Poker Strategy, As Taught by the Presidential Campaign
With apologies to international readers who aren't paying much attention to American politics, I'd like to reflect a bit on the current state of the 2016 presidential election. I express here no preference or recommendations for any candidate — I merely want to derive some useful poker-related insight from what I think is a fairly objective set of observations about what is going on.
Ever since the two major-party candidates were officially nominated, it has appeared as though Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has decided to play it safe rather than be aggressive — a stark contrast to how she was contending with fellow Dem. nominee Bernie Sanders during the primaries.
She has avoided doing press conferences where she might be asked questions on which she could stumble. She is not announcing bold new policy initiatives. Her debate performances have been mostly staid and stolid, rather than flashy and daring. She is not risking alienating her base by trying overly hard to win the undecided vote.
Surely some of the reason for this is that she has held a comfortable polling lead most of the time, so she doesn't need to consider "Hail Mary" passes. But just as surely, the primary reason for choosing this strategy is that her main opponent, the Republican nominee Donald Trump, is immensely, unprecedentedly prone to the most horrendous, jaw-dropping gaffes. She has pretty clearly decided to sit back and take the safest route to victory, which is to let Trump self-destruct, as he seems astonishingly determined to do.
Clinton has been beset by a series of revelations about her past conduct that might have been fatally damaging to a presidential candidate under other circumstances. But with each of them, Trump has managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, inevitably shifting the attention away from her issues and onto his own latest shocker.
For example, there was this only slightly exaggerated tweet from the very funny Daniel Lin when Trump announced his weird trip to Mexico in August:
Perhaps Clinton is following the advice one frequently hears attributed to Napoleon: "Never interfere with an enemy while he's in the process of destroying himself." The aphorism has apparently been gradually distorted from the original, which was, "When the enemy is making a false movement we must take good care not to interrupt him."
In either version, it's pretty damn good advice — not just for politics, but for poker.
You don't have to play poker long before you run into a similar kind of opponent. Tell me if you recognize this guy.
He's running and gunning, bluffing everybody, taking crazy chances and having them pay off, building up an improbably big stack of chips. But almost inevitably, he keeps it up too long, failing to cash out when his profit is at its peak, because he feels invincible. His luck runs out, and/or the other players start adjusting their tactics.
The direction of the movement of chips reverses. He might have a slow, prolonged bleeding off of his accumulated profit, or a short, spectacular meltdown. But either way, he leaves the table dead broke.
When faced with such an opponent, whether he's on the way up or on the way down, the worst thing you can do is try to outplay him. This is not the time to show off your slick, high-variance moves. It is not the time for trying to out-level him with high-order mind games. The situation is completely wrong for focusing on metagame considerations, or maintaining the game theory optimal perfectly balanced range. You need not study him intensely for a subtle tell that will lead you to a razor-thin value bet.
You take the money from this kind of player by being solid, conservative, boring. You should call him much more often than you would other types of opponents, while rarely taking the lead with bets and raises. By this stratagem, you give him all the rope he needs to hang himself.
When facing such an opponent, it is an ideal moment to hold at the forefront of your mind Mike Caro's classic piece of advice: "Everyone takes turns making mistakes in poker. The trick is just to skip your turn."
Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War, "The opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself." Hillary Clinton appears to have taken this observation to heart. Have you?
Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the "Poker Grump" blog.