Play the man, not the odds

Recently I got to read the autobiography of Richard Branson— creatively titled ‘Losing My Virginity‘ as the founder of the Virgin Group of companies. In it he talks of how he accidentally discovers a letter to the rest of the team by his friend and business partner Nik; which proposed to put Richard out of control and restructure their first magazine Student in the 1960s.Student magazine cover

Instead of confronting Nik head on, or telling him that he had found the letter; Richard asks to meet him outside and inform him instead that a few of the teams members had spoken to him about the plan and how they didn’t like it (even though they had not).

Therefore he suggested that the Nik leave the magazine, and that they should remain just friends— which they did. (They did later get together again to work on Virgin Records).

Even at a young age he diffused the situation cleverly — because if he had brought it up with the rest of the team there was a better chance of them siding with Nik; which would have lost Richard control of the business. One could argue that it could have ended his future in business and what it evolved to become right then and there.


“Play the man, not the odds” — a quote to love from the popular TV show Suits. And poker.

Some arguments you can’t win by playing the odds. 90% of all startups fail, so if you’re playing with logic you might as well just never try. Most of the time though, what you can’t win with logic; you could win with emotion or in other word: by playing the man.

While most of this gets passed on as business advice, they all have their roots embedded in human psychology. So let’s look at it from that perspective; in a wide range of settings from business to political arguments.

Make them nervous

“Some guys have all the luck, some guys have all the pain, some guys get all the breaks, some guys do nothing but complain.” — Rod Stewart

Not everyone’s born with equal confidence, and you don’t have to be. It’s something you get to build up as you learn, fail and then finally succeed. The secret to closing a deal is based on logic, but closing the best possible deal takes emotion.

Get your way by being the alpha in the room. They say people don’t like being around alpha personalities; but the truth is most people want to be associated with them. Be direct, get to the point, get your way.

Showing that you’re the alpha puts people off their guard; makes them nervous and therefore more likely to comply with you. But keep your reactions in check because what you need is not dominance, but cooperation.

For example, one study in 2013 found that making too much eye contact during an argument makes your opponent less likely to be persuaded, which goes against the social norm that says maintaining eye contact shows assertiveness.

“Cognitive miser” theory

We have a tendency to take mental short cuts when making decisions. If you’ve ever tried to teach somebody something you’ll sometimes find yourself stuck, and realize how little you knew of the topic in the first place. Most of the time what happens here is that we mistake our familiarity with a topic to a deep understanding of it — “the illusion of explanatory depth“.

According to another study published in 2013 you could use this to your benefit in any argument; regardless of the topic. Simply ask your opponent how they think their view point can bring about the effect they claim it would; in other words ask them to explain how it would work (instead of giving reasons).

The study clearly showed that when people were asked to explain their point of view step-by-step; they quickly softened their views, thereby making it far easier for you to convince them of your side. Make them change their own mind.

Stay cool

If you push your opponent to a corner and antagonize them, the chances are it’s more likely to harden their views; making it even harder to change their mind. Act happy and confident. Let your opponent sense that you are giving his/her argument a thoughtful review. At least seem open minded even if you are not, and diffuse the tension.

You don’t need to be a veteran to think like one — everyone has to start somewhere, so force yourself to keep your composure in tough situations and teach yourself to be a professional.

Show them what you bring to the table

Be upfront about what you bring to the table; show your value and why they should hire or do business with you. Then if need be make the case as to why they should pay you [any amount here] to do it.

Do enough prior research so you can make informed decisions. This also makes sure you don’t get caught by surprise with new information. If someone challenges your facts and you stick to your guns anyways just to win the argument — the chances are you’ll loose and undermine any future conversations or deals. So do your research.

Know your audience

That phrase isn’t just hot air; it’s meant to give your argument a sense of direction. Tailor your argument to fit the audience.

Being able to look from the other persons perspective is a great asset. Perhaps you could see what’s driving the other person to make that specific argument and empathize. In any case it can help calm down the debate/deal and help both come to a resolution.

Psychologists use the Moral Foundations Theory to explain the differences in political beliefs. MFT posits that there are five foundations to moral beliefs: Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion and Sanctity/degradation. Understanding your opponents morality in a political argument can allow you spot their ‘weak points’ and target your argument accordingly.

Here’s a great example of how this could work from www.nymag.com:

Let’s put this into (hypothetical) practice. Say you’re arguing with an uncle who insists that the Boy Scouts should continue their policy of excluding openly gay people from being scout leaders. “For thousands of years, society has been built on one man, one woman,” he insists. “It just seems like a dangerous and unnatural social experiment to start having role models teaching kids that it’s okay to be gay.”

Here’s how to respond, and how not to:

Wrong response: No, it hasn’t! The concept of heterosexual, one-man, one-woman marriage is actually really new. Haven’t you read the Bible? Dudes had tons of wives back then! It’s like conservatives just conveniently ignore all this history when they’re trying to fight gay rights.

Why it’s wrong: Too nerdy and fact-y and confrontational. Remember that his opinion on this is probably coming from deep gut feelings rather than because he has expertly sifted the history and data.

Better: I think you’re definitely right that there’s a long-standing, wonderful tradition of one-man, one-woman relations. I totally respect how much you care about that institution — I do, too! I think my main reason for supporting allowing gay people to be scout leaders is that I have some gay friends who were Boy Scouts growing up, and who seriously treasure the lessons they learned during that time. They have the same ideals as you and I do, love our country for the same reasons, and even root for the same sports teams. They just want to give back to an organization that helped shape who they are, that taught them all sorts of invaluable life skills.

Why it’s better, and which of the points of advice you’re following: You’re not engaging with his questionable historicizing (forget facts), you’re being calm and respectful (don’t be such a dick), you’re sidestepping questions of disgust or what is or isn’t natural (defuse disgust — well, halfway, since you’re simply ignoring it), and you’re invoking the loyalty/betrayal framework by implying that Americans are all the same (unleashing some Moral Foundations Theory). That’s four of the five tools in just a few sentences — a dazzling Bruce Lee–esque combo of rhetorical mastery.


It’s no surprise that the title quote is used frequently in poker. Most of the time you get ahead by reading the opponent; usually to spot if they might be bluffing. Playing some poker is a good way to flex some of theses skills in a different setting.

You’ll come across plenty of situations where these skills could benefit you if you keep your eyes open, and the best way to do that is to always be aware of your surrounding and the people around you. Although do keep in mind that these ‘tricks’ could just as easily be used against you; so be prepared.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I write regularly about design, science, tech and all things I find interesting. Get my essays delivered right to your inbox by subscribing.