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Games Master Manipulators Play: Sandbagging

The difficulty of spotting it makes it a reliable tactic.

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
Source: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

During my childhood, Uncle Remus stories were still quite popular, and so Br'er Rabbit and the tar baby is a story familiar to many of my generation. It’s a clever illustration of the idea of sandbagging that even a child can understand.

Br'er Fox wanted to catch and eat Br'er Rabbit, so he got some tar, made a mock-up of a baby, and put it by the side of the road. Br'er Rabbit spotted the tar baby and became angry when it wouldn’t speak to him. The rabbit assaulted the tar baby and became stuck in Br'er Fox’s trap. When the fox seized him, Br'er Rabbit begged to be eaten, strung up by his heels, set on fire, or whatever, “but please don’t throw me in the briar patch.” Which, of course, the fox did. And so Br'er Rabbit got the last laugh: “Br’er Fox, I was born and bred in the briar patch!”

Sandbagging is manipulative behavior that dupes another person into lowering resistance or expectations, thereby creating an opportunity that the manipulator can exploit. Br'er Rabbit sandbagged Br'er Fox by pretending to fear the briar patch (his means of escape) more than other tortures.

In poker, sandbagging means choosing not to raise on a strong hand at the first opportunity, so as not to spook other players. The sandbagger waits until the pot gets bigger and then raises by a large amount.

In law, sandbagging can mean suing for breach of contract after a deal is finalized, even though you knew beforehand that the other party would be in breach as soon as the contract was signed. It can also mean that a lawyer remains silent during trial when a procedural error has occurred, in hopes of citing the error on appeal to obtain a reversal.

A classic example of sandbagging is a pool hustler who lets his mark win a couple of games before upping the bet. Another is the employee who draws out four hours’ worth of work into eight hours, because finishing in four hours will result in more work being assigned. Malingering — pretending to be ill or injured to get out of work — is a familiar form of sandbagging.

Notice that sandbagging is about channeling the attention of one’s target. Br'er Rabbit did it overtly, by claiming to be afraid of the briar patch, but not of being eaten. This focused the fox’s attention on the briar patch to the exclusion of other tortures. In the examples from poker, law, and pool, covert sandbagging is on display. The target’s attention is already elsewhere. The sandbagger, by silence and inaction, seeks to maintain that person’s lack of awareness of risk or danger.

Master manipulators (Machiavellians or “High Machs,” as explained in this post) rely on cunning, deceit, and stealth to take advantage of others. Sandbagging is a reliable tactic for High Machs, since it is so difficult to spot — until after the trap is sprung. As the Bible recommends, “be ye therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves.”