Pop Poker - Poker and Presidential Debates

The U.S. presidential campaign has entered that stage in which the major parties’ nominees are engaging in the spectacle of debating one another in front of a prime-time viewing audience.

President Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee, is known to be a poker player, while the Republican candidate Mitt Romney is not.

Nevertheless, the debates are already being viewed and commented on in poker terms, the analogy being simply too conspicuous to resist.


The importance of debates in a presidential campaign has itself been much debated. While many find them noteworthy, a number of political commentators have pointed out presidential debates often have only marginal influence on how elections ultimately turn out.

The practice of having leading presidential candidates debate one another is actually relatively new, although there were some celebrated examples from the past.

Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas did famously debate several times a couple of years before they were nominated and ran against one another for president in 1860.

Super High Roller Heads-Up
A debate is much like a heads-up game of poker.

Much later in the mid-20th century there were instances of debates between presidential candidates aired over the radio. And in 1960 came the first televised presidential debates between Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy and the Republicans’ nominee Richard Nixon.

It wasn’t until 1976, however, that debates became a regular, expected part of the campaign cycle, with the candidates usually having multiple televised debates during the final weeks leading up to the election.

Of course, as we could also say of tournament poker -- and just about everything else in our culture -- television changed everything.

Following that very first televised debate in 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon, those who watched found the charismatic, comfortable-appearing Kennedy the clear winner, while those who only heard the debate on radio came away thinking Nixon had the edge. 

From that point forward, debates came more and more to represent examples of political theater, and thus more apt to evoke comparisons to poker, where acting and image-creation are often of special relevance.


In his book-length study Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV, Alan Schroeder refers to the meticulous negotiations that precede every presidential debate. Every detail -- from scheduling to the debate format to the choice of moderators to the physical distance between the candidates -- gets discussed and argued over by those involved.

obama negreanu
Obama might have learned a thing or two when he met Daniel Negreanu.

“Each of these issues is a matter to be contested and resolved, another hand in the political poker game that shapes what the audience will see,” says Schroeder.

We occasionally witness similar battles take place in the world of tournament poker. Indeed, during the final heads-up stage of the WSOPE “Mixed Max” event in Cannes recently, conflicts over seating arrangements and scheduling became a significant part of the story of the latter matches.

In the conclusion of his book Schroeder mentions how “reporters frame debate negotiations as a high-stakes poker game between Washington insiders.” According to Schroeder, the media often place too much importance on these pre-debate decisions about logistics, something he believes causes them to miss some of the more important aspects of the debates themselves.

Of course, when commentators do turn their attention to the actual debates, there, too, do the poker-related analogies suggest themselves time and time again.


We often hear of presidential candidates preparing by staging mock debates in which staff members stand in to play the role of their opponents.

Such was true again this year, with Obama selecting former Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry as his mock opponent. Meanwhile Romney practiced with Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio who served a similar role for John McCain in the 2008 election.

Despite being an accomplished poker player Nixon found himself strategically outmaneuvered in this famous debate.

We see similar strategy employed by poker players, especially when facing heads-up matches against known opponents. Becoming familiar with an opponent’s style or a favored move can suggest opposing strategies that can prove an effective counter.

For example, in that historic first debate between Kennedy and Nixon, it wasn’t just Kennedy’s willingness to wear make-up and his more relaxed appearance that gave him an advantage, but also his knowledge of his opponent.

Following the pair’s opening statements, the first question was posed to Kennedy. Referring to Nixon’s earlier criticisms that Kennedy was “naive and at times immature” and thus not ready to lead, the Democratic nominee was asked to address his qualifications.

Kennedy’s reply noted how he and Nixon had both first begun serving in Congress in 1948. In other words, their political careers on the national stage had begun at the same time, with Kennedy becoming a senator and Nixon the vice-president in the 1952 election.

Kennedy then portrayed himself as an apt leader of the Democrats and Nixon as a suitable figurehead for the Republicans. In other words, while drawing a contrast between himself and Nixon in terms of their political positions, he promoted both himself and Nixon as both being ready to lead.

“I think Mr. Nixon is an effective leader of his party,” said Kennedy. “I hope he would grant me the same.” Nixon was then asked if he had a response. With sweat visible on his chin, an unsettled-looking Nixon quickly responded.

“I have no comment,” he said.

Already known from earlier campaigns as a aggressive “player” who frequently attacked opponents, Nixon here surprisingly declined an opportunity to do so. Some observers saw Kennedy’s method -- not to attack, but to praise while drawing a contrast -- as a deliberate “play” for which Nixon was not prepared.


Obama's supposed tells include vocal tics and facial expressions.

