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Sunday, July 12, 2020

What Donald Trump Could Learn From Playing Poker


In the winter of 1996, the first ever United States Poker Championship took place at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The prize for winning: $500,000. Perhaps no one more excited about the event than its nominal host, Donald Trump. “You’ve got every major television station down here,” he told Michael Konik, a columnist for Cigar Aficionado. “I think we can become the most important poker tournament in the world.” So, was the owner of the Taj Mahal a poker player himself, Konik wondered? Well … “My life is a poker match,” Trump offered. Konik pressed on. “Are you a player?” To which Trump was forced, at last, to answer, “I’ve never had time to play seriously. I’ve been too busy to really focus on poker.”

You don’t have to be a poker player yourself to wonder if, in fact, the businessman-turned-president has ever played at all. His style of decision-making in business and in politics—reactionary, emotional, aggressive—stands in direct contrast with what the game teaches.

Yet, given the powerful strategic tools poker offers, it’s a puzzling omission. For years, leaders, including several U.S. presidents, have used poker to hone their thinking and learn the tactics that might help them outwit their opponents. John von Neumann, the father of game theory, not only played poker himself but thought solving the game of No Limit Texas Hold ’Em—the most prominent style of poker played today—would provide the key to tackling the world’s most complex problems; he even thought poker might help prevent nuclear war.

So persuasive was the great polymath’s argument as to the enormous value poker could provide that it inspired me, someone who never cared a whit about games, to embark on what ended up becoming a multi-year turn as a professional poker player. But all the time I’ve spent playing and thinking about the game has left me wondering: Wouldn’t Trump want some of its wisdom?

Trump is a man largely set in his ways, but he’s also a former casino owner who relishes winning. As he faces one of the most trying periods of his presidency—not just an uphill reelection campaign, but a global pandemic, economic uncertainty and a national reckoning on race—poker might actually give him some tools to do his job better.


Analyzing Trump’s current behavior makes clear that, whether he plays the game or not, he embodies some of the worst habits of bad players—habits he would have to unlearn if he were to reap any of poker’s benefits.

Most laypeople know about the so-called poker face, which exemplifies not so much one particular demeanor as an abstract ideal of emotional control. We are poker-faced not because we hide all our tells—the small gestures and tics that can tip off an opponent to the strength of our hand—but because we are in possession of our emotional responses. There’s also an idea in poker known as “tilt”: letting emotions get in the way of rational decision-making. A player on tilt acts a certain way not because she has performed the mental calculus to determine that this is the optimal course of action, but because her emotions compel a specific course of action. Anger. Fear. Jubilation. Ego. A player on tilt is not a player to be trusted to make optimal, sound decisions.

And a player on tilt is precisely what President Trump seems to be—constantly. He is hardly ever acting and almost always reacting—to criticism, to praise, to how the media or his political opponents are treating him. Look no further than his Twitter feed, or his constant dismissals of the “fake news” media whenever the press prints something he would rather not read, his bursts of anger when he feels under attack and the way he melts instantly when praised. Just the other week, the president retweeted a video that carried the white supremacist slogan “white power”—likely because the individual spewing the hate speech was riding in a golf cart that had the “Trump 2020” logo. Trump was then, of course, forced to walk back the tweet in what’s become a familiar pattern. He is a prisoner rather than a master of his emotions.

Tilt renders you vulnerable. The good poker player learns to identify tilt in others, and the triggers that cause specific responses, and he takes advantage of that. If you’re the one acting rationally, pressing someone else’s buttons, while they are the ones being emotional and impulsive, you will eventually take their money, at the table or otherwise. (Vladimir Putin seems to be one leader who successfully has identified Trump’s triggers, positive and negative, playing them like a finely tuned violin.) The good poker player also learns to identify tilt in herself, to determine what events get under her own skin—or make her jubilant. And then, she will employ emotional cooling techniques to take that feeling into account when it arises, discount it and eliminate it from her decision calculus. The strong player knows to think first and act later—an important lesson for someone who tweets first and thinks later, if at all.

Someone like Trump might say, “It doesn’t matter! I tilt, and I still win. No one can predict what I’m going to do.” True, but there are limitations to this strategy, too. There’s a type of poker players known as the aggressive, or aggro, maniac—or, simply, maniac. The maniac loves nothing more than to raise and to bluff—that is, to represent strength and to bully other players into submission. He’s angry? He raises. He’s happy? He raises. It doesn’t matter what cards he holds. He’s the player in every single pot, raising with air (i.e., nothing) and continuing to put in additional bets no matter what happens. The result? Passive players are indeed cowed into submission. Weak players see a maniac at the table and fold. Surely, this is why Trump uses this strategy. But strong players? That’s a different story.

I once asked my poker coach, Erik Seidel—one of the best players in the world—why I wouldn’t want to be super aggressive at the table all the time. “There’s definitely an appeal to it,” Erik replied. “Aggressive people are going to get you. They are going to get you in a lot of spots where you’re going to be like, you know, ‘I can’t handle the pressure’ or whatever. They’re very good at finding that.” But then comes the tricky part. “They also could get themselves in spots where they’re giving away a lot,” he continued. “You don’t necessarily always want them at your table—but then you’ll get a beautiful gift from them. You can forgive them anything then.” By beautiful gift, Erik meant a lot of chips. Hyperaggressive play, he told me, can be a short‐term boon, but most of the time, those players eventually go broke. And at the highest levels, they don’t last longer than a heartbeat.

Trump, of course, has already lasted longer than that, but even still, his bravado has often met with failure in the past. For one thing, he managed to bankrupt the same Taj Mahal that he boasted would one day run the biggest poker series in the world. His aggressive business tactics often didn’t lead to real-world payoffs. In politics, too—especially as he faces a tough reelection fight—the principles of poker suggest Trump would be better off reining in his most aggressive, bullying instincts, forgoing the bluff or two, and, instead, readjusting to the new political landscape. A tall order, perhaps, but one that’s in his own self-interest.

