Inside The Marketing Poker Game

Though I live near a downtown crammed pretty much wall-to-wall with casinos, I never haunt any of them unless friends are visiting.

And most of my friends, by the time they arrive, are visibly hungry for an evening spent in degenerate splendor, throwing their money away. The more gritty the casino, the better, too.

I had an old friend come up for Superbowl weekend with his son, and we decided to watch the slopfest in the dirtiest, darkest, and most out-of-control sports book in town.

Gosh, it was fun.

Hot dog and a Heineken, two bucks. It’s like they were daring us to become slurring gluttons.

Anyway, at some point during the long afternoon — boring game, really, after the flurry of first quarter excitement — I wandered by the poker tables and stopped to watch.

I played a lot of poker in college, back when losing a four-dollar pot meant having to write a chit for later payment of your debt, cuz we were all basically broke. I learned a ton about the mechanics of the game, because I was trying like hell to win (the alternative meaning I might have to eat Top Ramen for the rest of the week).

And several of the guys who hosted the floating games went on to become pro gamblers of one type or another… so we were playing hard-core games (none of that “baseball” crap with thirty wild cards). I never learned the odds the way my math-oriented friends did… but I may have had a small edge in understanding human behavior.

You know — the “science” of tells and quirks.

Anyway, after college I went on to other bad habits, and never sought out another floating poker game. I tried my hand at a “real” game in a casino just once… and was promptly reminded of the old maxim: “If you look around the table and can’t tell who the sucker is… then you’re the sucker.”

The other players at that “real” game never even glanced up at me, and my full house — an astonishing hand to be dealt in a simple 5-card draw game — was beat by a better full house. This defied the odds so outrageously that I realized I was in way over my head, and I slunk away after that one hand, never to play again.

Still… sometimes I watch the action at a casino, and I get that old yearning for the thrill of not knowing what your opponent is holding.

In many fascinating ways, poker reflects life. That’s why it’s lasted so long as a popular — though thoroughly unwholesome — pasttime.

Watching that Texas Hold-Em game unwind last weekend, I was reminded of the two-pronged rule I learned from the better players I’d been up against in college.

It’s a simple rule, too. A good card player will either know…

1. Your “tell”…

2. Or your weakness.

You won’t even realize you’re being studied, either. Most rookie players have a tell — a tick, or a way of shifting in your seat, or a faint smile or frown that is like a red flag to an experienced player, announcing the contents of your hand.

On a slightly deeper psychological level, most players also have weaknesses. Maybe it’s as obvious as a taste for bourbon — which the host is happy to supply too much of — or maybe it’s more subtle, like a tendency to become distracted by long stories.

In my quest to survive those cutthroat poker games — because you had to play to win, and playing meant risking it all on a frequent basis — I learned to spot the guys looking for my tell, and purposely engaged in a disinformation campaign that, on a good night, allowed me one or two opportunities to suck him in with false tells when I suspected I had the better hand.

They hate that, getting beat at their own game.

The nurturing of weaknesses, though, was mostly over my head. I understood the concept, but after you get past the obvious stuff, like getting your opponent drunk or distracted, you sort of have to engage in some real sociopathic behavior, and I never had the stomach for it.

I always wanted to win, but I could accept losing, too. Part of life. Winning all the time would be boring, like playing against children.

But I’ve never forgotten how good some of those guys were at working on your weakness. If you had an anger problem, they would needle it mercilessly. If you’d just gone through a bad relationship spell, they had a juicy piece of disturbing gossip to nail you with at just the right time. If you were especially light in the wallet that night, they would feed on that vulnerability.

It’s painful to be on the receiving end, but damn it’s interesting to watch.

A disturbing number of people bring their poker chops into the business world. I say “disturbing” because, in my view, it’s good business to practice win-win as much as possible. But after you’ve been around the block a few times, you realize there are folks out there who aren’t happy with winning… unless someone else also loses.

Zero sum game, just like poker. I win, you lose.

Free market poker, so to speak. Vicious. Law of the jungle… like when there’s a drought, and suvival of the fittest goes into overdrive.

Anyway, it’s a good thing to remember, when you’re in negotiations over a matter. The other guy may be studying you for tells — ticks that reveal your decision-making process. (Certainly, car salesmen do this.)

It’s very hard to suddenly control yourself, too, if you’ve never practiced. Trying to be steely-eyed and “blank” almost never works. The good poker player can spot an eyelash quivering.

Easy way to blunt his advantage (at least for a while): Throw out false tells. Scratch your ear three successive times while agreeing with him, and if you’ve fooled him, you’ll have that one advantage in your bag of tricks for later. If you want him to think you’re agreeing, but you’re not, just scratch your ear.

The next move is yours, at that point, instead of his. It can be as dramatic as capturing his queen in a chess game.

Of course, once he catches on — and he will — you’ll be hard-pressed to fool him again.

But you will have that one opportunity to score big.

The weakness thing requires more practice. And I don’t like getting to that point, anyway — if any project I’m in comes down to that kind of deep psychological warfare, screw it.

I’ll go find a win-win situation elsewhere.

I think most people agree with me — game-playing in business is just bad vibes all the way around. Decent, well-meaning guys can win in today’s global economy, and do. We’re not in an economic “drought”, so you don’t really need to haul out the jungle tactics.

That’s why we have poker — a contained game where all is fair, and let the best (and most devious) man win.

You know, I sorta miss that old college floating game. Not the opportunity to dominate an opponent and take the pot… but the intensity of the learning curve, and the gut-check urgency of each dealt hand while I desperately tried to figure out the profiles of my opponents.

Those lessons, learned early, came in handy often throughout my career. That’s why I pass them on now.

Don’t be that sucker at the table. Just knowing that, sometimes, you’re gonna be up against the practiced sociopath can keep you from getting taken.

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

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  • Bernie Malonson says:

    John, thanks for another solid post. I have long been a fan of the philosophy, “If you don’t know who the mark is, you are the mark.” It can save you quit a bit of money in the long run, both in poker as well as life.

    Keep ’em coming, as they are always enjoyed.


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