What Texas Hold ‘em Can Teach us about Geopolitics
Poker doesn’t immediately make you think of geopolitics. However, the game itself, specifically No-Limit Texas Hold ’em, is a remarkable analog for the international system as viewed through a realist lens. Not only is the construct of the game eerily similar to the geopolitical environment of today, but many of the strategies and choices in the game mirror those available to powers within the international system. Accordingly a more detailed examination of the game yields valuable insights into the affairs of nations in an anarchic world order. It’s time for future leaders to play poker instead of chess.
The rules of No-Limit Texas Hold ’em are simple. Each player is dealt two cards. Five community cards are shared and are turned over in an initial batch of three, then one, and then the final card. Bets are made before each batch of community cards is revealed, and then one more time after the final card is turned over (four total bets). Players can bet up to and including all their money at any point (hence “No-Limit”). A player wins either by holding the best hand when all betting is over, or by playing in such a manner as to convince all other players to fold (give up) his or her cards. Regardless of who has the best hand, if only one player remains in the hand he or she wins it. This means that while luck can greatly impact the outcome of a single hand, over the longer term skill, understanding odds, reading other players, and selecting the right strategies will win out. Once the game starts, no additional money can be added (this is not always the case in all Texas Hold ’em games but should be assumed here).
Those well versed in international relations will see immediate parallels between the structure of a Texas Hold ’em game and that of the international system. For the purpose of these analogies, consider a “player” in the international system version of poker to be a country or a like-minded group of countries, such as “liberal Western democracies” or “China” (i.e., Canada and the United States are on the same team; China and the United States are not). To begin with, money (or speaking geopolitically, power and influence) is finite; the system is closed. While shares of money (or power/influence) can be split in nearly infinite combinations between different numbers of players, the total amount is finite. As a consequence, because the absolute amount of money in the game is fixed, relative holdings are the most important aspect of the game.
A player’s chip count (money) relative to all others strongly impacts his or her ability to ultimately win the game, and moreover dictates the strategies available to them. For instance, the chip leader (the player with the most money) can to some extent push around more poorly resourced players; the chip leader risks relatively less money by making large bets early regardless of his or her hand and can afford losing if a bluff is called, while other players will need to consider whether they can justify the odds of winning a hand based on very limited information with that of a disastrous consequence if they are wrong. The greater the disparity between the leader and a given player, the easier the leader can push that player around. Similarly, because money in a game is finite, all exchanges of money are zero-sum. There’s only one decisive winner, and the losers of a hand experience varying degrees of reduced power relative to the victor. However, there are also impacts for all other players that were not involved in the hand; they too play into the zero-sum equation. For instance if a relatively poor player “doubles up” (meaning doubles their chip count by betting everything and winning) against the chip leader, this is some level of bad for the leader, very good for the poorer player, and also some level of good for the other players at the table, since the strongest player becomes relatively weaker. Statistically speaking, weakening the strongest player makes that player’s chance of winning less likely, thus improving the chances for all other players. Finally, the criticality of relative holdings in the game means that while the main interest of players is to maximize their own holdings, in the short term it may be beneficial for a player to keep another in the game because in the end as long as one’s own chip count is increasing, what happens to other players is immaterial (though to permanently win all must eventually be eliminated).
The structure of a Texas Hold ’em game is mirrored by the international system as it sits today. There are several great powers, more regional powers, and groupings of countries competing geopolitically for power and ideologically to expand their values or way of life, by necessity at the expense of the others. Each competitor’s views may vary across a number of axes — from stances on individual rights to the role of the people in a government — and some competitors may seem to be allied with others, but the key takeaway is that no set of player views is compatible with any others at its core. As an example, while Iran and China may find common cause today in working to reduce the relative power of liberal Western democracies (led by the United States), over the longer term Iranian and Chinese objectives have no hope of alignment. One believes a theocracy is the only acceptable form of government; the other represses those who affiliate with religious organizations that are not sanctioned by the state. The latter is terrified of its Muslim population, scapegoating them whenever possible, while the former sees itself as the defender of Islam across the world. For convenience they can temporarily work together; once their common cause is reduced, however, the relationship will falter. For an historical example, consider Sino–American relations during the late Cold War — when a period of relative cordiality occurred as we shared a common rival in the Soviet Union — and then afterwards, when without the USSR, the cordiality has evaporated as China and the United States see each other as direct rivals.
