In Box

Playing With a Full Deck

Lessons about nuclear deterrence from the poker table.


In the 1950s, as the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union was threatening to spiral out of control, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower hired Oskar Morgenstern, the Princeton University economist who cowrote Theory of Games and Economic Behavior in 1944, as an advisor on national security issues. “With bluffs so much easier to make and threats so much more portentous than any previous time in history,” Morgenstern later wrote, “it is essential not only for our own State Department but for the entire world to understand what … is the sanest way to play this deadly, real-life version of poker.”

Eisenhower clearly absorbed Morgenstern’s advice. In March 1955, for example, he pulled off a classic nuclear bluff, convincing China’s Mao Zedong to back down from a threatened attack on Taiwan by implying that he would nuke the mainland. His successor, John F. Kennedy, played a series of bluffs and counterbluffs with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, until, as Anthony Holden wrote, Khrushchev “folded his hand and conceded the pot.” The office demands such skills: As Richard Nixon used to quote one of his college professors, “A man who couldn’t hold a hand in a first-class poker game isn’t fit to be president of the United States.”

China and Russia are mostly out of the nuclear-bluffing business for now, but America’s 44th president today finds himself across the table from some new antagonists. Iran and North Korea have proven themselves no-limit wizards when it comes to the bluff, leveraging the world’s uncertainty about what they’re holding and what they might do with it to keep their enemies off balance. To be successful, President Barack Obama will have to learn not just how to bluff, but how to read when Tehran and Pyongyang are misrepresenting their hands.

One thing he’ll have to do is pay close attention to patterns. An opponent who “has dust on his chips” — who hasn’t entered a pot in an hour or more — is more likely to have a big hand when he does finally bet than a player who enters nearly every pot. Tracking the patterns of very loose players such as Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or North Korea’s Kim Jong Il should persuade the U.S. president that they often won’t possess the nuclear capability they are claiming. Sometimes, however, Obama will have to ignore their previous patterns. One common poker tactic is slowplaying — trapping opponents into betting against what they think is a weak hand, while planning an unpleasant surprise for them at the showdown. But because this tactic is so often deployed, from time to time it makes sense to use reverse psychology. If I’m holding two aces and a third ace comes up, I will bet, counting on my opponent to raise on the assumption that because any smart player would slowplay a set of aces, I must have a much weaker hand.

A related strategy is “advertising.” Although the rules don’t require us poker players to show our cards if everyone folds to our bet, we will sometimes turn over bluffs to create an aggressive, loose, or just plain crazy table image — in diplomacy, think of Nixon’s “mad bomber” image during the Vietnam War or Kim Jong Il’s erratically defiant behavior of late.

Other times we will turn over “monsters,” huge hands, to reinforce the notion that we only bet when we have them — and thus allowing us to bluff more effectively with weak hands. Iran’s use of children as minesweepers during the Iran-Iraq War, for example, advertised that Iran would defend itself by any means necessary. The late, great poker player Stu Ungar dominated no-limit hold ’em tournaments with aggressive, flashy bets. When his opponents got tired of his bullying and decided to take a stand, he often was able to bust them by showing them a monster he’d been slowplaying.

Finally, there is “small ball” — the steady, controlled aggression deployed by today’s toughest no-limit hold ’em players. Small-ball artists enter a lot of pots with small raises, either winning on the first bet when everyone folds, or taking a larger pot on the second round of bets by relying on the fact that two thirds of the time, their opponents’ hands won’t have improved. Their small bets keep them involved in a series of winnable confrontations, allowing them to take advantage of less confident opponents.

Events so far have suggested that the U.S. president is a classic small-ball artist in the diplomatic arena, and he even seems to embrace the card-playing analogy. Asked in 2007 to list a hidden talent, Obama told a reporter, “I’m a pretty good poker player.” Let’s all hope that claim will prove true.

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