Day 6

Trump's approach to politics bears the hallmarks of a bad poker player, author says

In her latest book, The Biggest Bluff, author and psychologist Maria Konnikova details what poker can teach us about decision making. She believes that U.S. President Donald Trump could stand to learn a thing or two about politics from a game of Texas Hold'em.

But Maria Konnikova says U.S. president is ‘an excellent con artist’

Maria Konnikova says that to be good at poker, players need to understand something called tilt — the idea that one's emotions have gotten in the way of decision making. (Neil Stoddart/Submitted by Maria Konnikova)

Author and former professional poker player Maria Konnikova says that U.S. President Donald Trump could stand to learn a thing or two about politics from a game of Texas Hold'em.

In her latest book, The Biggest Bluff, Konnikova details what poker can teach us about decision making — and writing for Politico, she argues Trump's political strategies bear all the hallmarks of a bad poker player

She spoke to Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong about how she thinks the skills she learned at the poker table could benefit the president.

Below is part of their conversation. 

Trump himself has said that he sees his life as something of a poker match. How do you think he's faring at this point in the game?

I remain convinced that he probably is not quite aware of the rules of poker. And it's so funny for someone who lies as openly and as frequently as Trump does, I'm shocked that he hasn't just said, "Oh, yes, I'm a wonderful poker player." 

It makes me think that he does realize that it might be a game that's a little bit above his pay grade. 

You've said his whole process of decision-making ... stands in direct contrast to what the game of poker teaches. What are the key lessons that he's missed?

There's a notion in poker that I think just everyone outside the poker world should employ in their vocabulary because it's such a convenient word and that's tilt. And when somebody is 'on tilt' or 'tilted' or when you find something 'tilting' … that means that you've let emotions into your decision process so you're no longer thinking logically.

This can be both positive and negative in terms of the valence of the emotions — so it can be very angry, you can be really ecstatic. 

Tilt makes someone a much worse player because tilt is very exploitable by other opponents. That means that people can take advantage of it. 

So what Trump should be doing, or what any good poker player should be doing, is trying to perform that calculus on themselves and figure out, "OK, how am I emotional? What things get to me?"

Konnikova argues that better understanding skills required for poker could change the way he governs. "His bluffs work against the weaker players, but … I think the strong opponents will be able to sniff out where he's actually just full of it and take advantage of it," she told Day 6. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

In the great geopolitical poker game, if Trump is the guy at the table who is on tilt, can you look from a distance and see what other players are taking advantage of that?

Yeah, absolutely. I think someone who is very, very good at taking advantage of it is Vladimir Putin. And that's very disconcerting. You do not want a leader who's that easy to manipulate.

Of course, all of this comes with a huge caveat, which is that Trump has already won the presidency and who's to say he's not going to win the re-election? Sometimes this kind of strategy can be successful, despite everything that you think is going to go down. 

Do [Trump's] bluffing skills maybe make up for his bluster and emotion and erraticism on the other?

In some ways, yes. It's funny, even though this book was about poker, my last book was about con artists. And even though I think Trump would be a horrendous poker player, he is an excellent con artist and is able to convince people of just about anything who already want to believe it — he's very good at selling people the version of the world that they already want to be true.

And what we know about victims of con artists is that once they've already fallen for a con, almost nothing that you can say or do will convince them otherwise.

But, is he someone who is successful at bluffing people who aren't victims of the con artist Trump and instead are just looking from the outside at the politician Trump? And there I think you might see him falter. 

So his bluffs work against the weaker players, but … I think the strong opponents will be able to sniff out where he's actually just full of it and take advantage of it. And you actually see Trump walking back some of his biggest bluffs when people fight back. 

As poker analogies go, this one's pretty incredibly high stakes. [Trump] just used his presidential powers to commute the sentence of a criminal associate. COVID-19 cases are absolutely surging. 

We're heading into an election season. He doesn't show any signs of improving his poker skills. If you were betting on it or if you were sitting at this sort of analogous table, how would you weigh the odds that he might actually win this game this round? 

I'm actually still incredibly nervous that Trump's chances are much higher than we think that they are, because, first of all, anything can happen, and he's shown himself to be someone who's very good in the 11th hour. 

We also know that his international standing doesn't really matter when it comes to re-election. So it doesn't matter that all these leaders are able to take advantage of a hermit and that he's not really a match for the best leaders on the global scale.

Right now, the betting markets are favouring [Joe] Biden. But until it happens, I'm not going to believe it. And I would actually not put any money against Trump right now, personally. 


Written by Kyle Myzuka. Produced by Annie Bender. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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