Caspar Berry

This week Maria’s guest on the show is Caspar Berry, After studying Economics at Cambridge, Caspar decided to put what he had learnt there into practice in a rather unique way. He moved to Las Vegas and became a professional poker player. He played poker for much of the next three years before finding himself as the poker adviser on the James Bond movie Casino Royale.

In this week’s show Caspar talks about some of the lessons that you can apply from poker to business.  How embracing uncertainty can help decision making. He tells us about working with Ant and Dec, getting Robert Webb and David Mitchell together and breaking the rules with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. And much much more…

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The essence of poker is the essence of decision making theory, investment theory and risk-reward analysis.

Podcast Transcript

This week Maria interviewed Caspar Berry. After studying Economics at Cambridge, Caspar decided to put what he had learnt there into practice in a rather unique way. He moved to Las Vegas and became a professional poker player. He played poker for much of the next three years before finding himself as the poker adviser on the James Bond movie Casino Royale.

Caspar talks about some of the lessons that you can apply from poker to business. How embracing uncertainty can help decision making. He tells us about working with Ant and Dec, getting Robert Webb and David Mitchell together and breaking the rules with Daniel Craig in Casino Royale.

Maria:   

Today’s guest is Casper Berry. After studying Economics at Cambridge, Caspar Berry decided to put what he had learnt there into practice in a rather unique way. He moved to Las Vegas and became a professional poker player. He played poker for much of the next three years before finding himself as the poker adviser on the James Bond movie Casino Royale.

After three years, however, he decided that his future lay away from the poker table, and he returned to the UK and set up Twenty First Century Media, which he built to a team of 40 people before selling to Bob Geldof’s Ten Alps Plc. Caspar is now a hugely successful speaker having delivered over 2000 speeches and training sessions in more than 30 countries for nearly 500 organisations. Caspar, welcome.

Caspar Berry:    

Thank you.

Maria:  

So, Caspar, you actually started working life at the tender age of 16, and you started as an actor in Byker Grove with two of the most famous people in the UK now, Ant and Dec. So, how did you begin your life as an actor?

Caspar Berry:                        

I used to go to a stage school when I was 11, but that gives entirely the wrong impression of it, because it was just a youth club where people went to smoke, but it happened to take place in the theatre. I didn’t smoke, I want to make that completely clear.

And so that just led into Byker Grove because they went there auditioning. And then as you say, I was there with Ant and Dec. We were all in the very first two series, well, Ant wasn’t actually. Ant came in the second series, and then I went on to Cambridge and worked with the other most successful double act of their generation, which is Rob Webb and David Mitchell, who I sort of put together actually, because I was the first person to cast them in a show together. So, I have a double act magic, Maria. Double act magic.

Maria: 

Wow. I’m really impressed.

So, I’m curious now, because Caspar Berry is a really cool name. So, is that your real name or was that your acting name?

Caspar Berry:

It’s my real name, and you have to ask my mum for the origins of that name, because she’s never told me, she’s always claimed she’s not entirely sure.

Maria:

Okay, that’s cool.

And so, why did you then, from acting, and having a great start in that, why did you go to Cambridge and study Economics?

Caspar Berry:   

I’ve had very few plans in my life, Maria, but this was one of the very few, which did work. I knew from Byker Grove that I wanted to be a director, a film director, and so I went around asking a lot of people who were film directors or big theatre directors, “How do you get to do that?” I was very cheeky. I just sort of phoned them up and arranged a sandwich, and they said, Look, it’s very hard to learn how to do any of these things. You can go to the National Film and Television School, but basically the thing you want to do is to go somewhere where you can make mistakes. And Oxbridge generally was a great place to both make mistakes and meet a lot of people who were going to be leaders in their field and in drama, and so that was definitely the thinking behind going there.

And it really worked out. I mean, I was there with a ridiculously talented generation. Within the space of three years you had Sacha Baron Cohen, obviously needs no introduction, Olivia Colman, I think probably the greatest actress of her generation right now and I knew it the very first day she walked into my first audition room. Rob Webb, David Mitchell and hundreds of others not quite as famous as them, necessarily, but just brilliant, real privilege to be a part of that.