The most remembered moments from debates are often unrelated to what is said or content of the debates, but more about how the candidates look, their body language or those non-verbal pieces of information that in a poker-context are regarded as "tells."

For example, just prior to the first Obama-Romney debate, right-leaning pundit Hugh Hewitt penned an op-ed providing a catalogue of “Obama’s poker tells,”most of which focused on verbal tics (e.g., pauses, lengthy answers) or facial expressions (“a disapproving sneer”) that Hewitt believes indicate “obvious dissembling.”

Meanwhile. a post-debate piece on the left-leaning Daily Kos website purports to have isolated “Romney”s tell" - his blinking rapidly while speaking, which the commentator takes to reveal “he doesn’t believe what he's saying.”

Indeed, there have been numerous “what to watch for” pieces about the debates likening them to heads-up matches in which “poker faces” and other “tells” are of great importance.

For example, Forbes recruited a communications expert, Cara Hale Alter, to tell readers “What Obama and Romney's Body Language Will Reveal in the Debates.”

Unsurprisingly, Alter introduces her discussion of hand gestures, facial expressions, speech patterns, and other items with a poker analogy.

“In poker, a ‘tell’ is a subtle nonverbal signal revealing information about the strength or weakness of a player's hand,” Alter writes. “Leadership presence has advanced tells, too,” she adds, thus justifying her preview of the candidates’ “tells” as a significant guide to the candidates’ “three high-stakes debates.”

Just like in poker, there is probably too much emphasis placed on tells in the context of analyzing candidates’ performances in debates. Even so, given the way political campaigns tend to work, it seems inevitable that how a candidate says something will earn as much attention as what the candidate is saying.


We could carry the analogy even further to talk about how the multiple-debate format alters the dynamic from debate to debate, thus significantly affecting the strategy of the candidates (or “players”).

Since 2000, presidential candidates have settled on three debates as the preferred number to stage between parties’ nominees. Such a format lends itself to distinct “early,” “middle,” and “late” game strategies which again can recall what we sometimes find in tournament poker.

bush gore
The debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore played a real part in deciding the election.

Among the most significant presidential debates since 1960 were those between Al Gore and George W. Bush in 2000, at least in terms of affecting the election’s outcome was concerned.

Gore enjoyed a significant lead in the polls prior to the pair’s first debate that fall. But three debates later Bush had the edge, and would eventually win the presidency by the slimmest of margins.

Changes in strategy between debates were certainly in evidence in the Bush-Gore debates, and perhaps will be the case as well for Obama and Romney.

The first Bush-Gore debate saw Gore employ what many regarded to be an overly-aggressive style. Pundits seized upon Gore’s “tells” following that debate, with his frequent sighing and head-shakes during Bush’s responses -- as well as interruptions -- being highlighted as either rude or indicative of his being somehow less than comfortable with his position as front-runner (or the “big stack”).

The second debate then saw both Gore and Bush revert to a much less confrontational mode. The candidates spent a lot of time agreeing on foreign policy, much like showing patience while players folding hands. They did spar a bit near the end when the discussion turned to domestic issues, though even there the “bets” were relatively small and “raises” infrequent.

The third debate then saw both “players” go back to more oppositional modes of discourse, directly contradicting one another over questions raised by an audience of undecided voters.

That was the debate in which Gore at one point walked over toward Bush while the latter was speaking, coming close enough to cause Bush to stop and nod in acknowledgment.

Again, many read that moment as significant, even calling it an attempt by Gore to intimidate Bush much as a player might with a large reraise or tough table talk.


phil hellmuth george bush1
Phil Hellmuth with George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice.

As mentioned, George W. Bush emerged from those debates with a small lead in the polls. And as we all remember, the vote was inordinately close, with recounts needed in several states -- most vitally in Florida -- before the Supreme Court was called in like some embattled tournament director to declare Bush the winner.

One of the states in which the vote was extremely close was New Mexico, where Gore was eventually determined to have won, but only barely. With more than 573,000 people voting, Gore won the state by less than 400 votes.

As the recounting took place, the incredible prospect of a tie began to be considered. Who would get New Mexico’s electoral votes if both candidates received the same number of votes?

According to a New Mexico statute, in case of a tie “the determination as to which of the candidates shall be declared to have been nominated or elected shall be decided by lot,” with the method -- e.g., flipping a coin, drawing straws, etc. -- chosen by those involved.

This had happened in smaller races before in New Mexico, such as in a local judge’s race the year before. In fact, a particular method had already been established as the one typically used to break the tie.

What was the tie-breaking method commonly used? To play hand of poker. No shinola!

While there’s hardly much chance poker could ever literally decide who becomes a U.S. president, it’s clear that as long as debates remain part of campaigns, the likening of presidential races to poker will continue.

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