CBA Talk: Nobody Wants It to Get to the River


Today, 8ps9s welcomes Tim Johnson. Tim is a former food industry executive now doing a bit of freelance writing, consulting, and other work in the non-profit sector. He is a passionate, life-long NBA and Laker fan (but I guess we can overlook that). And, as will become obvious, he is also a semi-regular cash game poker player.

In poker, a more subtle version of the bluff is called the semi-bluff. It’s similar to a straight-up bluff, except you’re holding good enough cards that you could win the hand outright. What does this have to do with the NBA contract negotiations? As it turns out, a lot. They have a lot of the hallmarks of a high stakes, no limit hold ‘em hand.

Another aspect of poker is the existence two intersecting axes (that’s more than one axis, not more than one axe) that players can be grouped under. The first is passive or aggressive. This doesn’t denote what cards a player plays, but how he plays them. Both sides of the NBA negotiations, throughout the preliminary hands (pre-lockout) have demonstrated a tendency toward aggression.

The second axis is tight or loose, and indicates what type of a hand a player will play. Will they play a drawing hand, will they bluff, will they “gamble” a bit? The owners are definitely tighter than the players. They have set the narrative starting at big player concessions, and softening only slightly from there. Given the circumstances, the players have a smaller stack (money and playing career), and they’ve been getting a weaker slate of hands (the economy), so they’ve been a bit looser, offering early concessions.

The lockout was the pre-flop, in a poker sense. At this point, everyone has their hole cards, and how they bet them is the precursor to how the hand plays out. Their bets tell a story. The players felt they had a long shot at winning the hand, and the owners felt they had the possible nut hand if they could just raise the players big and long enough. The owners were looking to test the players early, with the imminent threat of an all-in bet (no season). That was their strategy. The players seem willing to split the pot and wait for another hand. But they also don’t want to just cave, so they’ve called all bets pre-flop.

What we’ve come to now is the flop. It is in many ways the most important part of the hand. It’s when the majority of the community cards come out, and where you know for certain whether you have a chance of making a hand, and an indication of how your opponent feels. It’s the time to calculate odds. The players have pretty much checked at this stage, looking for some owner willingness to get out of the hand. The owners have continued to bet, but not hugely, so they might be spooked by the players’ strong reaction to their early bets, and worried about being too aggressive and forcing the players to stay in, if only to save face.

It appears the owners have been working a semi bluff. They think with their chip stack they can risk this season to put the players at risk, but at the same time they realize there’s a downside to a loss. They like their cards, and think they can either draw (litigation) or bluff (players lose too many checks and cave) to a big win, but they are also realizing that the players may get pot committed, and if forced too strongly, have to play it all the way out. Hence the smaller bets here, trying to just get the players to fold after extracting everything they’ll put in. It’s the classic semi-bluff slowdown, since the object of a semi-bluff is to induce a fold, not necessarily duke it out.

We’re about to reach the turn, where real games get canceled. The owners already have the players at a sizable loss. The key for the owners is to know whether they’ve gotten everything, and not push beyond it. Remember, the owners’ hand is not immune from losing. It’s not the nuts, even if it’s favored. Backing off here and accepting the compromise between the positions still gives the owners the hand.

The river comes in January. That’s where someone folds or both risk the big loss. Neither side really wants to get to the river. The stakes go up. Both realize there is a number the players will fold at, and the owners are weighing whether or not they’ve already gotten to it. Both sides are also considering the next hand (a future CBA negotiation). The players will fold if they have enough chips left not to be at a crippling disadvantage in that hand. They’re on the edge of that right now. If the owners push too hard they may give up the season because there’s no real downside. They’d have to play it out and hope to draw well in court or decertification, or a combination of the two.

The owners have a solid win on the table right now. It’s time to take it.