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My favourite political betting moment of the year

December 17th, 2013

When politics and poker met

The worlds of politics and poker have been feeding off each other for many decades, and in the Middle East’s most discussed and highly charged conflict, the two were about to collide in an unexpected fashion.

An army is on the move, rockets detonate with an unrelenting regularity and the civil war in Syria is reaching its most bloody phase. Prime Ministers take to the nearest camera to deliver a solemn hope for peace, and in the world’s most powerful nation, its political capital is charged with a debate over the best way to proceed. Leading the discourse of war and peace, a senator that only five years ago was an election victory away from becoming President, a man that has been a central figure in American foreign policy for forty years. Senator John McCain of Arizona.

In the cavernous chamber of the Senate, McCain was set to make a contribution to the debate that would be replayed on every national news outlet that very evening. McCain was ready to show the American people just how much he cared about getting the right result, about calling your opponent’s bluff, about knowing when the time has come to strike even the most dangerous of rival’s.

As the next senator rose to deliver his impassioned plea for intervention, John focused on his phone and struck with decisive purpose – he went all in on his > iPhone poker App, and his unfortunate and ill-fated last hand was captured by the nearby television camera. John had done his best, but destiny was not smiling on him that day, a realisation that politicians and poker players know only too well. Later that evening he would make a statement to CNN that all hardened poker players can relate to “As much as I like to always listen in constant rapt attention to the remarks of my colleagues over a three-and-a-half-hour period, occasionally I get a little bored, and so I resorted to poker…but the worst thing about it is, I lost thousands of dollars!”.

The history of these two pastimes doesn’t stop there. President Truman indulged in poker on his lengthy boat vacations, the notorious President Nixon played poker with an obsessional hunger during his World War Two service, and it’s even said that he became such a dedicated player that he once turned down a chance to have dinner with Charles Lindbergh when it conflicted with a poker game. It was later rumoured that a great deal of the money he used to finance his first congressional campaign was funded by card game winnings. This should come as no surprise to anyone who knew President Nixon’s nickname, a title that would fit seamlessly into the 21st century’s phenomenon of television poker; ‘Tricky Dicky’.

Two Arenas, Same Skills

It’s no coincidence that poker finds a place in the heart of so many leading politicians, the two share a strikingly similar skill set to master, and even a similar fundamental approach to success. World famous statistician and politics oracle Nate Silver, a man who plays poker regularly, had this to say “politics and poker share the feature of being both very prosaic and very poetic. Meaning paying attention to the small things ‘winning small bets/door to door canvassing’ leads to a moving moment when ‘you win loads/you give an amazing awe inspiring speech’”.

From this basic principle we can get into the skills that will make or break a politician and poker player’s career. Both must be adept at reading people’s ‘tells’, these are the leaks of information from an opponent’s language, posture, habits, even micro-expressions that can inadvertently reveal the strength of their hand. Valuable information whether you find yourself at the poker table with a flush, or the negation table with a trade agreement. The same principle holds true across each challenge, ‘Strong means weak, weak means strong’. A piece of advice from what many consider to be the poker bible, Mike Caro’s Book of Tells. Next time you find yourself slumped in front of the news, look out for these classic politician manoeuvres and see if you can spot his or her tells:

This is how Hopi Sen put it a few months ago:

…..it struck me the other day that there are some pretty obvious political tells that many, many politicians use. Here are four.

1. Strings of Adjectives have the opposite meaning than that stated.

This is an innovative, cogent, well-thought through policy.” This is a clear tell of the reverse. Strong means weak. After all, if it was any of these things, you wouldn’t feel the need to tell me, you’d just show me. The longer the string of adjectives, the more unsure the speaker.

2. Statements of desire and contentment mean the reverse.

“I’m happy to answer that” is the classic, but there’s also “I really want to get into the detail” and ‘I want that debate’. No you don’t.

3. Expressions of clarity disguise obfuscation

Let’s be perfectly clear’, ‘I want to be totally open’ : I am about to say something I know is a bit tricksy.

4. The only message that counts comes after a ‘but’.

Of course, the NHS is our top priority for public spending, but” This is where a politician is aware they’re about to deliver an uncomfortable message, so lards it with blather. Ignore everything before the ‘but’. see also, ‘That said’, ‘However’..

Mike Smithson

Blogging from OUTSIDE the Westminster bubble since 2004