler than Holdem. Holdem will force you to a death, while business will let a bad business and/or bad business leader continue to exist even when death is imminent. Their business becomes the “walking dead” and the entrepreneur just continues to waste his precious time (particularly career time to recoup his losses) and his final dollars because his ego or ignorance refuses to face reality and shut down the business. He can’t just go “all-in” and see where he stands.

Obviously Holdem is interesting to me today and I am blessed to get to play several times per week. However, there is randomness(luck) that does exists and I am studying to figure out how much a factor luck really plays in the game so that I can equate it to the amount of luck that is required to have a successful business. In business, I believe the axiom that “luck is at the corner of opportunity and preparedness”, however, in Holdem, sometimes the donkey that calls your bet with seven-deuce can still take your chips.   When that happens, you can feel pretty pissed and decide that it’s just a dumb game of luck. However, on the drive home you can have a head-on crash with a drunk and your game of life is over just as quick, so I guess there is a lot of luck everywhere.

Since it’s a question on hobbies, other things that I invest time, energy and dollars include flying (private pilot) for the utility of the going from point A to point B.  I enjoy boating (sailing in BVI, etc.) for the tranquility and intimidation of the sea. I play golf to become frustrated while enjoying being outside.  As my son grows up, I’m sure there will be other activities that I invest in based on a desire to spend time with him and what his evolution.


What competitive advantages do you have as an individual that have made you more successful than the guy you are competing against in business?

Fortunately, I have always had a strong work-ethic which allowed me to easily be willing to work harder and smarter than the next guy. I have never been a 9-5 guy that quit what I was doing because of the time of day. I focus on activities and accomplishments to assess when I would quit for the day. If this was well past “quitting time” then so be it. I was programmed this way from my early days, and interestingly, it created some challenges for me in the beginning of my career at Boeing. When I wanted to keep working to finish project, my peers and bosses were ready to go at 5pm and made it clear that it was not my choice to work longer. While a bit shocking, I realized that there are different views and approaches to work.

An innate competitive advantage was recently illustrated to me in reading an article about John McEnroe and why he was acted the way he did on the courts. He said what drove him was that he “hated to lose more than he loved to win.”  Unless this is part of your personality, it may be hard to understand, but for me it explained a life filled with emotional reactions and major sacrifices to prevent losing, while having a personality that didn’t care to celebrate the victories. Even as a CEO, where celebrating successes is imperative for a positive culture, I would have to “act the part” in the celebrations all the while I was thinking about the next goal or accomplishment. I’m not sure this is a healthy trait, but it does provide the motivation to invest all of your energy to prevent losing (which typically means winning). Interestingly, poker is a bit therapeutic here since there is a lot of losing that occurs.

Other life advantages that I have been given was that I was raised very poor which allowed me to be ostracized from the normal society and to be stereotyped as being lazy or stupid or something. It is easily assumed that if you are poor than you are probably not smart, however, I was blessed with intelligence and could easily overachieve academically. I made it a personal mission to always prove that I am just as smart at the rich kids that go to the fancy private schools. Interestingly, this motivation carried forward in my career where I was peers with engineers from high end schools (MIT, etc.) and I was just a guy from Alabama. I would work harder and study more to be ahead. I learned that having intelligence is only one of the keys to success in life; another equally important part is the attitude to apply that intelligence wisely. While my peers were intelligent and degreed from MIT and other fancy schools, they were also less inclined to work hard and expected success to be given to them instead of being earned by them.

I have always been very focused on my defined goals and unwilling to compromise my time and energy in their pursuit. Fortunately, I have been blessed with a perfect wife for me in that she has always supported my journey and never tried to interfere with our success with some typical spousal demands that could force a compromise.

I have a strong sense of urgency to get things done yesterday. I believe that time is a critical component to all success, so use it wisely and avoid doing today what should have been done yesterday.

Lastly, I hate waste. This disdain has cultivated a strong sense of detail and pursuit of excellence. If things can be done more efficiently, then I have a primal urge to pursue this new path of efficiency. This allows for flexibility to change what has worked and turns out to be a key trait of building an entrepreneurial company. Most successful companies are growing, thus changing their composition every day with more employees, systems and problems. By focusing on eliminating waste, which drives efficiencies, then the organization can always be adapting to their new composition. Many companies grow to a certain level and stall. They sit around wondering why they are not growing and then become more worried when they start retreating. They refuse to understand that doing what worked yesterday will only allow an organization of yesterday to exist. A simple, yet complex reality.


Thank you Ron for these awesome and helpful thoughts.  Ron is an inspirational role model for anyone who is looking to harness their high energy and move the needle in meaningful ways.






Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *