“The cold war is sometimes compared to a giant chess game between ourselves and the Soviet Union, and Russia’s disturbingly frequent successes are sometimes attributed to the national preoccupation with chess,” Morgenstern begins. “The analogy, however, is quite false, for while chess is a formidable game of almost unbelievable complexity, it lacks salient features of the political and military struggles with which it is compared.”
Morgenstern argues that since “chess is the Russian national pastime and poker is ours, we ought to be more skillful than they in applying its precepts to the cold-war struggle.” Alas (in his view) that had not been the case by early 1961. Thus does he proceed to argue in favor of the country’s leaders becoming more studious about poker strategy, particularly highlighting the need to learn how bluff effectively (and responsibly) and to learn how to recognize the Soviets’ bluffs, too.
“The problem of how, on the one hand, to make a threat effective and, on the other, to recognize a genuine threat by your opponent is one of the most fundamental of the day,” writes Morgenstern.
As the co-author with John von Neumann of the groundbreaking and influential Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944), the German-born economist had by then thought at great length about how certain games usefully mimic strategies employed by individuals and groups -- including governments -- in various economic, political, and military contexts.
An early essay by von Neumann “On the Theory of Parlor Games” (1928) explored how poker’s bluffing element helped make the game suitable to study as a means to learn more about deceptive behaviors in other contexts. That essay was expanded upon considerably into a chapter called “Poker and Bluffing” in Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, with the pair’s work often being cited as having pioneered what would come to be called game theory.
Morgenstern would go on to work as an advisor for Eisenhower, while Von Neumann would likewise be involved in Cold War strategy while chairing a secret Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Committee before his death in 1957. Thus by 1961 Morgenstern had well developed his “Cold War is Cold Poker” idea, and he lays it out in full in the NYT piece.
It was an influential argument. Kennedy would get variously credited with having reaffirmed the “we play poker, they play chess” idea, further underscoring both cultural differences and the contrasting strategic approaches of the two super powers toward each other. And further promoting the “poker provides a better approach” argument as well.
Reading backwards onto Cold War history, that strategic divide frequently gets presented in ways that are favorable to the U.S., with adopting a poker-like strategy often made to seem more practically useful given its more conspicuous attention to bluffing than is the case with chess. The fact that chess is “a game of complete information” (as Morgenstern points out) makes it less suitable than a partial information game like poker that “describes better what goes on in political reality where countries with opposing aims and ideals watch each other’s every move with unveiled suspicion.”
Those retrospectively viewing the conflict today (with knowledge of its ultimate outcome) -- and indeed, contemporaries commenting on it then like Morgenstern -- therefore mostly champion the America’s “poker” approach as preferable to Soviets’ “chess” tactics.
Not everyone was agreeing with Morgenstern, however, that poker was necessarily a better source of Cold War strategy for the U.S. than was chess. A letter to the NYT by Louis Wiznitzer dated February 26, 1961 responded to Morgenstern’s article by saying its pro-poker position “sums up pretty much the essential reasons why the United States has been steadily losing the cold war in the last twelve years.”
“Whereas the Communists are waging a game of chess, with moves as scientifically planned as possible,” noted Wiznitzer, “the Americans are improvising poker moves and bluffs, without a master plan or aim, and depending more or less on their last hand, or reacting to the enemy’s bet.” Since “politics is not a game nor simply an art” but rather a “science,” he insists, the long-range thinking of chess is actually preferable to the overly reactive game of poker.
“You cannot beat chess with poker,” he concludes.
It’s an interesting response, and the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion less than two months later -- soon recognized as a woefully shortsighted “play” with especially damaging consequences for the U.S. -- probably helped convince many that Witnitzer, not Morgenstern, was on the right side of this debate at the time.