February 24, 2010

Know When To Fold 'Em

Many have likened politics to a high-stakes poker game. The analogy pervades the popular culture, as do many poker analogies.
Politics and Poker, Politics and Poker
shuffle up the cards and find the joker
Neither game's for children
Either game is rough
Decisions, decisions, like:
who to pick
how to play
what to bet
when to call a bluff!*

The ability to properly read the cards, the board, and the other players is what makes or breaks a poker player in the long run. A poor player can have amazing streaks of good luck in the flop/draw in the short run, the best player can be out-flopped and outdrawn by "chasers" in the short run, but in the long run a player who knows the odds, knows how to play the pot odds, and can "read" the betting patterns of the other players will be a consistent winner. Which is why playing poker is clearly a game of skill.**

But those aren't the only skills required to be a good poker player. Also important is the ability to alter one's play, to recognize the context of the game you're playing in, and to vary your tactics and play accordingly. This is the long-run goal-oriented game, the ability to adjust one's play to changing circumstances in varied conditions. The mindset needed to show a consistent profit in a "friendly" low-limit game is not the same as that required to consistently place well in multi-table no-limit tournaments ... as President Obama is discovering. They involve different goals, and require different strategies.

As a state senator, Obama was a regular at the local low-limit "friendly" statehouse game. Reports are that he was pretty good at it, playing what sounds like a classic tight-passive game, showing a consistent if modest profit. And in a low-limit "friendly" game with players rotating in and out, tight-passive can indeed be a good money-making strategy. And that tight-passive strategy was echoed in his legislative record, which showed no real risk-taking, just consistent cashing of "gimme" opportunities. He carried that same pattern of play with him into the U.S. Senate.

Then he reached the White House, and his playing style changed. Apparently convinced of his invulnerability by his own press and emboldened by an early victory with the stimulus bill, being the chipleader and holding the legislative equivalent of Big Slick with both House and Senate overwhelmingly in Dem hands, he changed up from tight-passive to loose-aggressive. He decided to bet big pre-flop on health care, got called, and discovered post-flop that he didn't have the nuts after all.

This is the point where a tourney player has to think twice and very carefully read the board -- and the other players -- before making their next move. Obama bet big again, and got called again, and the turn brought him nothing while improving the board. So Obama is thinking about going all-in, chasing a weak draw in hopes of sucking out on the river.

Long-time tourney players have seen this pattern of behavior many times. The neophyte player who steps 'way up in level and goes into the finals with the Big Stack and a sense of destiny, starts playing loose-agressive rather than tight-passive or tight-aggressive, and discovers in a crucial big-money hand that the other players can also read the board, know the odds better than he does, and don't bluff that easily. Especially when they're already pot-committed.

Obama has the remaining advantage -- for the moment -- of the Big Stack considering an all-in bet. His going all-in will not wipe him out. If he loses the hand on the river from chasing the suckout, he'll still have some chips left. But he'll definitely be on the shortstack, and he should remember that before betting big into the river.

But even if he hits the suckout and wins, he will have damaged himself. Every player in town will know of his tendency to bluff and chase, rather than playing tight. And it's still a LONG way to the final table. A top-level player knows that even if you've invested heavily in the pot there are times the smart thing to do is to give up the chase and fold 'em, not push in against a made hand. Maybe Obama should try listening to some of that redneck Bitter Clinger music, because Kenny Rogers has some advice for him. As does Sheldon Harnick.
and politics
you've gotta have
That slippery
You've gotta have
the cards!

* -- Politics and Poker, from the immensely underappreciated Pulitzer-winning 1959 Broadway musical Fiorello!, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick.

** -- Linkage to the PokerStars web site does not constitute an endorsement of same, and I am NOT responsible for any losses incurred should you go there and choose to play in real-money games. PokerStars has numerous non-money freeroll tournaments and play-money games where you can enjoy yourself immensely and learn the fundamentals without risking a dime. WARNING: The Sturgeon General has determined that playing real-money poker without a sound grasp of the fundamentals is hazardous to your finances, though those so doing are extremely welcome in real-money play by players who DO grasp said fundamentals.

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