Ask Donald Trump why he'd make a good President, and the real estate tycoon has a ready answer. "I am a great dealmaker," he boasts. Maybe so. But it doesn't explain the rocket rise of Trump's candidacy, which has been marked by few (if any) meaningful deals.
There is, however, a particular talent that Trump has consistently flashed during the GOP nominating contest. He is, by far, the best poker player in the Republican field.
Poker is a game of logic, luck and psychological warfare, and Trump has imported its cornerstone tactics to knock his opponents off balance. This is more coincidence than design; the casino owner knows the house edge, so he's not one to frequent the tables. But Trump's political instincts are ripped from the poker players' handbook.
Here's how the principles of Texas Hold 'Em explain Trump's early success:
- Be unpredictable. Start with a paradox: poker is a contest of reason, but a perfectly rational opponent is relatively easy to exploit. Card sharks vary their play to keep opponents guessing. For obvious reasons, Trump presents a similar problem for his political rivals. On the surface, Trump's campaign seems guided more by emotion than reason, though clearly there's a method to the madness. His erratic behavior makes it difficult for opponents to formulate a plan of attack.
- Be aggressive. There are two ways to win a pot in poker: hold the best hand at showdown, or force your opponent to fold. You can't control the cards you're dealt, so poker wizards apply relentless pressure on their opponents. Trump is the most aggressive candidate in the field, a schoolyard bully who drops his gloves at the slightest perceived threat and never lets the matter drop. He likes to invoke the ghosts of former Texas governor Rick Perry, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and other vanquished foes to remind rivals what happened to the last guys who took him. As a result, most of his opponents have decided that it's safer to fold than to risk it all — and the timid approach left Trump in the catbird seat.
- Play the man, not the cards. This axiom is a corollary to the principle of aggression. You don't need a strong hand to take a big pot; you just have to sense weakness in your opponent and concoct a strategy to exploit it. Trump is a master of finding an opponent's soft spot and attacking it relentlessly. Did anyone else think the "low energy" tag would dog Jeb Bush for months? Or that raising the question of Ted Cruz's citizenship would trigger Cruz's late struggles? It doesn't matter that Trump has a weak hand on the citizenship issue; it still knocked Cruz off balance.
- Play in position. "Position" is a poker concept that refers to the order of betting: it's an advantage to act last. Strong players are more aggressive when they have position and prudent when they don't. Trump might deride this as "sad!" or "weak," but he puts the adage into practice. It's why he dodges policy debates, campaigns in bumper-sticker platitudes and chews up time talking about his glorious poll numbers. You rarely see him commit chips to an issue when he doesn't sense an advantage, and he redirects dicey topics toward friendlier ground.
- Know when to change speeds. One of the basic axioms of poker is to play against the flow of the table. You play fast (or loose) when your rivals are cautious, and slow down if they've gone kamikaze. Shrewd opponents will pick up on these tactics, so it helps to be able to change gears on a dime. Trump has done this. Beneath the belligerent tweetstorms, he softens his tone when it suits him, like during presidential debates. After months of jetting out after rallies instead of bunking on the road, he's staying in Iowa hotels to show commitment to the caucus process. With a late lead in the polls, he decided to try to run out the clock in Iowa by skipping Thursday's debate. A candidate in permanent fight-mode wouldn't have made that decision, which forced Cruz to absorb Trump's share of slings and arrows.
- "In order to live, you must be willing to die." Poker players use this florid koan to explain the central contradiction of tournament poker, in which survival hinges on the ability to embrace risk. The best players have the stomach to push razor-thin mathematical edges when they think it's a profitable move. Presidential politics is a tournament of risk-averse players — everyone on message, avoiding gaffes, following formulas honed over the years to survive the gauntlet — because a loss puts a politician's future in peril. Trump, on the other hand, has a billion-dollar business and a penthouse atop Central Park to return to, and so he campaigns like a gambler. The decision to forgo the final debate before the Iowa caucuses is a case in point. Trump saw an angle and pushed his edge. Now it looks like it may pay off.