Maria:  

Wow. Incredible times. So is this when you didn’t get a great economics degree?

Caspar Berry: 

I didn’t get an economics degree at all. It’s the actual answer. I got an anthropology degree because I changed to anthropology because all my life until Cambridge, I had managed to balance all the theatre and the TV that I was doing with my academic work and obviously managed to get into Cambridge. And I got to Cambridge, and I remember, actually, I took a year out and spent it with a friend of mine, a lot of time in Durham where economics was about three essays a term plus maths, and in Economics it was three essays a week at Cambridge, and I just couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it. So, rather shamefacedly, I changed to the subject that was most easy of the curriculum, which was anthropology and I was not a natural anthropologist let’s put it that way.

Maria:

Okay. But that didn’t stop you from your studies going into TV and film work, though, did it?

Caspar Berry: 

No. No. I was very focused the whole time I was at Cambridge. I was literally sort of doing my studies during term time and then in all my holidays I would be directing TV commercials, directing short films, writing feature films and I, because of that focus and drive, which was rare even at Cambridge, where you have a lot of focused, driven people. I had my first feature film produced before I’d left university for Film 4. I’d won Royal Television Society awards as a director and everything was really on track for a long time, 23, 24, 25, and then it started to tail off and I started to feel unhappy in the film industry. And it was just interesting it was actually a result of the success. I felt like, I’m not going to get to make the films that I want to make. The film industry is not what I thought it was going to be. I mean, I was very young, but I wanted to make Goodfellas and Annie Hall and they wanted to make Four Weddings and A Funeral, which is fine, but I just thought, okay, in order to make those films that I want to make, I actually need to reinvent myself. I actually need to leave the film industry for a period of time and then come back to it as a slightly different person. So that was actually what precipitated becoming a professional poker player.

Maria:  

But how do you go from that to poker? Had you always played cards or played games?

Caspar Berry: 

No, never. No. A lot of people think that, and I suppose that’s completely natural. Me and my buddy, we used to go to Las Vegas every six months because we loved playing roulette and blackjack, which are gambling, which are entirely different categories of game. When you play those games you are losing money in the long run, so the way that you need to think about the games is you’re buying fun, right?

And then in the summer of ’99, my buddy, my friend, he went into the poker room and I sat watching him and both of us were gripped immediately, and I spoke to this guy. As you know in my speeches I talk about the butterfly effect, that tiny things that can make huge differences. I spoke to this guy, I’d never met him before, never met him since, don’t even know what his name is, and he explained poker to me in economic terms, terms that I really got, because I was a natural economist, which is why I should never have changed. And I just thought, brilliant. You can make a living playing poker, I understand, you’re not playing against the house, you’re playing the other players around the table. Every table in a poker game, indeed every poker room, the world of poker is just a market and you’re trying to do exactly what you trying to do as a company in a market, which is just get a competitive advantage in that market.

Caspar Berry:  

So I just got it and I thought, Okay, I’m looking for something to do, for I thought about six months, I ended up doing it for three years, surprised me as much as anybody and it felt very natural at the time. It didn’t feel odd. I know it does now, looking back.

Maria: 

That’s fascinating. And did you learn anything about your own personality and yourself when you got into poker?

Caspar Berry:

I did. I learned that I wasn’t very disciplined. Nothing will discipline you like playing poker, because you’re not working for someone else. You can’t hide in the crowd. You won’t get your wage at the end of the day by doing a bad job. You have to play well constantly. What’s brilliant about poker, what’s incredibly liberating is that you’re not beholden to anybody else and that no one’s beholden to you. And that is an incredibly freeing feeling. In fact, a number of my friends say that I was happiest in those three years than in any other point of my life.

