Poker: Bluff way to play game of politics

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The Independent Culture
THE LANGUAGE of poker is becoming increasingly popular in diplomacy and politics. John Major recently described the negotiations on Northern Ireland as like a poker game. 'It is best to keep your hand to yourself as long as possible,' he advised. In the past few days the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the Gatt trade negotiations and Chris Patten's stand-off with China over Hong Kong - to name but three issues in the news - have all lent themselves to analogies with poker. Each side - or, as the parties concerned are often described, each 'player' - is trying to win the hand as best he can.

Mr Major's advice about playing it close to the chest is certainly true of poker. But if someone is going to give away your hand, which is what happened when the Government's secret contacts over Ulster were disclosed, it might be better to reveal the cards from the start. Now, however adroitly the British side may play its hand, it runs the risk of not being believed. This was Richard Nixon's big mistake. Nixon was a serious poker player in his early days, financing his political career from his winnings, so he should have known better. The Watergate cover-up was in an obvious sense a huge bluff. It might never have been called if his entire play, in the form of intimate White House conversations, had not been recorded on tape. When the tapes were released, the bluff was exposed.

The financial markets, too, are often seen in poker terms. 'Think of it as a game of poker,' explained a leading commentator at the time of the French franc crisis. 'The enormous betting has created a pot big enough to die for and now it's time, in the classic phrase, to put up or shut up.'

Many British punters, planning their summer holidays, thought they were on to a one-way bet. But the banks outplayed them: they merely widened the bands in the exchange rate mechanism, and the French franc stayed put. When the franc was not devalued, despite all the speculation, the analyst quoted above had a neat rejoinder. 'Call it the poker game that refuses to end,' he declared.

The essential idea behind these poker metaphors is that one side is trying to bluff the other, to gain an advantage. This can be true, if the other side is so desperate to settle it would rather fold, or reduce its negotiating position, than risk calling the raise. But if all the parties have a more or less equal stake in reaching a settlement, the bluffing serves only to delay final agreement to share the pot. We may therefore expect a deal in Gatt, in Gaza and Jericho, and probably in Dublin; but not perhaps in Hong Kong. If one player has it in his power to overturn the card table, poker is not the right analogy.