Thursday, August 24, 2006

Texas Hold 'em

Analyzing the troubled U.S. policy in the Middle East, a member of a British foreign policy think tank said today: "While the U.S. has been playing poker in the region, Iran has been playing chess. Iran is playing a longer, more clever game and has been far more successful at winning hearts and minds" (quoted in UPI and AP).

While chessplayers might see it as just the latest in a long line of statements contrasting chess to poker, the political dimension of the analysis struck a chord with me and reminded me of a great chapter in Jan Donner's The King titled "Poker Ideology." There he writes (pp. 138-139):

"The game of chess has never been held in great esteem by the North Americans. Their culture is steeped in deeply anti-intellectual tendencies. They pride themselves in having created the game of poker. It is their national game, springing from a tradition of westward expansion, of gun-slinging skirt chasers who slept with cows and horses. They distrust chess as a game of Central European immigrants with a homesick longing for clandestine conspiracies in quiet coffee houses. Their deepest conviction is that bluff and escalation will achieve more than scheming and patience (witness their foreign policy). "

Perhaps this tendency toward "bluff and escalation" has less to do with an American tendency than a Republican one--or so suggests Thomas B. Edsall in his essay "Ante Establishment" from The New Republic (August 28, 2006):

"Republicans are much less risk-averse than Democrats, and taking risks is crucial to poker. Howard Baker noted that Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut was a 'riverboat gamble.' The GOP has consistently demonstrated a willingness to risk high deficits, especially to cut taxes that fall on their biggest donors. The party advocating preemptive war is not likely to be cowed by a big bet. Democrats, conversely, are the party of risk-aversion--supportive of the safety net, opposed to new weapons systems, and sympathetic to protective trade policies. They are less able to tolerate the tension and uncertainty of a game in which a week's salary--or more--can be won or lost in a single hand."

Maybe the Democrats can wise up and learn some strategy....


Anonymous said...

AP Headline, Jan 18, 2007:
Gates: Iranians 'overplaying their hand'

The Iranians are "overplaying their hand" on the world stage in a belief that setbacks in Iraq have weakened the United States, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday.

Maybe the Iranians are not playing a hand at all. Wasn't chess invented in Persia anyway?
-patrick from

Anonymous said...

Yes, the administration is simply stuck in Poker discourse, to the point where they cannot even SEE that the Iranians might be playing a different sort of game....