But what’s bad about poker is that you won’t get paid unless you play well. So, the three skills I reduce it to in terms of when I’m talking to business are patience, resilience and discipline. Patience to wait for good hands, always focusing, concentrating, resilience to bounce back from the losses constantly, because in order to win in the long run you have to be prepared to lose in the short run, and discipline, lots of different forms, but really interestingly, particularly now in 2018, the ability to fold a hand. Companies are really good at starting doing new things, they’re very bad at stopping doing old things. So the discipline necessary to fold and to reallocate resources somewhere else. Patience, resilience and discipline. Those are three things, I didn’t really have them, and poker gave them to me.

Maria: 

I like that. That’s very clever. Now, I’ve got to talk about James Bond and Daniel Craig and Casino Royale. So, what did you do on that film?

Caspar Berry: 

So, it’s three main jobs. Me and the other guy, the guy who actually brought me into that, I have to say, a guy called Dr Tom Sambrook, we were commentators on poker TV show, he was actually an actor. I was a screenwriter, both commentating on poker TV show. So he brought me in, we had to advise on the script and make sure the script made sense from a poker point of view because initially it didn’t. We had to rehearse the actors and make sure they looked like poker players, and then we were on set to make sure that everything looked authentic as a poker game. Yeah, and initially that didn’t either.

Maria:  

And did you meet Daniel Craig?

Caspar Berry: 

We did, we met Daniel Craig many times. He didn’t come to the rehearsals because he was just very busy apart from the thing, and he’d also played poker before. But he therefore consequently doesn’t look like a poker player in the actual thing when everyone else does. But I mean there’s that great scene at the end, where he pushes all these chips over when he has the straight flush, well you wouldn’t push all your chips over in poker, because the dealer then just has to count them up. And we did point that out, and he said memorably, we said, “I don’t think a professional poker player would push their chips over,” and he said, “Well, I think James Bond would.” And we said, “Fine.”

Maria: 

Yeah. I think James Bond can break the rules. That’s very cool.

Caspar Berry:

… isn’t it?

Maria:  

Yeah. Cool. So why did you come back to the UK? That sounded like a great life.

Caspar Berry:  

It was. It genuinely was for a period of time but there were three reasons. Number one, it got boring, as you can imagine going to exactly the same table in the mirage poker room every single day. Number two, I was never going to be world champion. I didn’t have what it takes, you know, that je ne sais quoi, to be world class, to be truly great, and I knew that. I was always going to be a certain standard. And, number three, I split up with my girlfriend and I thought it was a good time to leave town. And again that felt very natural as a decision. A lot of people ask that question as if it was a very difficult thing or it must have been because I was losing money, and I always find odd as well. Lots of people stop doing jobs that they’re making money at. But you think there’s something better out there, and again, that’s what I talk about now, is a decision to stop doing something old and start doing something new.

And what I always wanted to do, in fact even before I went out there, but particularly once I’d been out there was I always wanted to run a company. I thought it would be a film company. In the end it sort of was of sorts, but it was a production company but we always intended not to be making the films ourselves. We always wanted to employ a team, to build an empire, and as you said, we built that up to a team of 40. We had the intention initially to go further but by that time I’d realised I wasn’t really a natural entrepreneur either. I’d already started doing a little bit of speaking and I felt that, I didn’t really know what the world of speaking was at that point, but I thought speaking, training, coaching, it was something in that area. And so for the third or fourth time I changed my life again, moved to London, became a commentator on TV, that was when that happened, and became a trainer and speaker.

Maria:

How did the very first speech come about?

Caspar Berry:

It’s like my audition for Byker Grove where I just happened to be in the room is the honest truth. I went to see this guy who ran an events company, and I had the idea, because at that point I was running the production company, I had the idea that, we were making corporate films for people, and I was vaguely aware there was this thing called corporate training. This is like 2003. And I thought, Wouldn’t be great if people made their own corporate film? They went away for two or three days and they made their own corporate film?’ I thought that’d be brilliant.

And I pitched it to him and he went, “Yeah, a lot of people do that, actually.” And he said, “But I’m quite interested in this poker,” because I told him about my life, and within a couple of months he had me speaking for Nestlé and BP, and it took off quite rapidly, really.

