That game started more than a decade ago. Today, Obama confronts more-formidablefoes, and for much bigger stakes. But in his first 10-plus months in office, he hasapproached the major issues facing his administration and the country with a pokerplayer's sensibility. That doesn't mean that he necessarily has been dealt good hands. Itdoesn't even mean that he has always played his hands well. He hasn't. What he
done,though, is to make an effort to read his opponents, hold his own cards close, keep astraight face, and wait, calmly, for the winning play.Obama displays "poker-titious" thinking, says James McManus, who has been writingabout the game for years and has just published
Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker
. "He'sa cerebral gatherer of information, who patiently waits for good hands. He doesn't bargein. He wants to make his read very carefully. In that sense, he is like a poker player."Take health care reform, where the game is still on and the outcome uncertain. Obama isdetermined to get a public option. Or is he? He may be bluffing. He may be satisfied witha good pot, and pass up the chance to sweep the table clean. He certainly did not lay outhis hand at the start, as President Clinton (a Hearts player) did with the delivery of adetailed bill to Congress. The stakes are high, but Obama hasn't gone all-in on healthcare. The Republicans, with less to lose, seem to have done just that.
(See theaccompanying analyses of four major issues.)
Poker is enjoying unprecedented worldwide popularity these days. Its roots lie in cardgames that developed in Renaissance Europe -- but it is a quintessentially Americanpastime. Poker spread out from New Orleans in the early 19th century, exactly the wayyou would imagine: on Mississippi River steamboats. Lincoln referred to it, Grant playedit -- as did millions of others down through the years, from Wild Bill Hickok to Harry S.Truman. Richard Nixon financed his first run for Congress with his poker winnings fromhis years in the wartime Navy, McManus reports.Today, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia enjoys a regular poker game or two.Former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York runs both a lobbying firm and a group calledthe Poker Players Alliance.Poker success depends on shrewd calculation and bluffing. Winning is measured not bypoints but by money."It takes all the elements of our society and brings them to the absolute forefront,"Charles Nesson, a Harvard Law School professor and a champion of the game, said at asymposium in Richmond, Va., last year. "I think it has to do with truth and a way of seeing truth. It is a form of strategic thinking. It just has such a nice balance of judgmentand interplay of thought."
Luck, Lies, and the Long Run
Compare poker with other games. Some of Obama's most ardent admirers like to say thathe is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers. By this they mean that he isplaying a game of strategic complexity and thinking many moves ahead. But chess pitsone player against one other player, which is not the way life works. Moreover, it is a