Joel Dillard & Associates

Representing Working People

Poker: Lawyers playing games in litigation

Studying games is a good way to understand strategy in real life situations - including in litigation. We discussed the ultimate game of perfect information - chess - last time. Today, the opposite: poker.

Poker: incomplete information, probability and psychology

Chess we described as a game of perfect information and no luck. In poker we find things quite different. In, for example, Texas Hold'em, you start betting when you only know two of the cards in play, when there are going to be 2x + 5 cards in play by the end of the hand. The game depends on two qualities in the player:

Probabilities in poker

Before you can even begin guessing who is bluffing and how to play your hand, you have to know how strong it is. The simplest part of this task - that every casual player can manage - is to know which hand you have, and which other hands it wins and loses to. This is fundamental, like understanding how the chess pieces move.

Next you have to know during the game the probable strength of what you will have when the hand is over. For example, before any cards are laid down, which has better chances to win, a pocket pair of 10s or AK - and how much better? Later on, what are the chances that you complete your flush on the turn or the river? or your straight? You cannot bet intelligently without knowing the answer.

At the final level of statistical sophistication, you can improve further by understanding not only your own probabilities, but, based solely on the cards on the table (and in your hand), the probabilities of the strength of hand of other players.

Once these probabilities are mastered, you can generate a theoretically correct value for each hand at each moment. This is the baseline of information needed to decide how to bet. Most casual players do not take advantage of all this reliable information revealed by the game.

In a very short game, luck outweighs probability and it doesn't matter so much. But as more hands are played, the balance shifts. In theory, over an infinite number of poker hands, the end result should approach that of true calculation.

Betting psychology

Psychology begins with the player understanding and managing himself. How do you react to an unlucky loss? How do you react to a win? A strong grounding in the probabilities helps manage these tendencies.

And then we get to what most people think of as the essence of poker: unreliable information. This comes in two types: information from the bets themselves, and information from tells and other understandings of psychological tendencies.

Is that big bet a sign of confidence in a strong hand, or a bluff designed to drive out the competition and win by default? Is a small bet a sign of weakness, or is it designed to increase the size of the pot by keeping people in the game for longer?

Then there are tells, the most famous element of poker. This is how the pros eat the online poker nerds at the table in Vegas. It involves reading another person's physical mannerisms for information about their emotional state and thus the strength of their hand. Experience and close observation reveal tells over time. Sunglasses, hats, carefully maintained breathing and posture, and even video replay review - these are the tools used at the highest levels to try to limit a player's own tells.

Poker and litigation

Litigation is more like poker than chess, especially in two crucial phases. First, in the pre-trial phase, during discovery, all the participants have incomplete information and must make intelligent guesses of how to value the case, and where to look to improve its value. Later, at trial, the psychology of the jury becomes key. In voir dire, the lawyers read tells to help pick a jury. And during trial, the lawyer is always probing where the jury is psychologically and adjusting his approach in response.


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