The key to unpacking the mystery of Trump is suggested in the title: “How Poker Explains Trump’s Campaign.” The mildly clever piece has a couple of good moments, and author Alex Altman does demonstrate a good enough knowledge of poker strategy to speak knowledgeably when pursuing the politics-and-poker analogy.
Nothing super novel here, of course, as politicians and campaigns have been likened to poker for, oh, two centuries or so. I did enjoy going through the list of poker strategies, though, and recalling how practically every one of them has already come up in the course I’m teaching again this semester, “Tricky Dick: Richard Nixon, Politics, and Poker.”
The article starts out hailing Trump as “the best poker player in the Republican field.” Then -- with a nod toward Trump’s casino-owning background -- it goes on to catalogue some of the moves he’s “ripped from the poker player’s handbook.”
The very first one -- “Be unpredictable” -- was a cornerstone of Nixon’s own strategy as a poker player, in his campaigns, and while in office.
In our class we are constantly quoting Nixon in an 1983 interview complaining about various traits leaders lack, including the understanding of how valuable it can be to keep one’s next move hidden.
“One of the problems... in foreign affairs particularly, in dealing with great leaders abroad, particularly those that are adversaries,” says Nixon, “[is] the almost insatiable tendency of American politicians to want to put everything out on the table. Their inability to know when to bluff, when to call, and above everything else, how to be unpredictable.”
That last point then earns some extra emphasis from Nixon.
“Unpredictability is the greatest asset or weapon that a leader can have.... And unless he’s unpredictable, he’s going to find that he loses a great deal of his power.”
Nixon’s campaigns were full of such “surprise” moments (and “dirty tricks”), as was his presidency with his frequent announcements and “big plays.”
The rest of the list about Trump’s poker-like tendencies on the campaign trail reads in a similarly familiar way, highlighting aggression, being able to “change speeds,” and fearless boldness. Regarding the latter, Altman includes the quote “In order to live, you must be willing to die,” attributing it only to poker players generally and not to the late Amir Vahedi (whom I think many of us would probably first think to credit with line).
There is one item on the list that seemed at first glance to be suggesting something a little different (and not a strategy on Nixon’s list) -- “Play in position.” But the explanation by Altman actually has nothing to do with position or acting last, but rather being selective when it comes to getting involved and vying for pots (such as when opting out of debating, as Trump did last week). “Tight is right” would probably have been a better header for this section.
In any case, I wouldn’t suggest Trump’s apparent poker sensibilities as he’s being attributed with having in the Time piece make him more like Nixon. Rather they make him more like practically every other politician who has ever gotten involved in the vote-getting game.