Is the PM a true gambler?

Is the PM a true gambler?

Is his position-play strong enough to overcome a weak hand?

Many years before I started political betting, I was an avid poker player. I wasn’t tremendously successful, but I broke even or better at some pretty tough clubs, and knew the game as well as most. As one of the few games with as rich a literature as chess, I understood this princely game sufficiently to appreciate the very best, even if I wasn’t worthy of sitting opposite them.

    I don’t know if the Prime Minister plays poker – I suspect that his austere and moral upbringing might have failed to inculcate in him the finer points of Omaha hi-low split or Seven Card Stud – but for those of us more comfortable with games of profit, I’d suggest that his present dilemma (and the means to its resolution) might more easily be found on the green baise than the green benches.

Since folding at great expense the strongest hand he ever held, back in October ’07, Brown has been playing at a disadvantage – short-stacked against an impressive opponent. And yet Fortuna herself has deigned to bring him back from the depths, back within striking distance, no longer thinking about merely delaying his inevitable demise, now the PM has begun to wonder if he might yet snatch victory with some strong positional play.

This week, we have heard suggestions of an election being called this Christmas, January 2009, March 2009, June 2009, October 2009, and those who still insist that 2010 must remain foremost in our minds. Five ‘hands’ in which the PM will have the chance to go “all-in”, and risk everything for absolute victory. How might lessons from poker guide this choice?

    The psychology can be rough when you are short-stacked, but nothing puts a player ‘on-tilt’ like the realisation that he was bluffed off a major win by his opponent. That is what happened last year, and it is understandable that Brown would want to prove his courage and remedy that missed opportunity as soon as he had a strong enough chip-stack.

Sadly, that first opportunity is rarely the best opportunity, and players ‘on tilt’ need to temper their aggressive play by looking at the situation independent of their previous mistake. The fact is that Brown folded a strong hand in October – to gamble on what is at best a 3-point poll defecit is like playing K-8 against pocket Queens: not impossible to win, but there’s a reason that you wouldn’t choose it. If this was the opening hand of the tournament, the hand wouldn’t be good enough to play, and you wouldn’t dream of playing it. It isn’t any better because of your bad experiences or your determination to remedy past mistakes. An election at Christmas or in January would be impetuous – not a deliberate move of strength – and that will be noticed by opponents.

    Yet similarly, waiting for the perfect hand will see you waste money on the blinds, and calling bad bets, until time runs out. There are no prizes for making it to the final hand – a good opponent will recognise that waiting so long implied a lack of confidence in your cards, and will take advantage of your inability to manoevre. I wouldn’t even contemplate waiting until May 2010.

The trick is to act when you still have enough chips to make an impact, but not before you’ve built them to intimidate. As PM (with complete choice of timing) you are always in position – David Cameron will always be under the gun. You need a hand that is comparable (almost as good or better) than the hand you folded in October. If you aren’t quite there, then bluff a little. You need a chip stack that will frighten your opponent – even if it doesn’t dwarf his, it needs to be worth enough to make him nervous when asked to put every penny on the line. And then you need to play more agressively than he has ever seen in his entire life.

That leaves the three middle hands – March, June and October 2009 – to make a big play. Any of these could work, depending on when the polls are at their best for Labour, but they will be different types of hand. The June option is complicated – a paired board, with a flush draw and a straight draw obvious – the local elections, the European elections and the Tory/UKIP uncertainties mean that this would be best if a little behind. The sheer confusion of issues might make it difficult for the Conservatives to focus on just one area – difficult for them to ignore Europe as an issue in a June GE, and that gives room for drawing a winning hand from other areas. This is the gambler’s choice – impossible to predict the impact of luck.

October would be a clearer choice, although the complications of Silly Season and Party Conferences on the polling mean that this would be hardest to assess the relative strengths of your opponents’ hands – like a game of 13-card stud, where what is visible may be completely unrelated to the hand that will surface as the winner.

For that reason, I’d be tempted by March. The European and local elections are likely to dent the Labour chip-stack, as their voters rarely turn out in droves for these contests, and that could give significant momentum and confidence to the Conservatives. Going before then avoids that danger.

March 2009 allows Labour to assess the strength of their numbers – if close to even, or better, then I don’t see the point in waiting. They have two back-up dates if the polls are nowhere near where they need to be. They only need hold the ‘growing momentum’ narrative a couple of months longer, and there is a chance that the recent awkwardness of Cameron’s party doesn’t find resolution soon enough. The bet needs to be large enough to scare the opponent off, and for building momentum towards a later victory, or should force him to commit everything to that show-down.

Most of all, this is a psychological decision – factoring the size of poll-lead needed against the number of opportunities to act decisively. I make many conditional decisions at the poker table well in advance, often before I’ve seen my cards, and this means that when you begin to mobilise, you are acting to a pre-decided plan.

Knowing in advance how good the hand need be, and knowing in advance how big the chip stack need be, will determine whether this bet can be won. Once pre-ordained, then no part of the doubtful mind need be given over to making the decision – it can all be devoted to the projection of confidence, and the reading of the opponent. Making the decision now (in secret, obviously) is the smartest thing that Brown could do. And against all odds, it might even work.


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