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What Politicians Can Learn at the Poker Table

Alas, ’twas not to be…again.  After an extraordinary run of luck in my maiden, bucket-list-sealing jaunt through the 2012 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, the next three annual attempts to relive my glory have fallen far, far short.  This year’s journey began promising, but when I found myself at around 12:30 AM holding the second best starting hand in the game – two kings – I quickly was reminded that it is indeed the very worst hand when you run into a pair of aces.

Oh well…it was all for a good cause.  Seriously.  And I learned again that my prior profession (politics) and my current passion (poker) have a lot more than just bluffing in common. If last week’s WSOP Little One for One Drop tournament was any indication, politicians of all suits could learn a stack about moral leadership from the pros at the green felt.

One of the most popular competitions at the 46th Annual World Series of online Poker played at, Little One for One Drop is one part cut-throat competition, the other, charity fundraiser. Eleven percent of all event proceeds benefit One Drop, a nonprofit created in 2007 by Cirque du Soleil founder (and high-stakes poker player) Guy Laliberté with the mission of providing clean water accessibility to some of the globe’s most arid and polluted regions.

The event buy-ins, plus a coordinated WSOP effort to urge all of its winners to donate at least 1 percent of their earnings to One Drop, net the charity more than $7 million every year. Moreover, says Alexandre Meunier, One Drop’s director for philanthropic development, the widely publicized tournaments and the high-profile volunteer efforts of poker pros help “bring public attention to the global scarcity of water, [encouraging] people to go to their political leaders and demand change.”

The marriage of political advocacy and poker wouldn’t surprise close observers of both; indeed, the two zero-sum games are really two sides of the same chip. As esteemed political prognosticator and poker savant Nate Silver told me, “politics and poker share the feature of being both very prosaic and very poetic”: Building your chip stack by grinding with careful mathematical calculations is akin to developing a sound get-out-the-vote effort through micro-targeted polling and door-to-door canvassing; riding an electric run of great cards and lucky flops is as thrilling as being uplifted by a gifted political orator. Of course, Silver–who poetically surged to near the top of the of the leaderboard on Day 1 of the 2013 Little One event, only to meet a prosaic bustout on Day 2–concedes that dominoqq poker is the “more refreshing” of the two contests: “It’s pure, undistilled competition, with no intrigue, no B.S.”

There’s also no disputing that the two games require similar skill sets. A career in politics could in fact prepare someone quite well for a life at the poker table. Consider:

– Serving up fiery, red-meat orations at partisan rallies or stump-speaking amid hostile, heckling crowds at open events can help a poker player perfect the art of projecting confidence… or alternatively, vulnerability… and shape a poker face to confuse opponents as to the strength of any particular hand.

– Retail campaigning–the hand-shaking, back-slapping, and baby-kissing–enabling someone to observe, listen to, and really understand people, can be employed powerfully in a game in which you have to read the strength of your opponents’ hands by their facial expressions and body language.

– Late-night, smoke-filled, back-room, legislative negotiations–tests of endurance and concentration–provide invaluable practice for sitting long hours at tables with adversaries who’d say or do anything to provoke you or otherwise knock you off your calculated strategy.

– Waiting out filibuster blockades, partisan stall tactics, and special-interest foot-dragging–to win even the smallest of policy victories–can equip anyone with the resolve to withstand days of numbing boredom at the poker table, and to resist all temptations to take risky gambits that could send the player to the rail.

But what’s perhaps more clear from observing the World Series of Poker is how much today’s politicians could learn from the celebrated card game.

Poker legend T.J. Cloutier, whose book Championship No Limit and Pot Limit Hold ’Em taught a generation how to play the game (including this recovering politician), believes that many politicians could pick up a lot about adversity–and how to transcend it–at the card table: “Poker players have to deal with a lot of difficult, high-pressure situations, just like politicians,” Cloutier remarks. “But the most successful poker champions are able to shrug off bad beats. That’s not something you see too often in politics.”

