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December 5, 2009 National Journal Cover 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 Stakes An analysis of Obama's potential approach to four major issues. The Players: Obama, Republicans, "Blue Dog" Democrats, liberal Democrats, insurance companies, hospitals, doctors The Stakes: Health care availability, the federal budget, political power His 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 both mimics and informs the logic of a cluttered, challenging, bewilderingly complicated, lessthan-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. President Obama calls himself a pretty good poker player, with skills honed back when he 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 cautious participant: patient, conservative, patient, level-headed, patient, affable -- and did we mention patient?
That game started more than a decade ago. Today, Obama confronts more-formidable foes, and for much bigger stakes. But in his first 10-plus months in office, he has approached the major issues facing his administration and the country with a poker player's sensibility. That doesn't mean that he necessarily has been dealt good hands. It doesn'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 a straight face, and wait, calmly, for the winning play. Obama displays "poker-titious" thinking, says James McManus, who has been writing about the game for years and has just published Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker. "He's a cerebral gatherer of information, who patiently waits for good hands. He doesn't barge in. 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 is determined to get a public option. Or is he? He may be bluffing. He may be satisfied with a good pot, and pass up the chance to sweep the table clean. He certainly did not lay out his hand at the start, as President Clinton (a Hearts player) did with the delivery of a detailed bill to Congress. The stakes are high, but Obama hasn't gone all-in on health care. The Republicans, with less to lose, seem to have done just that. (See the accompanying analyses of four major issues.) Poker is enjoying unprecedented worldwide popularity these days. Its roots lie in card games that developed in Renaissance Europe -- but it is a quintessentially American pastime. Poker spread out from New Orleans in the early 19th century, exactly the way you would imagine: on Mississippi River steamboats. Lincoln referred to it, Grant played it -- 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 from his 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 called the Poker Players Alliance. Poker success depends on shrewd calculation and bluffing. Winning is measured not by points 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 a symposium 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 judgment and interplay of thought." Luck, Lies, and the Long Run Compare poker with other games. Some of Obama's most ardent admirers like to say that he is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers. By this they mean that he is playing a game of strategic complexity and thinking many moves ahead. But chess pits one 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. Success relies on the roll of the dice. That makes craps an emotional, sociable, sometimes delirious game. A lot of pleasure comes with winning, but outwitting your opponents has little to do with it. Craps (which is Sen. John McCain's favorite game) was what President Bush was playing when he launched the war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein seems to have been playing poker against him, bluffing on weapons of mass destruction and calling what he thought was Bush'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 has an 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, not chance; 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, it builds on the history of what has come before. What happened at 9 p.m. can offer crucial insight into how the players will conduct themselves at 1 a.m. One of the founders of modern game theory, Oskar Morgenstern, was an adviser to President Eisenhower on nuclear arms, and he pointed out that the Cold War was nothing like the chess match it was frequently compared to. Poker, he said, was the better descriptor, built as it is around luck, deceit, and cost-effectiveness. Chess, the Russian game, versus the American-born poker -- and yet the Russians seem to have picked up the knack for poker as time went on. One metaphor, from the Kennedy years: After taking JFK's measure at a summit in Vienna, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev raised the 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 move in 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 intimately combined, where free will prevails over philosophies of fate or of chance, where men are considered moral agents, and where -- at least in the short run -- the important thing is not what happens but what people think happens." That last thought certainly gets at contemporary American political culture as practiced by Obama and nearly everyone else. Poker, McManus says, is about "leveraging uncertainty." 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.
The oldest version, the kind played on steamboats, is draw poker. A player's cards are hidden from the other players, and the big indication of what your opponent has is the number of cards he or she replaces in a single draw. That, and the pattern of betting. Stud developed out of draw. Here, four of a player's cards are dealt faceup, and either one or three are dealt facedown. There are more rounds of betting, and as each faceup card is dealt, more information becomes available. The most popular version today is "hold 'em," which is like stud except that five faceup cards are held in common by all the players. Two cards are dealt to each player facedown. Here the information comes from the players' betting patterns and general demeanor. Hold 'em encourages aggressive betting; typically, it has no betting limit, as the other games do. It also televises well. Obama is a seven-card-stud sort of player. Conservative, cautious, not apparently given to a lot of bluffing, Obama wants information and has the patience to wait for it. At the same time, seven-card stud is more complex and interesting than its five-card sibling. Memory is key because players need to keep track of all the cards that have been played, which isn't the case with hold 'em. "In stud, things unfold more sedately, and you've got a little more control over your play," Nesson said in an interview. When he was in the state Legislature, Obama was part of a group that played dealer's choice; by all accounts, he would go along with whatever was called for -- even the wildcard festivals like baseball poker, a variant of stud in which threes and nines are wild and a faceup four wins a player an extra card -- but when it was his turn to deal, he stuck to solid, old-fashioned varieties. "He's a traditionalist," McManus says. "He's interested in playing a beautiful form of poker, in which shrewd calculation can affect the outcome." Obama also held back early on, taking time to get to know the other players. "It fully sounded to me that he was a poker player in the sense that the smartest thing he does is know what he's playing," Nesson said. "He's not in it for the money. He was a new boy in the Legislature and kind of an odd duck. He was the kind of poker player who bides his time in the game. It's like figuring out who the players are, and what the game is, is much more the game for him than betting and winning particular pots." Now he's playing in a different league, with a lot of new players, and Nesson said it's no surprise that Obama hasn't gone for the quick killing. To a large extent, he is still sizing up the opposition. Bill Brady, a state senator from Bloomington, Ill., now campaigning for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, isn't buying any of that. Brady played in those Springfield games -- they're still going on, in fact -- and he describes Obama as being careful to a fault. "He was a cautious poker player -- in some cases, too cautious." And as president? "Even though he supports some pretty radical positions, he's certainly been very cautious," Brady says. He doesn't think that Obama has been patiently trying to read his opponents; he thinks that the president, even with his daring agenda, feels himself to be politically constrained from making bold moves.