Maria:   

Fantastic. And you actually talked a little bit earlier on about some of the lessons that you can apply from poker to business, but overall, what is the big thing that you can learn from poker that really helps businesses?

Caspar Berry: 

I think there are many. There are many more than I do, I mean here’s the fundamental thing. What we have to understand is poker is like strip business bare, strip it bare of the meetings and the emails and when you’re paying your gas bills, strip life bare. Poker is the essence of decision making in the raw. Because what you’re doing, you’re making a decision. All decisions are resource allocation decisions. You are literally deciding whether or not to invest your money, yes, but your time, your energy, your passion, your status, your reputation, all is on the line into this idea or this project or this relationship or whatever it is. And poker is just saying, “Hey, here’s a series of options, opportunities for you to invest in, they’re called poker hands. Here’s your scarce resource, your capital asset, your stack of poker chips, and you have to decide whether and how much to invest in it.”

So, everything else is removed, it’s just this decision whether to invest in these things. There’s some complications about the hands themselves, which you have to learn, but in actual fact the essence of poker is the essence of decision making theory, investment theory and risk-reward analysis.

Now, you could, if you wanted to use poker as a metaphor, apply it to bluffing, you could apply it to reading people, body language, you could apply it massively to concepts of game theory, but for me, my shtick is all about that thing. It’s about decision making.

And particularly, doing all that in a world of uncertainty, because that’s what we’re doing. It’s what we’ve been doing since the dawn of time, but it’s definitely what we’re doing in 2018, is making decisions, making resource allocations decisions in a world of uncertainty where we do not know what the future holds. And the beauty of poker is a metaphor for that. And it is a metaphor. It’s not the real thing, is you cannot possibly know what the future holds in poker. In business I would argue that actually people have much less of an idea than they think and that’s part of why our material is to show them that, because by gaining a deeper appreciation and understanding of that they can actually make better decisions as a result.

But the reason that poker works to do that, is because you don’t know whether it’s going to be the ace of hearts or the five of spades. You just don’t know. You can construct a story about inflation or political narrative, you don’t know. And so you have to embrace the uncertainty, and you do it using a method which we’ve had for 300 years. It’s called risk-reward analysis, underpins capitalism itself, and yet actually very few people know about it or understand it. And so my job, thank God, in the last 15 years, has been plugging that gap between the demand for that knowledge and its supply in a fun and easy to access way.

Maria:   

Wow. That’s amazing. That really is amazing. So, if I’m a client and I’ve booked you to speak, what is the best thing they can do to get great value out of your time with them?

Caspar Berry: 

I think the first thing is, I mean people always say like, “How long do you want to speak for?” and I’m totally easy. It could be it could be 25 minutes after dinner, it could be a 45-minute or 60-minute keynote, it could be a 90-minute or three hour session, so the first thing is being completely open mind about how they want to use me. because I’m happy to be used in a variety of different ways, and indeed more than one. So coming to me with ideas about what they want to do and then working with me on that.

But I’m equally, if they just want a 45-minute keynote speech, that’s fine. But I think what’s crucial, I’m sure you say this about any speaker, Maria, is knowing what they want people to think and feel as a result of it. What’s the desired outcome, because here’s the thing about poker, what I can do is a very technical training session about how decision-making works, or I can literally go to the other end of the spectrum. Well, at the other end of the spectrum I can do something a funny after dinner speech, but broadly at the other end of the spectrum I can do a motivational speech, where we don’t talk in the same technical language, but it’s all about what my key niche is within that very big subject, which is why people should take more risk. That’s quite an inspirational and motivational subject. I give it a technical underpinning but essentially there’s a lot of motivational speakers talking about that. What I’m talking about is not so much that you should do it, because we all know that we should do it these days, but why, why you can actually prove, demonstrate that it’s the right thing to do.

