Ideas From the Front

Courtroom Card Sharks

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Nobody likes to lose. For attorneys, defeat has an especially bitter aftertaste.

Most will do whatever it takes to better their odds of victory. Some work pain­fully long hours on research, sifting through mountains of paperwork and legal texts. Some try meditation and visualization. Others rely on self-hypnosis or voodoo.

And lately, more and more are hitting the poker table.

What used to be a dirty backroom game for roughnecks and cigar-eaters has been reborn as a respectable American pastime. Poker is hot, and poker is everywhere you can’t throw a rock without hitting a stack of chips, and you can’t turn on the TV without seeing Dennis Rodman go “all in” against Doogie Howser on shows like Bravo’s popular Celebrity Poker Showdown.

But is poker more than a passing diversion? Is there more to it than the visceral rush of gambling and the lure of big money pots? And most importantly, can poker make you a better lawyer?

“There are tremendous similarities between being a poker player and being a lawyer,” says Mark Seif, a player since law school. In 2001, the Monrovia, Calif., lawyer requested time off to try his hand at the World Series of Poker. He didn’t fare too well in the main competition, but returned with $700,000 won in side games. The winnings allowed him to quit his job as an in-house general counsel and be a professional poker player ever since.

A Win-Win Situation

The ability to read people, Seif says, is a skill the professors can’t teach in law school. Seif used this skill, which he likens to a sixth sense, during his time as a prosecutor for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and later as a law firm defense lawyer. He says it came in particularly handy when he had to interview people or take depositions.

And it’s paid off in his poker career, too. Since going full time, he has placed first in events such as the Legends of Poker Tournament in Los Angeles and the World Poker Tour Borgata Open in Atlantic City.

The ability to read people also has come in handy for Austin, Texas, attorney Alan Ceshker. Poker, he says, gives people “an enhanced ability to tell when the other guy is going to blink. It’s amazing how accurate you can guess someone after a few minutes of poker.”

A relatively serious player since college, Ceshker often has to stop himself before comparing a client’s legal situation to a similar poker scenario. “I find myself wanting to say, ‘That’s just like poker.’ But I don’t because you never know how they’ll react.”

Ceshker says he sees his poker skills appear most often when he’s settling a case. “Playing poker makes you better at negotiating,” he says. “It helps you evaluate the sincerity of the other guy across the table. Do they have more? Will they accept less? You need to know – don’t want to leave money on the table that could go to my client.”

In both law and poker, Andy Bloch stresses the value of what he calls hidden information. “You won’t do well in poker if you play with your cards face up,” Bloch says. “Sometimes you want to hide your strengths and sometimes you want to appear stronger than you really are.”

After graduating from MIT with two electrical engineering degrees, Bloch played blackjack and poker full time until applying to Harvard Law School. He paid his tuition with blackjack winnings. He passed the bar in 1999, but he decided to forgo firm life and hit the card table full time, joining the newly created World Poker Tour.

Although he doesn’t work as a lawyer, Bloch was able to blend the two talents recently when, representing himself, he fought a municipal regulation charge of crossing a police line at the White House during an anti-war protest. He was acquitted in December 2004 and is convinced that the skills he developed in poker helped him in court.

“You want to get your opponent to make mistakes in poker. You want to do the same thing in a courtroom,” he says. “You need to get your opponent to play your way.” For Ceshker, it’s also about endurance. “A lot of poker is waiting to see who flinches first,” he says. “Law is often the same.”

And Seif says quick thinking is a hallmark of both law and poker. “You need to think on your feet as a lawyer because you’re presented with limited information. Poker players do the same thing–since you can’t see your opponents’ cards, you have to make conclusions on imperfect information,” Seif says.

So if poker can make you a better lawyer, does being a lawyer improve your odds in poker?

It would seem so, considering that the big winner ($5 million) in last year’s World Series of Poker was Greg Raymer, a corporate patent attorney from Connecticut. And the top tier of the game features more than a few attorneys, including Seif, Eric Liebler, Russell Rosenblum, Randy Holland, Dan Harrington and World Poker Tour founder Steve Lipscomb.

“Other lawyers are good opponents,” Bloch says. “To get better in poker it takes a certain amount of studying, dedication and the ability to learn from your mistakes. Lawyers seem to have those skills.”

Negotiation skills also play well in poker, he adds. “And if you’re good at picking a jury, you’ll be good at sizing up your opponents at the table.”

Seif agrees. “The most important things you need to be a good poker player are intelligence and the ability to read people,” he says. “And most lawyers seem to have both.”

But Ceshker doesn’t buy it. “Average lawyers are notoriously bad poker players,” he claims. “They’re type A personalities, and they’re impatient. Trial attorneys are especially aggressive and not well-suited to poker if they don’t learn to strategically convey their emotions.”

One thing, says Seif, is for sure: “There are a lot more lawyers playing poker than people know about.”

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