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PRESIDENT CLINTON was "holding his cards close to his vest" and "studying how to play his hand" - according to reports in the American papers.

The New York Times chose this metaphor: "As an astute politician and adroit card player, he must by now realise that his incomplete explanations about Ms Lewinsky are a losing hand."

Analysis of the current political crisis has been thick with the language of poker, and rightly so. The unfolding dramas in Washington and Moscow bear strong resemblance to a poker game.

Clinton had played a strong hand for many months, based on the quite reasonable assumption that his cards would not be shown down. Accordingly his tactics were to frustrate the process, by sidelining other players and delaying or withholding information that might force him to reveal his own hand in public. Special prosecutor Kenneth Starr brought pressure on these other players - such as the Secret Service detail - to show their cards.

What was Clinton's game plan? The same as that of another beleaguered president: Boris Yeltsin. The aim is simply to survive, to stay in the game. Losing a few hands, over revelations of sexual impropriety or, in Yeltsin's case, an initial failure to secure support for his prime minister, is not crucial.

However, financially they were in different positions. Yeltsin could not pull up more chips. The Russian economy is busted. He needs international support. The best he can hope for is to hang on at the table, relying on others. By contrast, the American economy is extremely strong. Against that prosperity, a few losing hands or mistaken plays in the form of sexual peccadilloes may not seem so important. Besides, in that sort of game, as in poker, it is acceptable practice to deceive, to fib and to conceal your cards.

But Mr Starr found an ace in the hole. In return for granting Ms Lewinsky immunity from prosecution, she agreed to testify. This was equivalent to having a player who could bet and raise with no risk whatsoever. On the contrary, the lure of a lucrative book contract remains open when the game is over.

Obviously one cannot press the analogies with poker too far. But it is true that the habits of thought in politics, of winning out in difficult situations by means of raising the stakes, by knowing what your opponents and rivals are doing and by using bluff, bear some resemblance to the way that poker players think.

Can Clinton find a winning coup to get back in the game and turn it all around? Possibly. A new Middle East settlement is on the cards. That would show he is still a winner in the big game of international politics.