Pop Poker: How Poker Inspired Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove

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Kubrick had set designer Ken Adam pattern the war room after a giant poker table.

Stanley Kubrick’s classic dark comedy Dr. Strangelove is not just hilarious, it's also one of the most effective satirical responses to Cold War-inspired fears of nuclear conflict ever.

But did you know the film’s story about an accidental apocalypse drew significant inspiration -- both directly and indirectly -- from the game of poker?

First released in early 1964, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb arrived at an especially tumultuous time.

As the nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union continued, the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and Cuban Missile Crisis a year later heightened fears that the Cold War could turn hot. And JFK’s assassination just months before further unsettled all regarding what might come next.

But where does poker fit into the film? The connection begins with Dr. Strangelove himself.

Inspiration for the Character of Strangelove

In a tour de force performance, Peter Sellers plays three roles in Dr. Strangelove.

As the harried Group Captain Lionel Mandrake he fails to stop the efforts of his insane superior, Brigadier General Jack T. Ripper, to launch a nuclear strike against the U.S.S.R.

Meanwhile as President Merkin Muffley, Sellers portrays the equally agitated Commander-in-Chief having to deal with the consequences of Ripper’s actions.

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Dr. Strangelove was inspired in part by poker buff John von Neumann.

Finally as Dr. Strangelove, Sellers plays Muffley’s wheelchair-bound adviser, a German-born war expert who serves as Director of Weapons and Research Development.

It’s an over-the-top performance, with Strangelove’s occasional slips to refer to Muffley as “Mein Führer” unsubtly betraying his Nazi past.

Dr. Strangelove presents a farcical, exaggerated version of actual figures employed by the U.S. government as strategists and advisers.

Among those who inspired the character was John von Neumann, a Hungarian-born mathematician who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s.

The Birth of Game Theory

Working at Princeton, von Neumann became one of the world’s most influential mathematicians.

During World War II he’d also serve as a primary member of the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bombs used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and was among those advising President Truman regarding the choice of targets.

But before developing nuclear weapons and advising on how they should be used, von Neumann was putting considerable thought into creating a winning poker strategy.

Before coming to the U.S. von Neumann published an academic paper called “On the Theory of Parlor Games.”

Then in 1944, he and his Princeton colleague Oskar Morgenstern would collaborate to expand upon that earlier article and produce the book-length Theory of Economic Games and Behavior, considered by many as the work that gave birth to modern game theory.

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Before pioneering game theory von Neumann was thinking about poker strategy.

The book includes a long chapter titled “Poker and Bluffing,” based in part on von Neumann’s earlier article.

There the authors discuss heads-up stud poker as one of several examples of “zero-sum two-person games” being considered as models for decision-making in a variety of contexts, among them economics, politics, and war.

Von Neumann's “MAD” World

Following WWII game theory came to influence Cold War strategy, with its foremost thinkers often tapped by the U.S. to help determine how best to proceed as the superpowers’ production of nuclear weapons continued.

Morgenstern advised President Eisenhower during the 1950s. Von Neumann also continued to work with the U.S. during the Cold War, and just before his death in 1957 would chair the top secret Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Committee.

It was in his capacity as a Cold War strategist that von Neumann came to be credited with advancing the idea of “mutually assured destruction,” a theory regarding nuclear war that for many produced a most suitable acronym -- MAD.

The theory attempts to characterize the behavior of two sides who find themselves in a situation where the use of nuclear weapons (or any weapons of mass destruction) would necessarily result in the utter annihilation of both. No one can “win” such a war, as both are assured of being destroyed should one begin.

Facing such a “MAD” situation (goes the theory), both will avoid entering into such a conflict. Sort of like two big stacks avoiding tangling with each other at a final table, only here imagine a game in which both could -- and would -- knock each other out if they did.

The Doomsday Machine

In the film, Dr. Strangelove shows in his monologues an understanding of ideas associated with game theory, including the importance of bluffing and how “MAD” can work as a deterrent.

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Other theorists took von Neumann’s idea of “MAD” a step further to imagine nations creating “doomsday” devices that would automatically trigger retaliatory nuclear responses if attacked.

That idea finds its way into the plot of Dr. Strangelove, where it’s discovered the Soviets have developed just such a “doomsday machine,” thus adding considerable urgency to stopping the U.S. strike from occurring.

More Poker Inspiration in Dr. Strangelove

In pursuit of his satire, Kubrick was well aware the influence of “parlor games” like poker upon the field of game theory and thus actual decision-making during the Cold War.

Perhaps inspired by his title character’s connection to a game theory pioneer, Kubrick further linked war with poker in the very look of Dr. Strangelove. The film’s production designer Ken Adam would later explain how Kubrick had explicitly asked that the huge well-lit circular table in the War Room be made to resemble a poker table.

“‘Can you cover the table with felt?’” Kubrick asked Adam, as related in Christopher Frayling’s book about the designer. Apparently the large table around which two dozen men sit with President Muffley was covered with green baize, although one can’t appreciate the color thanks to the film being shot in black-in-white.

“‘I want the whole film to be like a poker game,’” insisted Kubrick. “‘Like the general staff and the president and everybody is playing a game of poker for the fate of the world.’”

Game theory and an understanding of bluffing was obviously important in the context of the Cold War -- the bluff-filled Cuban Missile Crisis provides an obvious example. Even so, one can appreciate a satirist wanting to exploit the seeming absurdity of “playing” a nuclear crisis as though it were a game of cards.

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