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A Friend Disagreed About Preparing To Negotiate

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Feb 26, 2020


Preston Oade is my friend and occasional writing partner. He’s a winning tournament player and the author of an excellent book: The Art and Science of Poker Tournament Selection: Choosing the Games that Best Match Your Play.

An earlier column reported a deal he negotiated very well. I asked him to comment on my last column, “Preparing to Negotiate Tournament Deals.” His comments shocked and educated me.

Preston’s Comments

“Alan, I have never prepared to negotiate a deal at the final table. It’s counterproductive. I’m not there to negotiate, but to win. Or at least finish in the top three places, which is where the real money is. This goal requires all of my efforts and thoughts.

“I have played hundreds of final tables and speak from experience. Attitude is huge. Fatigue sets in. Focus wanders. Determination is essential. You need to fight to win. The WILL TO WIN is huge.

“Years ago I told you that I could will my way to a win at the final table. You basically scoffed, obviously thinking I was deluded. The fact is, however, that winners have an incredible will to win. It consumes us at the final table, taking all of our time and attention.

“It’s not that hard to tell who at a final table is playing to win and who just wants to move up the payoff ladder. It’s usually obvious. Almost equally obvious is who wants a deal. It doesn’t matter what, if anything, they might say.

“What matters is how they are playing. You can’t hide the fact that you are not playing to win!

“Anyone who is preparing to negotiate at the final table is, in my opinion, a loser. The more you think about a deal at the final table, the less fight you have in you.

“In the example I provided, I wasn’t thinking about a deal. I was focusing on how to overcome my fatigue when one of the players suggested a deal. When the time clock was paused to discuss it, my attention instantly shifted to a deal. The money was there, and it made sense to chop up the prize pool.

“It’s tough, however, to talk about a final table deal and then not get one. Basically, your will to win has been compromised by the mere talk of a deal. It is therefore important to lead everyone to the deal that works for you.

“I took the lead in my example by personality and instinct. Not preparation. You don’t prepare to lead in final table negotiations. You either have it or you don’t.

“Don’t be fooled by looking at a final table deal as a business negotiation. It isn’t. Yes, it is about money. But the dynamics are very different. Anyone can queer the deal and needs to be persuaded. Everyone has to be on board. It’s a group decision, and group dynamics control.

“Forget about business negotiations. Focus instead on the basics of social psychology and group decision-making, especially the role of leadership in group decision-making.
“I’m sorry to say that I disagree with the entire theme of this column. It’s just wrong. Very wrong.”

A later email said he didn’t mean that other people shouldn’t prepare to negotiate: “I said, ‘I have never prepared to negotiate at the final table.’

“I also said that preparing to negotiate a deal at the final table is for losers. I’m not a loser.”

How Did I React?

I thanked Preston for his frankness and said he agreed with some highly respected players. Dr. Max Stern said, “To survive in a tournament, you must be willing to die.” Amir Vahedi popularized Max’s words by repeating them after winning an important tournament. T.J. Cloutier wrote that he often busted out because he wanted to win, not just make money.

I admitted missing an important difference between business and tournament negotiations. Since business doesn’t have trophies for “First Place,” business people shouldn’t take extra risks to be first. I also agreed that preparing to negotiate does change your motivation, which reduces your probability of taking first place.
BUT … Taking first is not the only goal you should have. Your goal, like every other poker decision, should apply the general principle: “It depends on the situation.”

Preston, Max, Amir, and T.J. are committed to winning, and it’s not only because the first place money is much larger. They want the kick of winning. They need to see themselves as winners. That’s who and what they are. As Preston put it, “Winners have an incredible will to win.”

You should carefully decide what you want, and who you are. People play poker for many reasons, and your goal should depend on the situation. Sometimes, you should commit to winning, and sometimes you should just try to get the best deal.

Let’s consider an obvious example.

Your largest tournament buy-in was $250, and your biggest cash was $3,000. You won a satellite for your seat in a $2,000 buy-in event. The final table prize pool is $500,000.

You know you’ve been lucky. There are only seven players left, and all six opponents are obviously much better than you. You have an average stack and really need the money.

Should you prepare to negotiate?

Of course, you should. You need the money, and you have little chance of winning.

Don’t lie to yourself about your chances. Don’t believe that you should always try to take first place. If you aren’t honest about your chances, if you let your WILL TO WIN overwhelm your judgment, you may cost yourself thousands of badly needed dollars.

Carefully plan your negotiating strategy, but don’t let anyone know you’re eager for a deal.

What’s The Most Important Lesson Here?

You probably think it’s whether you should prepare to negotiate or commit completely to winning. That’s important, but there’s an even bigger lesson. It’s more important because it’s an essential part of EQ (emotional intelligence), and your EQ affects almost everything you do: You, I, and everyone else need helpful feedback.

You can’t develop any skill without helpful feedback, and most people don’t give or receive feedback well. You need someone like Preston to provide helpful feedback, and you must keep your mind open to get its full benefits. Did I enjoy reading that my column was “wrong, very wrong?”

Of course not. My first reaction was defensive, but I immediately realized that Preston wasn’t deliberately putting me down. Because we’re good friends, he was trying to help me.

So I quashed my defensiveness and opened my mind. Openness to criticism is an essential element of emotional intelligence.

If he wasn’t a good friend, or if we didn’t have a history of mutual respect, he wouldn’t have been so critical, and I wouldn’t have learned as much.

You need someone like Preston, someone who will be helpfully critical of your play, your negotiations, and other subjects. Find people like that, ask for their help, and listen with an open mind when they say, “You’re wrong.” ♠

Alan SchoonmakerEmail for information about negotiations books and training.