Jim Fannin, a mental-performance coach who’s counseled many of the best poker players in the world (as well as hundreds of sports stars and Fortune 500 CEOs), says his core poker advice is equally applicable in the arena: “Politicians are too easily swayed, too easily influenced by special interests and lobbyists… there’s just way too much cluttering their minds. I’d advise them [like my poker clients] to clear their mind of everything, and let intuition take over. Intuition has real-time information that the conscious mind does not process. When you do what your intuition tells you is right for your constituents, your country… your political success will be uncanny.”

And perhaps the best tricks come from The Magician himself,  Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari, who took home $18 million in 2012’s inaugural Big One for One Drop tournament. Esfandiari told me that he revels in the camaraderie among the most talented professionals, who leave their battles at the table, in contrast to the politics as usual in hyper-partisan Washington: “Unlike most politicians, we’re not always putting our personal interests above the people in the world… We just get good things done.”

Could the World Series of Poker emerge as a personal-grudge-drained model for post-partisan politics? Perhaps not. But if a few more politicos took the mental strategies and compassionate approach modeled by the world’s leading card sharps, the promise of clean-water accessibility promoted by One Drop could be just the tip of our melting icebergs.

A version of this essay appeared previously at The Daily Beast.

Article written by Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, The Recovering Politician (Twitter: @RecoveringPol), writes about the politics of sport and the sport of politics...and sometimes about bourbon. Jonathan has been elected twice as Kentucky's State Treasurer; practices as a crisis management attorney; authored three books on faith, public policy and crisis management; serves as a Contributor to The Daily Beast, played straight man on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; reached the final table of the World Series of Poker; and with his summer camp sweetheart, raised two remarkable twenty-something daughters.

10 Comments for What Politicians Can Learn at the Poker Table

  1. phil ballard
    8:30 pm July 5, 2015 Permalink

    If you are the same jackass that suggested that Mohammad Ali should have his bust in the Kentucky statehouse you can stick your poker where the sun doesn’t shine. May you continue to catch second place hands and I certainly hope the fine people of Kentucky,especially veterans, see that you are never elected again to a state office

  2. Not Jonathan Miller
    8:44 pm July 5, 2015 Permalink

    I’m a little hazy on how you feel about me. Would you please clarify?

  3. Blinkers Off
    8:45 pm July 5, 2015 Permalink

    “Politicians are too easily swayed, too easily influenced by special interests and lobbyists…”
    Hey Jonathan, you do realize that WHOA is a special interests group- money- and that you bought their propaganda hook, line and sinker, right?

  4. Chicago
    8:59 pm July 5, 2015 Permalink

    Why is this guy posting this crap on ksr?

  5. capt
    10:04 pm July 5, 2015 Permalink

    It sucks that they haven’t gotten rid of this guy yet.

  6. Franklinstein
    11:50 pm July 5, 2015 Permalink


  7. Robert
    12:11 am July 6, 2015 Permalink

    Fact #1 If you want to explode all the fireworks you want legally, you can buy them at the Jessamine/Fayette County line. But be sure to explode them on the Jessamine County side of the line in case LFUCG is watching you.

    Fact #2 If you want to gamble in a casino for entertainment, all you have to do is cross the Kentucky State border into Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia etc….

    Keep Johnathan Miller on the Board. I find his posts very entertaining.

  8. kes
    7:21 am July 6, 2015 Permalink

    good read jonathon, pay no attention to the redneck, hick faction on here

  9. phil ballard
    3:38 pm July 6, 2015 Permalink

    You are definitely a little hazy but it is not about how I feel about you. However, that was pretty funny. I apologize for calling you a jackass. I did not mean to insult the jackasses. This is America and no one should be kicked off the board for their views (no matter how stupid). Our choice is to read or not to read.

  10. houndstooth
    3:42 pm July 6, 2015 Permalink

    I look to see who is writing the posts on Sunday night just to skip over Mr Miller’s post.