“All-in” Bets Can Ruin Reputations

December 6, 2019

Critical Take-Aways

  • All-in bets make for dramatic spectacles in poker, particularly when the player is risking everything on a bluff. 
  • People who have made mistakes might also double down on their denials and counter-attacks: they go all-in on the cover-up. 
  • This damages them more than the original charge when the truth comes out and drags others down with them. Instead, go all-in on your apology with sincerity and humility.

In the world of high-stakes poker, the most dramatic play occurs when someone pushes all their chips into the middle of the table and declares they’re “All in!” Most of the time, their opponent folds and this technique works. Going all-in lets them walk away triumphant. But sometimes they get called, and sometimes that call reveals that it was all a bluff and they lose everything.

As a poker strategy, going all-in works. Until it doesn’t.

When it comes to one’s reputation, going “all in” can have similarly catastrophic consequences.

Dennis Bonnen and Brandon Taubman are not household names, but their falls from power are case studies in how not to apologize for a mistake. For them going “all in” was the worst thing they could have done. Both men irreparably damaged not only their own reputation but also the reputation of the organizations they were part of. 

Bonnen and Taubman both made mistakes for which an immediate, sincere apology would likely have preserved their positions and protected their organizations’ reputations. Instead, neither was truthful and they tried to bluff their way out of trouble. When their stories were challenged, both men attacked the credibility of their challengers, going “all in” on their deceit. Both were initially defended by key people within their organizations but when the truth came to light Bonnen, Taubman, and their organizations were pulled down by their dishonesty. 

Bonnen’s Backroom Deal

Dennis Bonnen was elected by his peers to be the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives in January 2019, rising to the chamber’s highest leadership position after serving 22 years as a member.

After receiving bipartisan praise for how he led the House during the biennial legislative session, Bonnen met with Michael Q. Sullivan, the head of an organization that has spent millions of dollars in the past decade targeting ‘insufficiently conservative’ Republicans. Those efforts resulted in Sullivan having a less than desirable reputation among the Texas Capitol crowd.

About a month later, Sullivan accused Bonnen of a potentially illegal legislative quid pro quo. He claimed Bonnen offered his group long-denied media credentials – which would give them access to members on the House floor – if Sullivan’s group would limit its attacks to a list of 10 specific Republican members. 

To many observers of Texas politics, this sounded absurd, and Bonnen flatly denied Sullivan’s account. In a memo to all House members, Bonnen accused Sullivan of trying to “further create chaos among our caucus” and said Sullivan’s accusation was just “another chapter in [his] ongoing effort to divide and ultimately destroy the Republican majority in the Texas House.” Bonnen went “all in” on his denials, prominent Texas legislators publicly defended Bonnen, and longtime political pundits opined that Sullivan had finally gone too far.

Except, it was all true. 

Sullivan had secretly recorded the meeting, and he released the recording to the public. Dozens of legislators called for Bonnen’s resignation or replacement. A week later, Bonnen announced he would not seek re-election. Because there are no constitutional means of replacing him until the Texas Legislature reconvenes, Bonnen remains a lame-duck Speaker until January 2021.

Taubman’s Tirade

Brandon Taubman was the assistant general manager of the Houston Astros baseball team. A former investment analyst and a statistics whiz kid, Taubman had helped transform a team that lost 111 games in 2013 into a World Series champion in 2017. He steadily gained more responsibility and a higher profile each year as the team improved.

In October 2019, the Astros won the American League Championship, clinching their second trip to the World Series in three years. After the series-clinching game, the players and the organization’s leaders partied in the clubhouse. According to Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein, Taubman “turned to a group of female reports, including one wearing a purple domestic-violence awareness bracelet, and yelled half a dozen times, ‘Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so f—— glad we got Osuna!'”

Taubman was reportedly referring to Astros relief pitcher Roberto Osuna, whom the Astros had acquired in a trade the previous season and whose pitching contributed to that season’s success. Houston traded Osuna while he was suspended for 75 games after being charged with domestic abuse in 2018 while a member of another team. 

Apstein stressed that “none of the women were talking to [Osuna]. They weren’t even talking about Osuna. Taubman brought him up.” She added that “the outburst was offensive and frightening enough that another Houston staffer apologized.”

Taubman denied targeting the women, and another Astros employee backed-up his side of the story. Initially, the Astros declined to comment. but after Apstein’s story was published online, the Astros released a statement calling the story “misleading and completely irresponsible” and blaming Apstein for attempting “to fabricate a story where one does not exist.” Taubman went “all in,” and the Astro’s management backed him up.

Except, it was all true. 

Several other reporters confirmed Apstein’s account of the incident and Taubman was fired two days later. In a statement, the Astros organization said, “Our initial investigation led us to believe that Brandon Taubman’s inappropriate comments were not directed toward any reporter. We were wrong.”

Unfortunately, by this time, the damage had been done to the individual and the organization.

The Proper Place for “All-in” Bets

In poker, the point of building up a big chip stack is that it enables you to intimidate your opponents into backing down even though they might have the better hand.

But a reservoir of goodwill isn’t the same as a pile of poker chips. The point of building a reservoir of goodwill is to get the benefit of the doubt from the public when mistakes are made and quickly follow with truthful, sincere, and empathetic apologizes. The point is not to shove it into the middle of the table to force your critics to be silent as you bluff with a lie.

This is what both Bonner and Taubman tried to do with disastrous results for themselves and, more importantly, the organizations that backed them up.

However, there is a time for “all in” bets after something goes wrong. 

Remember, not every poker player is bluffing when they go all in. Those are just the more memorable occasions, the ones people are more likely to remember. Instead, there are also plenty of occasions when players go all-in based on a strong hand. 

It should be the same in the wake of a crisis or critical moment.

Take advantage of whatever “cards” you have to go all in on your apology: draw upon your reservoir of good will, your reputation and the stakeholders who trust you. Be sincere, be straightforward and go all in on your apology.

People make mistakes, and the public is often willing to forgive them when a sincere apology is promptly given. However, the public will not, and should not, forgive an apology when it’s following an initial lie or denial.

When your reputation is on the line after a mistake has been made, the proper bet is to apologize sincerely, quickly and humbly. Go “all in” on your apology, not on the cover-up.


Filed under: Blog

Jeff Blaylock

Jeff is an experienced strategic communications and public affairs professional who has advised organizations through challenging media and political environments, public affairs campaigns, reputation management, message development and crises.