So being really clear about what they want people to think and feel. Do they want it to be about the leadership aspect of that, do they want it to be about the change aspect of that, the innovation aspect of that? And I think finally, coming to me with some really good examples and ideas of ways they’ve done that in the past. So working with them to create what I call little worm holes between what I talk about and what their situation is. because when you’re a speaker, you’re obviously an external speaker. I can’t tell people how to run their business. But if I can start to relate it to what they do, that starts the process of translation and that’s important.

Maria:  

Okay. That sounds like really good advice. So if, then, the client says, “Actually, we’d also like to play poker,” can they do that?

Caspar Berry:  

Yes. Yes, and it’s the simplest thing in the world. People always think it’s going to be very difficult, but it’s really not. They could even decide on the day, so long as I’ve got my poker chips in the boot, but they certainly can decide in advance. The crucial thing is I need a table and chairs, I won’t supply those, but I’ll supply chips and cards and all that stuff they require to turn those into a poker table.  If they want to do it more than 10 people, because any poker dealer can only deal to up to 10 people at any one time, we need to plan in advance, because we need to bring the required number of poker dealers, which again I can do. I have a wonderful head dealer who, you know Jackie Terry, I’ve been worked her 13 of those 15 years now. We’ve done over 800 corporate poker events together, and so we’re very well versed again, whether you want one hour or six hours, we can do that.

But, yeah, just gives a little bit of notice, and it’s really very easy and just, I mean, amazing fun thing to do. Nothing works like poker. We’ve done it for over 30,000 people in that time. I think we’ve had four people go, “Yeah, that wasn’t really for me.”

Maria:   

Yeah, you’re right. We’ve done a few together, and everyone’s enjoyed it.

Caspar Berry: 

Every time.

Maria:   

So, finally, I know you’re giving back now to up and coming speakers, and you’re mentoring them. How are you choosing who to mentor, and how are you working with them?

Caspar Berry:   

So, first of all, in terms of the choice, I’m very open. They’ve got to have a drive, they’ve got to want to do it, they got to have something interesting about them. I’m very passionate that. You know that old phrase, everyone has a book inside them, I think everyone has a speech inside them. I think you can be a fireman, you can talk about what it takes to run into a burning building. A social worker must encounter things every day from which we can extract messages. And that’s the key process, extracting relevant messages to the world of business. How can this help us improve our bottom line? And I think that, if I may say so, is probably my first skill in working with the speaker, because my economics background, because that background as a trainer, actually, which we haven’t talked about, but you know I delivered 500 sessions for a company called the Mind Gym, which was about everything from team building to creativity. There are a very broad number of subjects which business do want help in and from which we can take the fantastic coal face experience of people in a variety of different worlds and jobs.

And it actually starts for me with the material. A lot of people think speaking about the act of speaking, about how you stand and how breathe. Actually, great speeches are all about what you’re saying, the material. That’s what you really remember, the message that, “God, yes.” So, for me it’s about working with them on the material and in fact for me that’s about 80% of it, because once you’ve got the material right, and once it’s come from then, I’m just the facilitator, the person who elicits it. Comes from them, but when they’ve written great material, it’s very hard for them not deliver it well, I find.

So, yeah, finding people with drive, something interesting, they’ve got to have a certain amount of charisma, they’ve got to want to do it, and then working with them to really hone those messages, so that it’s, and this is my little acronym:

PURE:  It’s P, it’s pointed, it’s persuasive, it has something to say.

It’s U, it’s unique.

It’s R, it’s relevant to business, it’s going to improve their bottom line; people have a reason to listen to it. It’s also relevant to them as a speaker only they could deliver this material because it’s an expression of them and their life experiences.

And it’s E, it’s emotional, it’s enjoyable, it’s entertaining. It’s actually just a pleasure just to listen to the speech, even if it was none of those three.

So, striving constantly to produce a speech of that standard, I think if you’ve got a great, you know, if you’ve got a great speech, people want to book you.

Maria:

And on that note, I’m going to thank you. That was very enjoyable. Thank you very much, Caspar.

Caspar Berry:   

Pleasure. Thank you very much indeed.

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