When I was playing poker full time, there was another type of player I encountered who reminds me of the president: the player whose delicate ego prevented him from ever folding against me. Because, of course, I’m a female. And folding to a female, letting the girl win—well, that is something that a Real Man would never allow. I loved meeting those players at the table, because I could always extract maximum value from them with just about any decent cards. I knew that everything for them was personal, everything was about ego. I could take advantage of that, eventually winning all their chips. I’d bet hands I’d never dream of betting against someone else—and they’d refuse to back down, like clockwork, until, eventually, they went broke.

If you’re a leader like Trump, being afraid to look weak is itself a weakness: When your decision calculus is driven by public perception, you’re bound to become embroiled in inconsistencies. Trump voices doubt about wearing masks one day, then, realizing that he is being roundly criticized, counters by saying we should wear masks, but turns right around to say that he, personally, is not wearing a mask—but he wouldn’t mind if he did, and even likes the way he looks in one. Anyone can get tested for the coronavirus—wait, no, fewer tests mean fewer cases. So, don't get tested. Or what were we saying about testing again? Which argument makes me seem like the stronger man? It can be tough to keep up. Most anyone can target that instinct to get a reaction that’s good for them—and not so good for Trump. It’s probably why his approval ratings are at their lowest levels ever.


No style is always successful, just as no style is always a failure. The smart player knows how to adjust—when to be aggressive, and when to step back. At an aggressive table, she tightens up. At a passive table, she strikes. She knows when to let her cards go and when to dig in and counterattack. If you play poker correctly—that is, thinkingly, with an awareness of the strategic levels of the game akin to the vision put forth by von Neumann—you learn to co-exist in a constantly evolving strategic space with your opponents. You learn to read all the information they give off—the proverbial tells, but also their strategic choices, the patterns they follow, the way they might adjust to you or to others—and to play accordingly, varying your game as the game theoretical landscape shifts. You learn to read subtle shifts in mood, in power dynamics, in informational advantage. And, as you do so, you evolve as a player who not only can win with the best hand, but also learns how to turn most any situation to her advantage.

It’s no coincidence, I think, that some of the best thinkers and leaders in the world, including American presidents, have chosen to spend their precious time playing poker, seemingly absorbing its lessons. George Washington had a permanent card table at his home in Mount Vernon. Statesmen Daniel Webster and Henry Clay were avid poker players. They even are said to have played a famous (and perhaps apocryphal) hand together in which each tried to bluff the other with nearly worthless cards, building a pot that was an incredible $2,000 in the currency of the time. Webster apparently won when his pair of deuces beat Clay’s ace high. While that specific exchange of cards probably did little to shape the course of history, the fact that Webster was able to call Clay with nothing but a pair of deuces is quite the demonstration of the abilities that make great political leaders: seeing weakness, trusting your read of the situation, and having the nerve and courage to call the bluff until the end.

Leaders have also long used poker as a tool for negotiation. President Harry Truman spent many an evening at the table. His favorite table mates included some of the powerful politicians of his time: Fred Vinson, then the secretary of the Treasury and eventually a justice of the Supreme Court; Clinton Anderson, Agriculture secretary; Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington; and Harry Vaughan, Truman’s military aide. In 1945, while Truman was returning from the Potsdam conference on the USS Augusta, he organized a daily game that would run through the night—likely to avoid his secretary of state, James Byrnes, with whom he didn’t see eye to eye. Avoidance was necessary: Truman spent the trip in a state of anxiety as he waited for news that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

After the war, when Winston Churchill—himself a big poker player—was visiting the United States, he and Truman played another match. They were on a train to Missouri, where Churchill would deliver the “Iron Curtain” speech. Truman and his boys played hard—they didn’t want to be beaten by a Brit. And Churchill lost. It was as much a political statement as anything else. Friendship and support in geopolitics, yes—but there are no friends at the poker table.

For Lyndon B. Johnson, poker was even more of a strategic asset. He would often play games that lasted all night with the Senate Republican leader, Everett Dirksen. According to Robert Parker, LBJ’s aide for many years, two of the president’s key pieces of legislation were able to pass at least in part because of the wheeling and dealing that took place during those nights: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Sitting over cards, Johnson and Dirksen cut deals that would wear away at the Senate’s Southern bloc to eventually allow the bills to pass. “I am convinced only Lyndon Johnson could have gotten that legislation passed,” Parker told Frank Whelan, a columnist for Morning Call, in a 1986 interview. “No way in the world John Kennedy could have done it.” Was poker the secret force behind that legislation? We can’t know for sure, but it seems not to have hurt.

All these great wheelers and dealers of the political sphere seem not only to have found the time for poker, but took its lessons far from the table and to some of their most important negotiations. They learned to read opponents, to formulate strategy, to gain informational advantages, to infer the unknown and act decisively in its face. Given that he lacks these very skills, shouldn’t Trump perhaps take a page from their proverbial playbook?

He has actually floated the idea himself. In 2004, the game of poker in full boom, Trump once again gave an interview about the game, when he graced the cover of the newly launched Bluff magazine. He still hadn’t found time to play, he admitted. But he did know where he would direct his invitations if he had to pick six historical figures to play with: Winston Churchill, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Moses, Leonardo da Vinci and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He reckoned he would be a favorite in the lineup. “Would I win?” came his musings. “Most likely.”

An interesting assumption, given that at least one of his imaginary opponents, Churchill, was no poker slouch. But that’s the thing about bad players—they always think they’re going to win. Right until the moment they lose.



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