Playing with a Full Deck: Lessons about Nuclear Deterrence from the Poker Table

By McManus, James | Foreign Policy, September-October 2009 | Go to article overview

Playing with a Full Deck: Lessons about Nuclear Deterrence from the Poker Table


McManus, James, Foreign Policy


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In the 1950s, as the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union was threatening to spiral out of control, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower hired Oskar Morgenstern, the Princeton University economist who cowrote Theory of Games and Economic Behavior in 1944, as an advisor on national security issues. "With bluffs so much easier to make and threats so much more portentous than any previous time in history, Morgenstern later wrote, "it is essential not only for our own State Department but for the entire world to understand what ... is the sanest way to play this deadly, real-life version of poker."

Eisenhower clearly absorbed Morgenstern's advice. In March 1955, for example, he pulled off a classic nuclear bluff, convincing China's Mao Zedong to back down from a threatened attack on Taiwan by implying that he would nuke the mainland. His successor, John E Kennedy, played a series of bluffs and counterbluffs with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, until, as Anthony Holden wrote, Khrushchev "folded his hand and conceded the pot." The office demands such skills: As Richard Nixon used to quote one of his college professors, "A man who couldn't hold a hand in a first-class poker game isn't fit to be president of the United States."

China and Russia are mostly out of the nuclear-bluffing business for now, but America's 44th president today finds himself across the table from some new antagonists. Iran and North Korea have proven themselves no-limit wizards when it comes to the bluff, leveraging the world's uncertainty about what they're holding and what they might do with it to keep their enemies off balance. To be successful, President Barack Obama will have to learn not just how to bluff, but how to read when Tehran and Pyongyang are misrepresenting their hands.

One thing he'll have to do is pay close attention to patterns. An opponent who "has dust on his chips"--who hasn't entered a pot in an hour or more--is more likely to have a big hand when he does finally bet than a player who enters nearly every pot. Tracking the patterns of very loose players such as Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or North Korea's Kim Jong Il should persuade the U.S. president that they often won't possess the nuclear capability they are claiming. Sometimes, however, Obama will have to ignore their previous patterns. One common poker tactic is slowplaying--trapping opponents into betting against what they think is a weak hand, while planning an unpleasant surprise for them at the showdown. …

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