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Poker Face

A soft chatter died away as I entered the ornately decorated room. I ambled up to the waist-high table, pinched the brim of my fedora as a subdued greeting, and removed my Wayfarers—a standard courtesy to my opponents, though not a hard-and-fast rule. The artificial lighting was adequate for the game. I parked my posterior on a surprisingly comfortable swiveling desk stool and muttered a terse introduction of myself as I rested my feet on the chrome foot-ring. Each of my adversaries offered his own similarly insipid introduction. As they did, I studied their faces hoping to find a tell-tale chink in the armor of their stony expressions. No luck. Nor was there the slightest hint of anything remotely resembling a note of joviality to check the cloud of sobriety that stifled the air. This was a game, after all, but a high-stakes match to be sure, so I declined the customary beverage offer—bent on keeping a clear mind—and hunkered down for the first deal.


OK, so maybe a scope review meeting with a critical GC is not literally a game of poker, but you’ll have to admit the similarities are striking. The pot is fat and the opponents are privy to some of your cards, but they are left guessing what your face-down cards are. The obvious difference lies in the adversarial structure—that is, in poker each player is the opponent of everyone else at the table. But in a scope review meeting it’s us against them. In this episode, them consisted of a project director, two project managers, two estimators, two project coordinators and a superintendent. Us consisted of myself and our president and branch manager.


The negotiated project was a five-story bank building, and the bid entailed both core/shell and interior build-out rolled into one—a high-stakes game. I opened with my bid abstract, quoting from my itemized list of inclusions, exclusions and clarifications. The silence when I finished was palpable. Judging from their granite expressions, my adversaries were apparently unimpressed. I was quickly enlightened as to why as they passed around their own voluminous scope sheet replete with a number of items I hadn’t broached in my abstract. The face-up cards were on the table and were quickly scrutinized and acknowledged. Now it was time to play the hole cards.


Parking fees, a full-time safety officer and a full-time laborer for a composite cleanup crew were assumed by the opposition to be included in my base number. I had some contingency built into my bid, but probably not enough to cover all of that cost. Nevertheless, knowing that I had some pockets of fat tucked away, I gave an almost imperceptible nod that garnered a slightly raised eyebrow from my superior. The others remained stone-faced.


Next came an add-alternate. They wanted a call-back price to replace 50 feet of store-front glass with our exterior EIFS assembly. Knowing that this change would also delete 50 feet of labor-intensive exterior soffit, I provided them with a heavily discounted price on the spot. This netted a restrained smirk from the group as they scribbled my price on their scope sheets. My boss’s eyes narrowed to slits.


Another add-alternate to provide floor protection at all public areas during the taping/finishing process was tossed on the table. Nothing in the instructions to bid indicated this, and no one expected me to include it. But I told them I had it in my number—which I did in a sense with a meager masking contingency—thereby passing up an opportunity to fatten the pot. But it also signaled to the other side of the table that I was playing it pretty straight, softening them up a bit while my boss’s expression began to twist into a grimace.


Now, this job’s plans and specs called for a Level 4 smooth finish. I always figure a Level 5 finish for smooth wall regardless, as the GCs and design team are never satisfied with the end product otherwise. But when the documents call for Level 4, I tend to remain silent in my proposal as to what level of finish I have included. Predictably, the next add-alternate that the group requested was a cost to upgrade to a Level 5. Straight-faced, I told them I’d get back to them with a very competitive price. Let me be clear: There was no falsehood perpetrated here—only a response to a request based on an assumption. I simply withheld any dispute of their assumption, thereby giving me the resources to pay for the items I’d previously given away.


Now came the clincher: It was assumed that my number included the discount for OCIP. I struggled to keep my mouth from falling open. I had apparently missed the OCIP requirement in the instructions to bidders! A negative response would trigger an expectation for me to make a substantial deduction from my base number. A positive one would mean that I could reduce my insurance cost considerably. My number without the discount was apparently competitive, or we wouldn’t be having this meeting. Then too, discounting my number would all but guarantee an award. I held my face in an expressionless state until it hurt, hoping I wasn’t sweating. Miraculously, the group took my silence to be a positive acknowledgement, and the meeting concluded shortly thereafter.


The happy ending to this anecdote lies in the fact that we were awarded the job, and it proved to be a highly profitable one. But I think my tale suitably demonstrates the similarities between a poker game and a scope review, as both require a good deal of skill as well as some measure of blind luck. And so it’s appropriate that Kenny Rogers should provide the lesson for a good approach to scope review meetings: “Know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em.”

Vince Bailey is an estimator/project manager working in the Phoenix area.

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