What’s Your “Tell”

In late 2003, a small group of architects gathered at one of their houses for a night of cards and conversation.  

That group was part of slightly larger group of architects who all worked for the same firm in Baltimore, at that time one of the largest firms in the city.  This group had been meeting to talk about the direction of the firm, the current and proposed firm leadership, and their place in the future of both.  There was real concern among the members of this group about the people that the current leadership had tapped to lead the firm moving ahead.  This group took it upon themselves to request a meeting with the firm leadership to share their thoughts and concerns, and to see how they could be part of the discussions that would have a very real impact on their futures, much more so than these decisions would have on those currently making them.  The group and their concerns were summarily dismissed by the leadership.

In the aftermath, the members of the group each thought about their next steps.  Some decided to stay and try to work with leadership to find a way to address this. Others developed exit-strategies, believing that their efforts and energies may be better spent elsewhere.  Whether or not the grass was any greener, it was at least a different shade of green.

I was among that latter segment of the group and was the first to actually execute my exit strategy.  Our gathering for cards that December night, in the week between Christmas and New Years, was right after I had given notice.  I recall having had a meeting with the President of the firm, possibly even earlier that same day, certainly within days of that first poker night.  We both sat at the small conference table in his office.  He had an unlabeled sealed white envelope sitting on the table in front on him.  He started by asking me why I was leaving.  I simply said that I needed a change, something different. Something that by definition my current place of employment could not provide.  I was going to open a branch office in Baltimore for an out-of-state firm.  

The President picked up the envelope and began to slowly tap it on the table.  I did not ask what it was or what was in it.  I knew – it was some form of a counteroffer,  likely offering a salary jump, perhaps large, as well as maybe a promotion, likely with more responsibility.  Eventually he seemed to be getting frustrated by my steadfastness, and said “You know, 85% of these things fail.”  I offered the only response there was to such a statement, simply saying “Yes, and 15% succeed.”  At that point I detected a slight slumping in his shoulders, a white flag.  He stood and extended his hand, wishing me all the best.  I shook his hand and thanked him for everything.  The unlabeled white envelope remained in his hand, unopened.

The discussion during that night of poker-playing naturally revolved around my departure and the firm I was leaving.  At the end of the night, we agreed that this was fun, and we should do it again next month.  Someone else volunteered to host.  Thus began a more than 15-year run of a group of us gathering at someone’s house on a monthly basis for a night of cards and comradery.  The host provided beverages and snacks.  We played nickel-dime-quarter poker.  If someone won more than $20 in a night, it was unusual.  When you won, it was usually enough to upgrade your morning coffee to an extra-large, and no one ever lost enough to keep from putting food on the family table.  And in reality, it has never been about the money.  The betting is part of the game, but not the reason we play.

Anyone who has played poker knows that one of the major factors in being consistently good is that you must play the other players, not just your cards. Those you play are likely doing this as well, some more successfully than others. Poker is a wonderful mixture of luck of the draw (literally) and skill, along with consistency, a healthy dose of math, and excellent people-reading skills. Poker players talk about “tells”, those visual clues we all exhibit, usually unconsciously, that may somehow offer insight into the contents of your opponent’s

After a few years of playing dealers-choice poker, which involved such wacky games as “Follow the Queen”, “Night Baseball”, “Guts”, and all manner of variations, we eventually settled into a pretty steady diet of playing “Texas

Many consider this the purest form of poker. Each player is dealt two cards face down, called you hole cards. Five cards are dealt face up that all players can use. The cards not dealt all at once but rather first three (called the flop), then a fourth (called the turn) and finally the fifth card – the river. There are four rounds of betting – one pre-flop and then again after each of the three card steps noted above. Each player makes the best five-card hand they can between their own hole cards and the five shared or community cards.

Those are the basics of the game. But this just scratches the surface about how the game is really played. There are many strategies and actions a player can use to their advantage, often regardless of their cards. Things like “slow-playing”, and “check-raises”, along with all manner of “bluffing” create a dynamic whereby often the cards and the actual hands are secondary. The goal is obviously to win the hand and all the chips in the pot.

In the cases when the players remaining in the hand reveal their hole cards, it’s the player with the highest-ranking hand that wins. So obviously it’s important to know the ranking of hand strengths – high card, pair, two-pair, three-of-a-king, straight, flush, full house, four-of-a-kind, straight flush, of which the highest hand of all is the famous Royal Flush (by simple math, the odds of hitting a royal flush are 1:650,000.)