In some ways, Brady misses the old Obama. "I used to take his money when we played poker," he says. "Now he's trying to take mine." Showdown at the Calvinist Corral Poker weaves together two of the main strands of American culture. It has its Puritan side, rewarding patience, close attention, and modest ambitions that can build up over time into something substantial. And it has its cowboy side, where bluster and nerve and hunches, combined with big, all-in bets, can bring quick fortune or ruin. The best players know when to summon up their inner John Winthrop and when to call on Doc Holliday. Obama, McManus says, clearly leans toward being the Puritan at the table -- but it was an all-in, cowboy bet when he decided to go after Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries. McManus says he wouldn't be surprised to see more of that side of Obama as he gets more accustomed to the new game. If the president can be said to have been playing poker with the Republicans since moving into the White House, it would appear to be a game in which he has hopes of building up his stack of chips later rather than sooner. That would be a perfectly sound poker strategy, if he can do it. Last month, the Republicans won an easy pot in Virginia and a tougher one in New Jersey, and they have been picking off wins here and there with town halls and tea parties and a few White House resignations. On the other hand, poker strategy calls on a player to try to isolate his chief opponent. Obama, by casting first Rush Limbaugh and now Glenn Beck as the face of the Republican Party, seems to be making an effort to drive potential GOP allies out of their camp. The results won't be clear until 2010 or, more likely, 2012. Yet patience and prudence in themselves are insufficient in poker or politics, or nearly anything else. Nesson is keen on that point. He (together with liberal activist and former Harvard Law professor Larry Lessig) founded an organization known as the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society, dedicated to using poker as a tool to teach "life skills, strategic thinking, geopolitical analysis, risk assessment, and money management." He teaches poker to first-year law students at Harvard, Obama's alma mater -- and the first and most important lesson is the need to take the offensive. Nesson begins with a one-card game, to make it simple. Too many students, he says, come to law school thinking that the law is about finding the correct answers to particular problems. Wrong way to think, he says. A successful lawyer is an aggressive lawyer. Poker, Nesson says, helps his neophyte students "get comfortable with aggression." In 2005, playwright David Mamet wrote an op-ed article for the Los Angeles Times in which he lambasted the Democrats, in poker terms, for being too timid. "In poker," he wrote -- as in politics -- "one must have courage: the courage to bet, to back one's convictions, one's intuitions, one's understanding. There can be no victory without courage. The successful player must be willing to bet on likelihoods. Should he wait for absolutely risk-free certainty, he will win nothing, regardless of the cards he is dealt." Yes, but.
As president, Obama has already had some experience with impulsive or ill-informed bets. If he had known in January what he knows now about Guantanamo, would he have promised to close the prison within a year? And what if he had folded instead of heedlessly throwing in a bet on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates last summer? Neither of these moves is going to bring his administration down -- individual bets by usually cautious players typically don't do that. But both examples might make him think twice about the difference between courage, as Mamet describes it, and a foolish boldness. Don't look, in any case, for Obama to transform himself into a hold 'em kind of player if he can help it. (When the game is dealer's choice, you can't always avoid it.) In hold 'em, the stakes are too high and the flow too capricious. The last and most climactic card is called "the river," as in "down the river" -- that unhappy phrase rooted in the cruelty of slavery, which says something about the sorrows and incomprehensible turns of the game. When you're playing with the national interest, Nesson says, you don't want it to depend on the river, on the turn of a single card. Look for Obama to stick with stud, where memory and insight and experience and calculation rule the table. There comes a point in all of this, of course, when life is life, politics is politics, character is character -- and poker is just poker. It is, for one thing, a zero-sum game, and the business of running the country is not. Several winners will stand up from the health care reform table. Multiple winners -- or none -- could emerge from the struggle over Iran's nuclear ambitions. And you don't find poker players involved in half a dozen or a dozen games at once, turning from table to table as the action unexpectedly heats up here, and then suddenly over there. There could be, though, another way to think about it: Poker isn't just about counting up the chips. Back in Springfield, it might have been a mistake to consider those games zero-sum affairs, in the larger sense, because Obama joined them principally as a means of fitting into the politicos' culture and making useful friends. The money won or lost was almost beside the point. Maybe everybody gained something. Maybe poker raises everyone's game.
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