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Obama as a Poker Player - National Journal Magazine (12/05/09)

Obama as a Poker Player - National Journal Magazine (12/05/09)

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Life is not a crapshoot. Politics is not chess. Character is not a round of golf.

If there is a single game that comes closest to recapitulating modern existence -- that both mimics and informs the logic of a cluttered, challenging, bewilderingly complicated, less-than-all-knowing, partially comprehensible human society -- it is poker, where quantitative analysis and calculated deception come together, and where skill wins out over luck in the long run, except that most people don't have the luxury of waiting until then.
Life is not a crapshoot. Politics is not chess. Character is not a round of golf.

If there is a single game that comes closest to recapitulating modern existence -- that both mimics and informs the logic of a cluttered, challenging, bewilderingly complicated, less-than-all-knowing, partially comprehensible human society -- it is poker, where quantitative analysis and calculated deception come together, and where skill wins out over luck in the long run, except that most people don't have the luxury of waiting until then.

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Published by: pokerplayersalliance on Dec 05, 2009
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December 5, 2009National JournalCover Story: When Is Obama Bluffing?
The President Approaches Issues with a Poker Player's Sensibility, Learned By Playing the Quintessentially American Game.
by Will Englund
High StakesAn analysis of Obama's potential approach to four major issues.
 
 
The Players:
Obama, Republicans, "Blue Dog" Democrats, liberal Democrats, insurancecompanies, hospitals, doctors
The Stakes:
 Health care availability, the federal budget, political powerHis opponents think they can drive Obama out of the tournament in this game.Life is not a crapshoot. Politics is not chess. Character is not a round of golf.If there is a single game that comes closest to recapitulating modern existence -- that bothmimics and informs the logic of a cluttered, challenging, bewilderingly complicated, less-than-all-knowing, partially comprehensible human society -- it is poker, wherequantitative analysis and calculated deception come together, and where skill wins outover luck in the long run, except that most people don't have the luxury of waiting untilthen.President Obama calls himself a pretty good poker player, with skills honed back whenhe took part in a regular game in Springfield, Ill. The other players in that game --lobbyists and fellow members of the state Senate -- describe him as a cautiousparticipant: patient, conservative, patient, level-headed, patient, affable -- and did wemention patient?
 
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
has
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
 
game of "complete information," as McManus points out. There are no unknowns."Chess players can't lie to each other," he says.In dice games, on the other hand, there is no information at all to be gleaned. Successrelies on the roll of the dice. That makes craps an emotional, sociable, sometimesdelirious game. A lot of pleasure comes with winning, but outwitting your opponents haslittle to do with it.Craps (which is Sen. John McCain's favorite game) was what President Bush was playingwhen he launched the war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein seems to have been playing pokeragainst him, bluffing on weapons of mass destruction and calling what he thought wasBush's invasion bluff. Neither came out a winner.Poker falls between craps and chess. It has multiple players, offers a partial amount of information to each, provides each with a means of deducing more information, and hasan element of variability. In other words, players have to play the hand they're dealt, and,as in life, it's not always a good one. Its partisans say that poker is a game of skill, notchance; but unless time is infinite, luck always plays a role. A player is tested by the luck that comes his or her way. In that sense, poker resembles baseball, and, like baseball, itbuilds on the history of what has come before. What happened at 9 p.m. can offer crucialinsight into how the players will conduct themselves at 1 a.m.One of the founders of modern game theory, Oskar Morgenstern, was an adviser toPresident Eisenhower on nuclear arms, and he pointed out that the Cold War was nothinglike the chess match it was frequently compared to. Poker, he said, was the betterdescriptor, built as it is around luck, deceit, and cost-effectiveness. Chess, the Russiangame, versus the American-born poker -- and yet the Russians seem to have picked upthe knack for poker as time went on. One metaphor, from the Kennedy years: Aftertaking JFK's measure at a summit in Vienna, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev raisedthe stakes by sending missiles to Cuba. Kennedy re-raised him with a naval embargo.Khrushchev folded. Was Khrushchev conceding defeat, or was he making a smart movein a game that he knew would continue? Probably the latter. The exchange also included,as it turns out, a side bet under which the U.S. removed Jupiter missiles from Turkey."Poker is closest to the Western conception of life," John Lukacs wrote in 1963, in
Poker and the American Character 
, "where life and thought are recognized as intimatelycombined, where free will prevails over philosophies of fate or of chance, where men areconsidered moral agents, and where -- at least in the short run -- the important thing is notwhat happens but what people think happens."That last thought certainly gets at contemporary American political culture as practicedby Obama and nearly everyone else. Poker, McManus says, is about "leveraginguncertainty."
Obama "Too Cautious"
So now let's drill down just a little deeper, into poker itself, to get a bearing on the kind of player Obama is.

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