Do we play chess or poker?

You can negotiate at work as if you were playing poker or as if you were playing chess. What do you prefer?

A few days ago I talked on the phone with someone never met before: Paolo. He had gotten my number from a friend in common and he was looking for someone to help a client of his to fix their governance: “they can’t make decisions clearly and this is quite expensive for us as providers, but they accepted our help”. I quickly showed interest: what’s better than contributing fixing a whole small ecosystem rather than just a single organisation? You know, I’ve got a soft spot for systemic thinking…

Obviously we eventually came at the point of talking about money, to understand who and how much should be paid. Should I have worked straight for Paolo? For Paolo’s company? And how much? According to the time spent on this job? According to the agreed value of my consulting? And could we measure this value? Having a soft spot for negotiation too, I am aware that every negotiation is a game and a meta-game so I immediately tried to point ours towards a good approach. I said to Paolo on the other side of the phone: “Paolo, let’s play chess, not poker”. What did I mean?


In the game of poker players don’t share the same information. I know my hand and you know yours. All the game mechanics — betting and raising — are meant to buy information about your opponent’s hand. If my opponents place a first bet it suggests they’ve got some minimum value in their hands. Then, if they keep on raising, I might be led into believing they can rely on a great combination of cards. Sure, they may bluff, but a bluff is exactly based on the hints I provide about my hand, hopefully making my opponents give up.

Chess players play in a somehow opposite scenario. The board is the same for both players and no one can conceal any information from the other one. If I see pieces placed in some way, you may rely on the same positions too and elaborate your own strategy accordingly. The outcome of our fight will be then resulting from the combination of our skills — joint with our ability to cope with emotions, but not from any so-called information asymmetry. In both games the goal is to win by beating the opponent, but in playing chess maximum transparency rules.


OK, so?

If negotiations are games — and they are — I prefer to negotiate by playing chess, not poker. I prefer to understand all parties’ needs, not acting like I don’t know everyone is trying to maximise their outcome, but stating quietly that I am aiming to do the same. I prefer to attribute and acknowledge the value of everyone’s contribution to understand how to redistribute the value generated all together and how to gain my share. I prefer to exploit transparency to make my position in the negotiation stronger, not weaker, because it removes any chance for the opponent to bluff or to underestimate me suspecting a bluff.

The first game we play in negotiation is the most important: the one to tell what game we are playing.

Paolo, let’s play chess, not poker.

Sure Jacopo! Full disclosure: on Monday we’ll talk and we’ll discuss it!”.

Transparency is a powerful weapon because it forces all poker players to sit down at our chessboard. Luckily with Paolo it was not needed, but most important is that I know I wouldn’t need any concession from him.

Now I am only left with my game to play!


Who am I?

I help organisations improve their value stream. Thinking lean since 2003, now caring about negotiation & governance issues. I am a member of Cocoon Projects and a fan of LiquidO. As an author I published a couple of nerd books and I am now writing a new book about negotiation and contracts for knowledge workers. I also love singing a cappella, gliding, sailing and travelling far.

This article was published in italian a few weeks ago here.

Photo by Olu Eletu
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