Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Playing Poker With Bush and Kim Jong Il

Interesting developments over the weekend in the world of diplomacy (for any members of the Bush administration who might be reading, it is pronounced dip-loh-mah-see -- look it up). North Korea test fired a missile that they had been urged not to -- and it failed. Negotiating the world of foreign affairs is a lot like playing seven card stud. It turns out that Bush is a very, very bad poker player. One saving grace may be that North Korea's Kim Jung Il is worse.

The way seven card stud works is that each player puts a single chip in the pot (the ante) and is dealt one card down (called your hole cards) and one card up. At this point, the player with the highest card begins the betting and each player thereafter has to decide whether he thinks he has a good enough hand for it to be worth that wager. If so, he may match the bet, or call, and stay in the game or he may raise the bet and force everyone else who wants to stay in to pay a higher price. But ihe thinks he does not have a winning hand, he may fold and wait for the next hand to play. After the betting, another up card is dealt to everyone and there is another round of betting. the process continues until everyone has two cards down and four cards up. At that point, there is one more card down and one last round of betting after which everyone who has continued to bet must show their cards, make the best five card hand out of their seven cards and the highest hand wins all of the chips bet throughout the hand.

The big decision that each player needs to make is about betting. You see some of your opponents' cards, but not all of them. You are betting on partial information gathered from the up cards that you have seen and an educated guess about what their hole cards are. This guess is based on several factors. First, how are they betting? If they are betting a lot of money, they have (or want you to think they have) a very good hand and are trying to extract the most chips from you. To act like you have a strong hand when you don't in order to fool others into dropping out when they actually had you beat is called a bluff. Determining whether someone is bluffing brings us to our second factor, reading the player. You observe people's behaviors to see if they will give away what they aren't showing. If someone looks back at their hole cards a couple of times, it's generally a sign that they have a rather good hand and just want to make sure that it is what they think it is before betting a lot of money, so they don't make a stupid mistake. If someone who is generally quiet suddenly starts blustering about how good his hand is, it is a rookie tell that he is bluffing. The third thing you look at is how many chips they have. someone with a lot of chips has the luxury to stay in and try to get lucky, steal a hand, or push a bluff where someone with fewer chips is likely to play conservative unless they really have something. Based on these factors, you decide whether the stakes are too high to continue betting your money on the cards you have and if not, how much to bet.

What I like about seven card stud, compared to other games like the ubiquitous Texas Hold'em, is that many cards are shown. Every card is another piece of information to be included in the decision about how to act. Cards that are not even in a given person's hand will affect what he is likely to have and you need to keep track of cards everywhere.

In our game of diplomatic poker, Bush stepped into a seat that after the Cold War had far and away the most chips on table. this put him in a position of power at the table and his neoconservative handlers came up with a new betting strategy. The idea was that no matter what cards came up, he should bet huge amounts of money every time. This would make the pot so expensive that everyone would eventually fold because they could not afford to play and we would take all the chips. By starting with such large stacks and using this strategy once against Iraq, everyone else at the table would know that if they dared stay in the game, we were going to drive the stakes so high that they could not afford to play and we would simply take everyone's chips.

This strategy was announced to all of the other players with Bush's infamous "axis of evil" line. By setting out the first three targets and then invading the first one on inflated and/or constructed grounds, the neocon strategy was to show that with this incredible raise, there's no possible way we could be bluffing. North Korea and Iran were forced to stay in the hand if they wanted to remain at the table. But they now not only had to continue to play, but Bush had made it clear that they had to beat us in this hand. It was or never all or nothing. We are currently at the point where all of the up cards are showing and we have one last down card left to be dealt.

We were showing a pair of kings and Bush's bluster was designed to convince the world that we had the other two underneath. But as the cards were dealt, weird things happened. To drive Saddam out of the game, we had to put up many more chips than they thought we would have to. This meant that we no longer had the impressive stack of chips that was supposed to intimidate everyone. Bush reached into his pocket for more money to cash in and found the lives of soldiers and the national credit card. So with blood and IOUs he continued to play.

Then they completely bungled the war, getting us bogged down in Iraq to the point where everyone else at the table knew that we didn't have the military card we said we had; in other words, one of the other kings showed up in someone else's up cards. Now everyone knew we didn't have four kings, at best we might have a full house. Still maybe enough to win to hand, but far less than what we had claimed.

Then North Korea this weekend bungled the hand worse than we did. Having very few chips to play with, they are claiming to have two aces in the hole -- a nuclear weapon and a missile powerful enough to get it to the US. Maybe they have these aces, maybe they don't. But until they show them, we could not be sure and had to treat North Korea as if they did have them. But by test firing their long range missile and having it fail, they showed us one of their hole cards and it wasn't an ace. As long as they didn't fire the missile, we had to treat it as if it would work. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose by showing their hand. But they did. And since the nuclear payload is much more difficult than the the missile to construct, if one of the cards isn't what they said it was, there seems to be good reason to think that maybe they've got nothing. But then, maybe they do.

The only one who has been playing a good hand is Iran. Iran's leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is the sort of person you hate to play poker with. He is a nasty big mouth who will do something stupid in a hand he has no business playing, but then he'll turn around and play artfully so you are never sure quite what to make of him at any given moment. Because of their oil, they have quite a stack in front of them and they have four spades showing. Do they have the flush? Maybe. They won't let the IAEA in to peek at their hole cards, so we don't know and they've called our bluff.

We have two pair, looking at a likely flush with one card left to draw and we've bet far more than we should have on this hand. We now have a decision to make. Every poker player is familiar with the loser's dilemma -- you have sunk so much money into a hand that you can't just fold and walk away. That would mean that you just gave away almost all of your chips. But if you stay, you are probably going to lose even more. Do you stay in case of the unlikely event that you pull out the full house or do you save what is left of your stack for what is hopefully a better hand next deal? Conservatives call folding "cut and run" and want to just keep throwing more and more chips into the pot thinking that if enough chips are eventually thrown we HAVE to win. In addition, if you bet huge and then pull back, you look like an idiot. Conservatives have too much invested in seeming like tough guy high rollers. Liberals, on the other hand, are saying that it was a stupid strategy that got us into this mess in the first place and that continuing to do more of the same will just cost us more blood and money. But folding at this point will possibly leave at least one of these countries with nuclear weapons -- a massive take that will make all future hands tougher to play. What to do?

I don't know. But I'll tell you this. If I ever got invited to play cards with George W. Bush or Kim Jung Il, seeing how they've played this hand, you can bet I'd be in that game.