Look Around the Poker Table; If You Can’t See the Sucker, You’re It

Warren Buffett? Michael Wolff? Amarillo Slim? Poker Proverb? Whispering Saul?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a quotation I have seen in several books and periodicals aimed at investors. Here is one version:

If you have been in a poker game for a while, and you still don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.

These words are sometimes labeled an “old saying” and sometimes attributed to the legendary super-investor Warren Buffett. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Warren Buffett did use a version of this quotation in a letter he sent to the shareholders of his conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway Inc. The letter was dated February 29, 1988, and it summarized business activity in 1987. Buffett discussed a metaphorical figure called “Mr. Market” and indicated that a skilled investor should have knowledge that is superior to that of “Mr. Market” [BHWB]:

Indeed, if you aren’t certain that you understand and can value your business far better than Mr. Market, you don’t belong in the game.  As they say in poker, “If you’ve been in the game 30 minutes and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”

However, Buffett did not claim that he originated the saying; instead, he suggested it was an aphorism used by poker players. QI has located four instances of the saying in 1979 and these appear to be the earliest currently known though earlier examples are likely to exist.

In 1979 the book “The Aggressive Conservative Investor” used a statement of the advice as an epigraph for chapter ten where it was identified as a “Poker Proverb” [ACPP]:

If after ten minutes at the poker table you do not know who the patsy is—you are the patsy.


In June of 1979 in the Atlantic Monthly a story about investing titled “Smart People, Smart Money” included a version of the saying in the summary paragraph that prefaced the article. The words were credited to an individual with the alias “Whispering Saul” [AMWS]:

A stockbroker introduces his financial advisers, such sages as Billy the Shooter and Father Abraham and the wise Whispering Saul, who reminds us, “If you sit in on a poker game and don’t see a sucker, get up. You’re the sucker.”

Here are some additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Look Around the Poker Table; If You Can’t See the Sucker, You’re It

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