June 15, 2008

 The game of Presidents

The Sunday Telegraph (I only take this blimpish paper for the listings) recently carried a piece by its poker correspondent on American politicians - sorry no link. Barack Obama plays a regular low-stakes game with other Senators: his style is, it seems, the conservative, odds-based one recommended by Herbert Yardley's 1957 classic The Education of a Poker Player. This won't make anybody rich, but it won't make them poor either.

The article claims plausibly that the best player among recent American statesmen was Richard Nixon, who financed his first run for Congress in 1946 with wartime poker winnings. As this non-player understands it, to win against competent players who have absorbed Yardley's rules requires skill both in reading and manipulating the personalities of one's opponents and in concealing one's own. These may be handy attributes in a politician, but are hardly virtues. I am relieved that in this field Obama is no more than competent.

The oddity here is George W. Bush, a regular player while a student at Yale and Harvard; and not a bad one in that cohort. But as President, he has shown himself a reckless gambler, with no sign of the good card player's prudent calculation. So did he learn no sophrosyne from his poker games? Or was he simply surrounded by other callow and reckless young men who would have been easy marks had they run into serious predators like Nixon? Was he in fact an intelligent young man but lost it later through drugs and booze? Or did he just learn the wrong lessons: that life is a zero-sum game and losers deserve their fate?

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