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Adjusting To Your Opponents’ Negotiating Styles

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Oct 07, 2020


Previous columns contained a quiz to identify your style and recommended general adjustments you should make while negotiating. Now we’ll answer four questions about your opponents:

1. Why should you adjust to them?
2. What are their general characteristics?
3. How can you identify their style?
4. How should you negotiate against them?

Why Should You Adjust To Them?

You, me, and everyone else want people to adjust to us. We are much more comfortable when we can act naturally. But we’ll get much better results if we adjust to them. It’s that same old trade-off between comfort and results. Losers emphasize comfort; winners go for results.

What Are Their General Characteristics?

You may wonder why I’m discussing your opponents’ motives and thinking patterns. Don’t all poker players want to maximize their profits while playing and negotiating deals?
Absolutely not!

Every human being has many motives and thinking patterns, and they affect everything we do. You can’t negotiate well unless you understand what you and your opponents want and how you and they think. You will see that you should negotiate extremely differently versus different types of opponents.

Because players with extreme styles are easiest to identify, we’ll focus on them. More moderate opponents require smaller adjustments.

Extremely Aggressive Opponents

We will start with them because poker rewards aggression, and you’ll meet many aggressive players at final tables.

General Characteristics: They are excessively competitive and must win at everything. As Donald Trump put it, “My whole life is about winning… I almost never lose.” His book is called The Art of the Deal.

No matter whether you love or hate him, that book can teach you how aggressive people feel, think, and act. That knowledge will help you to negotiate against the aggressive players you will frequently encounter.

Status-consciousness is a natural part of their competitiveness. When they meet a stranger, they want to know: “Am I better than he is? Do I make more money, own a larger house, play better poker? Is my spouse better looking? Are my children smarter?”
They are ambitious, tough, aggressive, manipulative, overbearing, closed-minded, and anti-intellectual.

They are insensitive and very poor listeners, partly because they don’t really care what most other people think. They’ll listen to the few people they respect, but ignore most others. They feel superior and believe that only successful people have anything worthwhile to say. Since they feel contempt for most people, they often interrupt them.

Their insensitivity is mostly about other people’s feelings. They are often extremely perceptive about the things they really care about: money, power, and your walk away point, or WAP. They may possess an “instinct for the jugular,” an almost uncanny sense of where you’re weak and how to push your buttons.

Since winning is so important, they often cut corners. They may dislike lying and cheating, but a few actually prefer to win dishonestly. It shows that the rules that inhibit lesser people don’t apply to them. Because they will do anything to win, they naturally believe that you will cheat.

They are often impatient and inattentive to details. They may regard details as beneath them, something for lesser beings to consider. They regard their time as so valuable that they resent wasting it, even on essential social rituals, understanding other people, and other valuable tasks.

They are independent and individualistic. Taking orders, accepting advice, following procedures, or even obeying the law are kinds of defeats. They insist on doing things their way and may deliberately break rules. For example, they may lie about what the computer formulas report.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, a nineteenth century Robber Baron (ruthless tycoon), once said, “What do I care about law? Ain’t I got the power?”

Identifying Them: They’re easy to identify. They love attention and work hard to get it. Look for these cues. The more you see, the more aggressively someone will probably negotiate:

Men are much more likely to be aggressive than women. It’s politically incorrect to say it, but you can’t afford to be politically correct.

An aggressive playing style. Most players’ negotiating style is similar to their playing style.

Loud voice, aggressive words, forceful gestures, and bad manners. For example, they’re often rude to other players, dealers, and waiters.

Sloppy stacks and forceful bets. Always study your opponents’ stacks and the way they bet. The more forceful the bets and the sloppier the stack, the more confidence you can have that a player is aggressive.

Nervous tension. Aggressive players feel more tension than passive ones. Their desire to attack makes adrenalin flow, and it affects their entire body. They may express that tension in uncontrolled ways such as jiggling their legs, blinking frequently, nervous gestures, and talking too much.

Look at other people’s reactions. Many people dislike extremely aggressive players.

Best Approach: Be strong, but not overly confrontational. Prove that you’re tough and competent, but don’t overdo it. Don’t let them push you around, but don’t try to push them too far. Avoid macho contests. Show that you’re a winner who deserves their respect, but show respect for them, even if you have to grit your teeth.

Relate directly and respectfully to their success and toughness, but show that you’re also tough and successful. Never grovel or beg. Use strong, assertive words and gestures. Don’t smile too much or spend much time on small talk. They regard smiles and small talk as signs of weakness. Get right down to business and move briskly. Talk rapidly in short sentences.

Establish a powerful position before negotiating because they will test you and your position. Create lots of bargaining room by making an ambitious first offer. Then trade small concessions. Don’t move too quickly or too easily. Never give them anything in the hope they will appreciate your gift and reciprocate. They’ll probably see it as a sign of weakness and become even more demanding.

Never think that being open and honest will make them more honest, friendly, flexible, or reasonable. They will regard you as a weakling and push harder. You may think it’s immoral to communicate deceptively, but hard bargaining has the same ethics as poker.

David Sklansky said it best: “Being devious and deceitful is precisely what one wants to be in a poker game.” (The Theory of Poker, p 129) Poker is based on deception. If we played with our cards face up, there wouldn’t be a game of poker.

There’s no ethical difference between deceiving people about your hole cards and deceiving them about your WAP and other issues. You’re certainly willing to bluff with weak hands and slow-play monsters. Making unreasonable offers and deceiving people about your WAP and situation are essentially the same. In all cases you’re deceiving people to increase your profits.

Don’t get upset and take their aggression personally. It’s just part of the game. Fight them, but do it in a good humored, sporting way.

What’s Next?

My next column will show you that you must negotiate extremely differently with friendly and analytic players. ♠

Alan SchoonmakerEmail for information about negotiating books and training.