Thursday, October 2, 2008

Card Night at Ole Miss

Ethan Campbell writes:

Barack Obama may not look like a seasoned cardsharp, but he reportedly dominates Senate poker games. “Obama’s analytical mind,” James McManus gushed in The New Yorker, “helped him to excel at draw, stud, hold ’em, and also the sillier, more luck-based variants.”

Indeed, on Friday night in Mississippi, both candidates proved themselves capable high-stakes debaters, with full decks of anecdotes and statistics. But in a Presidential race, as in a poker tournament, the prize is never simply rewarded to the player with the best math skills. Undecided voters ask themselves gut-level questions—like which candidate is better suited to sit across the green felt table with sharks like Putin or Ahmadinejad or Abbas. The winning strategy thus belongs to the man who can master the intangibles.

The first key, any Vegas pro will tell you, is to develop the right poker face. It could be the classic neutral stare, or a cavalier smile—or in McCain’s case, an unnerving, reptilian smirk. What matters is that the player’s emotions are unreadable.

During the debate, Obama wore the face of a nickel-ante gambler at the Bellagio. Early on, he looked straight at the TV camera and delivered a promise to middle-class taxpayers: “You will not pay another dime.” But as the game shifted to foreign policy, his answers grew tentative, and his direct looks at the camera stopped. The message to viewers was subtle but clear—Obama wasn’t confident enough to look us in the eye. His baby browns didn’t meet ours again until the very end, back on the safe turf of childhood memories.

Obama’s smile was never one of good humor or playful sarcasm. It was a grin of helpless panic. When McCain scored hits—“It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left,” “It isn’t just naive, it’s dangerous”—the tally wrote itself on his stretched lips.

McCain’s expressions, on the other hand, were almost freakishly consistent. While Obama spoke, McCain fixed an eerie gaze on moderator Jim Lehrer, never once making eye contact with his opponent or the camera. When Obama attacked, he looked down at his notes. When the attacks got vicious, he gave Lehrer the smirk.

Often while Obama rebuked him, McCain treated the viewer to all three expressions in a row. Eerie gaze, down at his notes, smirk. Even during Obama’s finest moment—a two-minute tongue lashing over Iraq that made the Youtube highlight reel—McCain looked down, then up to smirk, then back down. Rinse and repeat.

The unreadable face does little good, though, unless one uses it to bluff. And McCain constantly pushed the action, with attacks that were difficult to verify.

Obama proposes “$800 billion in new spending on new programs,” McCain said. “I . . . I don’t know where John is getting his figures,” the junior Senator sputtered.

“He has voted to increase taxes on people who make as low as $42,000.” Obama denied the charge (“That’s not true, John”), and McCain denied right back (“You can look it up”).

Even after Obama’s Iraq indictment, the rhetorically wounded veteran shot back with a baffling but brazen claim: “Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.” He continued with a rambling tirade, about soldiers pleading to “let us win” and Obama cutting their funds.

Obama impotently tried to interrupt, but settled for smiling until it hurt. “Jim,” he said finally, “there are a whole bunch of things we have got to answer.”

The pattern developed quickly. McCain placed bets, and Obama called them. When Obama attacked, McCain raised the stakes.

When Obama mentioned embarrassing quotes from McCain’s past—singing “bomb, bomb Iran,” or saying we could “muddle through” Afghanistan—McCain didn’t bother to touch them. Instead, he stayed on the offensive: “You might think that with that kind of concern, Senator Obama would have gone to Afghanistan.”

When Obama accused him of voting “23 times against alternative energy, like solar, and wind, and biodiesel,” McCain absorbed the blow and struck back: “Senator Obama says he’s for nuclear, but he’s against reprocessing and storing. It’s hard to get there from here.” Obama desperately tried to “correct the record,” as Lehrer pressed the candidates to move on.

An aggressive strategy does not always win, but whoever drives the betting controls the game. And the game isn’t over until someone pushes all his chips into the pot.

In his closing statement, McCain accused Obama of clinging to ideology while ignoring practical reality. “We’ve seen this stubbornness before, in this administration,” he said. “We need more flexibility in a president of the United States.”

Paul Newman in The Sting couldn’t have matched the audacity of this final, all-in move. McCain was actually comparing Obama—Barack Obama, opponent of the Iraq war, supporter of nationalized health care and abortion on demand—to George W. Bush.

For once, Obama didn’t respond with a clarification. “You know, my father is from Kenya,” he said limply. McCain had left him nothing more to gamble with. He could only shake his head, grin like the Cheshire cat . . . and fold.

-- Ethan Campbell is assistant professor of writing at The King's College in New York City and is a guest writer today at Principalities and Powers. He is co-author of the recently published Teen Challenge: 50 Years of Miracles.

Illustration from The New Yorker.

For a post of perhaps related interest to card players, see my post, "Dogs Playing Poker: A Friend in Need." Which dog is Obama and which one is McCain?


Anonymous said...

Great article. I particularly like the last image of Obama folding his cards because that is indeed what it resembled.

Anonymous said...

Very clever. I didn't agree that Obama won, but you presented your argument convincingly. And I liked the metaphor.