However, it’s also fairly common that the hand ends without anyone actually revealing cards. When all but one player folds their cards, the last one standing wins the hand, regardless of their cards. Therefore, it is not only possible, but also quite common, for the winning hand not to be the highest-ranking hand. This is where strategy trumps luck. This is where “tells” become important. To allow someone to sniff out a bluff versus a really dominating hand. And to then be able to act accordingly. Factoring in not just your own hole cards, but what’s on the board and what you know about your opponents and their tendencies and “tells.”

Prior to this pandemic, our monthly gatherings rotated houses around the greater Baltimore area.  The only criteria for membership in this poker group is that all members must have at one time worked for the firm that I left back in 2003.  This firm no longer exists, one of many architecture firms that became a casualty of the “Great Recession” last decade. Now, the various members have been meeting virtually, finding an on-line forum that allows for a real-time private game to be played.  We also set up a simultaneous Zoom call, so we can at least maintain our mindless banter during the game, and can see each other’s faces, albeit greatly reduced on the tiny Zoom screens.  Still, it’s just enough to help us discern the occasional “tell.”

Two nights ago, during what are now weekly on-line gatherings (after all, just how much Netflix can you watch?), I was in a hand with another guy, arguably one of the best, if not the best player in our group.  We have been playing cards together since that first game over 15 years ago and have developed a pretty good idea of each other’s tendencies and “tells.”  As well as a healthy appreciation of each other’s ability to bluff, or maybe bluff that we’re bluffing.  The trick to a successful bluff is to have the conviction to carry it through, aided by the belief that you have the winning hand and can win, regardless of the strength of your hole cards and hand ranking.

That night, during that hand, I had that conviction.  I had a hand that wasn’t bad.  But based on the five cards that were showing, I knew that there were several hands better than mine.  And I knew that my opponent was likely in the same boat – he knew the value of his hand and also knew what the better potential hands were. And even though we were both limited by Zoom in our abilities to fully “read” each other and discern any “tells”, I believed that if I represented that I had a higher ranking hand, a hand that was better than my opponent’s, I could get him to fold and I would win the pot.

After the fifth card was revealed – the River – and the betting came to me, I went all-in – putting all my remaining chips in the pot, representing that I believed that my hand was better than his.  While my remaining chips at that time weren’t a lot (I was in that difficult condition known in poker circles as being “short-stacked”), it was still enough to make my opponent think hard and decide if he wanted to match my bet.  Because I acted first, I forced him to react to my representation that I had a higher-ranking hand.  He ultimately folded to me, allowing me to rake in the chips.  

As he did so, he said “I had a pair of Jacks.”  He didn’t ask what I had, but poker etiquette says that if your opponent shares what he had when not required to, it’s courteous to return the favor in some form.  I responded simply by saying “that would have won.”  My hand was not higher than a pair of Jacks.  Yet despite not having the highest-ranking hand, through my conviction and ability to read and synthesize a lot of information, I ended up with the winning hand.  

And in poker (and maybe in life) that’s a very important distinction.  I have to be clear that while I beat the best player in our group in that hand on that night, he has won way more hands off me over the years than I have off him.  Both by having better cards and by getting me to fold.  In poker, good players often play only a small percentage of hands. And they often win a small number of those they play.  But the number grows when they are able to have the belief that they can win the hand, regardless of what cards they and their opponents have.  It doesn’t always work.  And, just like in life, no matter how convicted you are, no matter how well you read the “tells” and process the information, luck can still rule the day.

You cannot control what cards are dealt.  But you can be prepared to evaluate them, assess the information available, read the “tells”, and make a decision as to whether you believe you have the winning hand.  Armed with that belief, its possible to win, even if you’re not dealt the best cards.

Oh, and to this day I still do not know what was in that unlabeled envelope.  It didn’t matter, nor did I care.  I had already made up my mind before that meeting.  There was nothing in that envelope that could have changed my mind.  I had the conviction that what I was doing was what I needed to do.  I went all-in that December day in 2003, sitting at the small conference table, staring at the President of the firm, reading his “tells.” And he folded.

Published by Toes in the Sand

Travel-loving architect, self-proclaimed foodie and future retired beach-bum who is a spouse, brother and son of English teachers, hoping to share thoughts, memories and musings with anyone who is interested, curious or bored.

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