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Business Is a Poker Game

Part Four: More on Negotiating

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Apr 27, 2016

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Alan SchoonmakerParts One through Three of this series showed how poker is an excellent teacher for business people because many poker skills and concepts directly relate to business. My poker writing is often based upon my research, teaching, consulting, and writing about business, especially selling and negotiating.

One very important similarity between poker and negotiating is that both are incomplete information games. In poker you don’t know your opponents’ hole cards. In negotiations you don’t know the other party’s entire situation, objectives, and priorities. You can’t acquire the necessary information without shifting your focus. Unfortunately, we all naturally focus on ourselves, but we can’t win at negotiations or poker without shifting our focus to the other people.

Shifting Your Focus While Negotiating

While teaching negotiating skills, I saw that most people don’t make this shift. I wrote, “Most people really do not try to do that. They are so concerned with their own objectives, priorities, and … strategy that they forget that the critically important information is on the other side of the table… if we had to summarize our philosophy of negotiations in just two sentences, we would say: Don’t be so interested in my position. Focus on theirs.” (Negotiate to Win, p. 33)

Shifting Your Focus While Playing Poker

The weakest players play for fun and don’t seriously think about how they should play their cards. There is no reason to discuss them.

A significant step above them are relatively disciplined players who still lose. They want to play well and learn how to play various hands, but focus too much on themselves and their own cards. I call them, “POH players” because they Play their Own Hands.
Their strategy is much too card-dependent. They have memorized formulas for playing various types of hands and apply them fairly well, but don’t seriously try to adjust to their opponents.

Winners have the discipline to play their cards properly, but they also shift their focus from their cards and themselves to their opponents. As I wrote in Poker Winners Are Different, winners “focus on other people. They constantly compare their opponents’ cards, skills, and styles to their own. They also try to understand their opponents’ motives, thoughts, and attitudes. Why are they acting this way? What do they want? How do they think? How can I get them to do what I want?” (p. 56)

Doyle Brunson regarded shifting your focus to your opponents as so important that the first chapter of According to Doyle is titled, “The Profit Comes From People.” He wrote, “Don’t just play your cards; play your people.”

Why Don’t Most Players Shift Their Focus?

Every tennis coach has had students say swinging the way the coach recommends “feels unnatural.” The coaches usually reply “Of course, it feels unnatural. You’re used to doing it wrong!”

Exactly the same principle applies to poker and negotiating. The natural way, the comfortable way, the enjoyable way to play either game is wrong. You must fight your natural tendency to do what feels natural and do what wins.

We all know that most poker players lose. Nobody knows the exact percentage, but most experts agree that more than eighty-five percent of all casino poker players are long-term losers. They lose precisely because they do what’s natural and enjoyable.

Most explanations of why so many people lose are about how they play their cards. It’s boring to play tight, disciplined poker, so they play too many hands, go too far with them, are too optimistic about their draws and implied odds, and so on.

I certainly agree with those explanations, but some people play solid, disciplined poker and still lose. They generally blame bad luck, but their losses are often caused by their refusal or inability to shift their focus from their own cards to their opponents.

“Doyle is in the Poker Hall of Fame partly because he focuses on other people. He knows that you can’t win without focusing on them. We see again how unnaturally winners act. Is it natural to focus on yourself? Of course it is, but it is also natural to lose. Never forget that only a few players win, and they win because they act unnaturally.” (Poker Winners Are Different p. 84)

Go Far Beyond Reading Their Cards


Nearly everything written about playing players focuses much too narrowly on reading their cards. Of course, card reading is important, but Doyle meant much more than just card reading when he wrote “play your people.” It’s a far broader principle that he expanded in that first chapter of According to Doyle: “Poker is a game of people. If you remember that, you can bounce your opponents around like tumbleweeds in Texas. If you forget, Lord have mercy on your bankroll…”


“More than any other game, poker depends upon understanding your opponent. You’ve got to know what makes him tick. More importantly, you’ve got to know what makes him tick at the moment you’re involved in a pot with him.”


“Consider this: What’s his mood, his feeling? What’s his apparent psychological frame of mind right now? Is he in a mood to gamble or is he just sitting there, waiting for the nuts? Is he a loser and on tilt (playing far below his normal capability) or has he screwed down (despite being a loser) and begun playing his best possible game? Is he a cocky winner who’s now playing carelessly and throwing off most of his winnings or is he a winner who started to play very tight to protect his gains?”


Playing Your People Is Extremely Valuable Everywhere


David Sklansky and I wrote Poker Is Good For You because we believe that poker develops many skills and personal qualities that will improve your work, investments, personal relationships, and entire life.


Among poker’s most important lessons is teaching you “how to get into people’s heads.” Poker teaches you to understand and apply psychology, because understanding others is absolutely essential… If you don’t understand the other players, you can’t win…


“If you focus on your own cards, you can’t win… Understanding other people is vital in virtually every area of life. You can’t have good personal relationships or succeed in business without being perceptive about people.”


We ended that article with a quotation from one of the best-selling books of all time, Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People.


Carnegie could not have been more emphatic: “If there is one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as your own.” (p. 37)


Poker can teach you how to shift your focus from yourself to other people, and that ability will help you to negotiate better, work better, and be more successful in all your relationships. ♠


After publishing five long, expensive poker books, Dr. Al, alan_schoonmaker@yahoo.com, has switched to writing short, inexpensive, eBooks. At Amazon.com Stay Young; Play Poker costs $4.99, and How to Beat Small Poker Games costs $2.99.