Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Not the Madman Theory

I’m only finally getting around to this much-derided article from Wired last week titled “How Poker Theory Explains Ted Cruz’s Convention Speech” by Jason Tanz.

The speech was quite something, by the way, with Cruz very deliberately withholding a specific endorsement of the party's nominee, smirking all the way.

Saw a number of responses to the Wired piece last week, most of which seemed to find the poker analogy weakly presented. Also saw several eyeball-roll references to the article’s reliance on Phil Hellmuth’s “animal types” theory as presented in his 2003 book Play Poker Like the Pros.

You remember Hellmuth’s idea, don’t you? As a way of presenting certain categories of players according to playing styles, Hellmuth described the mouse (squeaky tight), the lion (aggressive and bluffy), the jackal (loose and maniacal), the elephant (unmovable calling station), and the eagle (soaring over the rest as “one of the top 100 players in the world”).

In actuality, the idea to explain different playing styles in such a manner isn’t such a bad one, particularly when addressing relatively untutored players (as most readers of Hellmuth’s book were). The presentation in the book is kind of rushed and a little vague, though, making the “animal types” idea a bit less useful than it could have been.

Meanwhile for someone in 2016 to bring it up as a seemingly unchallenged bit of “game theory” as Tanz does is not nearly as brilliant an idea as the author probably thought it was. He identifies Donald Trump as a jackal, then tries to argue that Cruz is one, too, with his RNC speech showing his willingness to play wild and loose. He then tries to give Cruz some of the characteristics of the lion as well, crediting him in a guarded way with having at least some strategic know-how.

Tanz does successfully highlight the importance of position in poker, noting how Cruz’s place in the speaking order (before others) was disadvantageous. But concluding by saying “maybe Cruz mis-bet” again belies the author’s understanding of the game. (Who says “mis-bet”?)

There’s one other problem in the article, though -- a passing reference to Richard Nixon that also misses the mark. Here’s the line:

“Jackals can be difficult to play against because, as in Nixon’s Mad Man theory, they don’t abide by the rational rules of poker.”

That’s more or less what Hellmuth says about jackals, but that’s not what the “madman theory” actually was. Rather than being an example of someone recklessly betting and raising without any seeming logic, the madman theory concerned projecting the image of someone who “played” that way, but who in actuality did not. It was, at its core, a strategy of bluffing.

Via others, Nixon wished to convince foreign leaders that he was irrational and ready to bomb away on a whim. For example, during the prolonged and mostly unsuccessful negotiations with the North Vietnamese, there were multiple instances of Nixon having National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger try to represent RN in this way, hoping it would frighten the North Vietnamese into a truce.

The comparison in the Wired article is thus entirely misleading, suggesting the “madman theory” wasn’t an actual strategy, but just a literal description of Nixon’s “mad” style of dealing with certain, unfriendly opponents.

Nixon was kind of mad, mind you. But the “madman theory” wasn’t this.

Image: Play Poker Like the Pros, Phil Hellmuth, available via Amazon.

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