5 Reasons Why Politics Is The Continuation Of Poker By Other Means

A friend of mine is writing a play that uses the line “politics is the continuation of poker by other means.” It’s a word-play on the Carl von Clausewitz quote “war is the continuation of Politik [policy/politics] with other means.” It’s the association between politics and poker that I’d like to flesh out. Amongst other things, this might lead you to want to be better at poker, or, it might reinforce for you how much of a game politics has become…
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House of Cards

1. Not everyone is on a level playing field.

In poker, except for the very first moment, the players don’t have the same resources. And, as the game goes on, the difference in resources (amount of chips) generally becomes more exaggerated.

This gives certain advantages to those with more resources. In poker, they can afford to be involved in more hands and take a few more risks. In politics, more resources means that you can engage more with voters (advertising, promotion, touring).

In this situation, politics can be seen as game of poker where people can initially buy-in for vastly different amounts. This means that no matter how well you play (how good your policies are), the odds are stacked massively against you if you can only afford to see a few hands (engage with relatively few voters).

2. The game isn’t rigged more than you let it be.

In poker, you can play with people who abide by the rules – and spirit – of the game, or, you can play with people you know are going to do anything they can to win. Imagine, that as voters, we are the backers of politicians at the poker table, who are playing with our money, to make us money. Initially, our vote gives them a seat at the table. But if we vote politicians onto a seat at the table who we don’t know or trust, then we have to accept some responsibility if they cheat, lie, steal and throw away our useless hands.

French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville said “In democracy we get the government we deserve”. If we find that our representatives are doing things that we consider wrong, we have to accept that we’ve set the game up this way. We can either allow it continue, get another player to play for us, or try and be a player ourselves.

3. At advanced levels, you play against the person, not their cards.

As you learn poker, you gain detailed understanding of the rules of the game. Then you learn the structure behind the game – the percentages and odds of outcomes. Once these details have been integrated, you’re left with the person facing you. If you have the skill and patience, you can learn to predict with reasonable accuracy what they’re going to do when faced with certain cards.

In politics, there’s a similar analogy. First you learn the system – branches of government and how the voting system works. This gives you a basic understanding. Then you can learn the details inside the system, which will give you greater insight: what parties want, why they want it, how individual members will vote on certain issues. Then, if you have the skill and patience, you can learn to read other individuals and apply these skills to negotiation and influence.

Related to this is an old poker saying that can also apply to politics; “if you don’t know who the sucker at the table is, then you’re the sucker”.

4. It isn’t poker or politics if there’s nothing to lose.

You can play poker with something you don’t want to lose (usually money), or, you can play with stuff that doesn’t matter (or nothing). If you learn as a kid, generally you learn the betting rules playing with matchsticks or lollies. These means something to a kid, sure, but when money is introduced, the game changes. No longer are you learning cheap lessons, now your lessons cost you. And that cost can overpower your desire to see the other person’s cards.

In other words, when you have something to lose, your personality is involved more. Are you afraid to lose? Will you bet simply because you think you need to call a bluff?

Politics is the same. If you’re a party or a candidate that doesn’t already have a reputation or things to lose in the political landscape, proposing idealistic policies is safe. This applies to those in opposition as well as the smaller parties with little-to-no-power and arm-chair political critics. In those situations it’s so much easier to oppose the party playing with their political currency because essentially, you won’t really lose if you’re wrong.

The question that leads from this is what the political landscape would look like if all the players were consistently held accountable for the things they bet on.

5. Bluffing works… but only to a point.

In poker, you can bluff in a few different way. The main way is to bet like you have something better than your opponent – the aim being to get them to fold, so you win. To do it successfully, you have to be convincing without seeming like you’re trying to convince anyone. If you can do this, you can win some hands that your cards wouldn’t have allowed by themselves.

However, the most common way to run into trouble is that you bluff too often. If people see that you do it more than rarely, then they’ll be encouraged to keep calling and you’ll lose your bluffs.

Politics continues this. There are many ways a politician or political party can convince the public to vote for them when in actual fact their policies are bad for the public. Right from bold face lies, through to re-framing of issues to putting on a distracting show. And these things work. In fact, today’s politics seems to have become so used to the players bluffing that they’ve simply come to accept that the game is about who bluffs best.

In poker, we avoid this happening because in the end the cards have a lot of say in who wins. In politics, the people only decide who gets voted in. We don’t decide how the player plays, and neither do we even get to see our player’s cards. Not only can politicians bluff the other players, they bluff the people who put them at the table.

It seems to me that if every political player and ever backer got to see just how often players bluffed, then we’d demand they knew more about the likelihood their cards would give us a return. TC mark

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