Who Can Tell

Who Can Tell

In recent years there has been a surge in popularity in the game of poker, particularly of the Texas Hold’em variety.   There are major tournaments played and the pros can be seen almost daily on the cable channels.  What does poker have to do with purchasing?  In some sense both of these disciplines involve negotiation. There is always a goal in negotiating.  The poker player wants to win the pot and the purchasing pro wants to win a good deal.  What can the buyer pick up by studying poker players?  You might be surprised.

As any good poker player knows, it is vitally important to be able to read their opponents … they look for specific “tells” from their competition which provide insights into the nature of the cards they hold.  The purchasing professional can take some tips by watching the poker pros in action.  The visual signals being sent can only be picked up in face-to-face conversations.  It is almost impossible to “read” an opponent in online poker rooms.  It is also difficult for the buyer to “read” the seller by way of e-mail or written proposals.  When a large purchase is being negotiated, it is important for the buyer to demand the negotiations be done in person.

The really great players have developed the skill of reading “tells” and use it to their advantage.  Some common “tells” a buyer can watch for are:

  • Staring down the opponent – This is a form of intimidation poker players use when they don’t have a particularly good hand but want to give the impression that they are “loaded”.  It’s usually a bluff.  A seller may also attempt to intimidate the buyer in a similar way.  They are signaling “you better take my deal or you are a fool”.  This can indicate that the seller thinks that they are in a poor position compared to their competition but wants you think otherwise … a bluff.
  • Acting disinterested – In poker, this can indicate the player has a good hand and is trying to lure the opponents into betting.   Sellers sometimes take a similar approach when they know that they are in a position of strength and that their customer has few options.  In this situation the seller will often exhibit a “take it or leave it … it doesn’t matter to me” attitude.
  • Holding their breath – A poker player will sometimes hold their breath if they are bluffing.  A seller may also do the same thing when they know that they are not in a particularly good bargaining position and are waiting for you to respond to their proposal.
  • Taking a long time to decide – When a poker player does this they are probably trying to calculate the “pot odds” to see if their hand can hold up and if the risk is worth continuing.  They do this when they have a “drawing” hand and want to see the “turn” or “river” cards before making their decision.  A seller who takes a long time to make decisions is likely also mulling over the odds of getting a successful deal.  This can indicate that the seller is unsure of their position and is open to exploring more options.   Here, the buyer is in a good position.
  • Sighing or shrugging – This is a similar tactic to acting disinterested.  It can signal that the player has a very good hand.  When a seller does this it can mean that they see themselves in the catbird seat and think they have the upper hand.
  • Rapid breathing – When a poker player has a particularly good hand, they may signal this by an increase in their rate of breathing.  This can be an almost involuntary response and is often difficult to mask.   If a seller anticipates that you are going to accept their proposition and they think that they have made a “sweet deal” for themselves, they may start rapid breathing in anticipation of your acceptance.   They may think that they have the “nuts” (an unbeatable hand).  Be wary of this tell.This is not a complete list of “tells”, but they illustrate that you can gain valuable insight into the position of the seller by their body language.  It is also important to realize that the really great players know these signs and often go to extremes to send false “tells”.   You need to develop relationships with your supplier representatives and become familiar with the signals they send.  The more that poker players play together, the better they are at reading each other’s idiosyncrasies.   It is the same in supplier negotiations. Demand to deal with the same representatives of the companies you are buying from.Finally, you need to know that the seller is also watching you for your “tells”.  You also need to be aware of this and send them signals that you want to send.  This is not to say that you should be unscrupulous in your negotiations.  Nothing is better for a relationship than to end up with a win-win agreement.  Buyers and suppliers need to be partners to be successful.  But during the negotiations, valuable insight can be gained by watching the “tells” so that both parties end up satisfied.In his song The Gambler, Kenny Rogers offers a similar insight:


He said, “Son, I’ve made a life out of reading people’s faces,

Knowing what the cards were by the way they held their eyes.

So if you don’t mind my saying, I can see you’re out of aces.

For a taste of your whiskey, I’ll give you some advice.”


Learn to read “tells” and improve your negotiating skills.


Gary Drypen is the President of Inland Seas Executive Consulting, Inc., a firm specializing in assisting companies bringing excellence to all areas of their operations.  Visit them at www.iseci.com