If the structure of a No-Limit Texas Hold ’em game mirrors that of the international system, the strategic choices of the game are even more salient. To picture the strategic options available in the game, it is helpful to think of two distinct spectra of options that combine to determine the strategy of each player. The first of these is what I’ll call the loose-to-tight spectrum. The looser a player is, the more hands they will play. Tight players are the exact opposite. The second spectrum is what I’ll call aggressive-to-passive. The more aggressive a player is, the more of their chips he or she will be willing to risk in an attempt to win a hand. Passive players are the opposite; the harder they are pressured, the more likely they will fold. Adding these spectra together, there are four strategic options in Texas Hold ’em.
The first of these is to be loose and aggressive. This is a player who goes after nearly every hand with major bets, and is usually a strategy reserved for chip leaders since in all other positions this approach would otherwise be too risky. To play like this sensibly, a player needs to be better resourced than all other players. This strategy is one where a player is ratcheting up the cost of entry to play any hand, with the hope that poorer players will eventually be forced by a gradual decline of their resources (through blinds and antes, bets that are put into the hand automatically before cards are dealt as a way to ensure each hand has money at play) to commit to a less than optimal hand and can thus be eliminated. Examples of countries that adopted this approach include the British Empire before World War I or the Roman Empire at its height. These great powers were willing to get involved in contests far beyond their own borders and had sufficient resources to support their involvement.
The second option is to be tight and aggressive. This is a player who plays a small percentage of hands, but like a bulldog, once the player latches onto a hand he or she will not let go. This is generally a strong strategy, especially when many players are involved, since it conserves one’s chips until a winning hand is most likely held, and forces others to be wary when a player using this strategy gets into a hand (since the player likely has a very strong hand and is unlikely to be bluffed out of it). The United States for most of the 1800s utilized this strategy, generally avoiding non-Western hemisphere issues while making it clear that it was willing to go to war over any violation of the Monroe Doctrine.
The third option is to be tight and passive. In poker, this is a holding strategy. While two very strong players go at each other, other players may prefer to conserve resources until the fight is over rather than trying to compete with multiple better-resourced opponents at once. This strategy cannot be sustained over a longer term, because it is a slow but inevitable drain on a player’s chips. Nonetheless it occasionally makes sense to undertake. Italy from 1914 to 1915, which remained neutral as a hedge to see which side looked more likely to win World War I before joining in, is an example of this approach.
Much as in geopolitics, the most advantageous strategies in poker for a player will change over time. Based on the conditions in the game, talented poker players will oscillate between the three strategies described, usually spending most of their time with the first two. Each time significant changes in relative chip counts occur, players will reevaluate their strategic choices and determine whether changes are needed, just like the international system following an economic crisis or war. Players will also adjust their relative aggressiveness or passivity based on the conditions of a specific hand. For instance, players running low on resources will usually be more aggressive since they cannot continue slowly bleeding away their chips through blinds and antes indefinitely and at a certain point must play any cards in front of them to have a chance at remaining in the game. In this situation the strength of one’s cards is somewhat immaterial, since aggressive play is more likely to get others to fold or at least ensure potential winnings are increased in a showdown.
As astute readers likely noticed, there is however an as yet unmentioned fourth “strategy” in poker. By process of elimination, this must be the combination of loose and passive. However, this is not a strategy unless a player’s goal is to function as an ATM for the other players. A player who is loose and passive will play lots of hands and be easily pushed into folding. This is a sure recipe for disaster as the player is risking resources consistently with little hope of recovering any. Accordingly, these players will quickly be run out of a table, and are the favorite prey for better players.
Applying our poker strategies with a geopolitical lens, it is plain to see that states and/or alliances seem to conform to the same spectra as poker players. Aggressive actors are willing to risk more resources (economic, military or otherwise) to expand or preserve their influence, while passive countries are not. Tight actors minimize their involvement in their local regions or around the world, while loose actors seek the opposite. Unlike poker players, however, actors in the international system can and do tend to play multiple games at once, against different sets of players (for instance Russia may not find a South China Sea game worth playing) and where the results of any one game affects all others. The total amount of power and influence available in the system remains fixed, and each block must choose how many games it will play in (rarely, a nation, like Switzerland or the isolated nation of Bhutan, may choose to play no games at all, though the cost of this stance is giving up any say in how the world system is run).
To illustrate these points, let’s take a contemporary example — the South China Sea. In this game there are four principal players: China; the United States; local nations that oppose China and are consequently aligned with the United States (e.g., Philippines, Vietnam, etc.); and local nations that are hedging this game (such as Malaysia and Indonesia). China’s strategy is easy to characterize. As the dominant player it is playing a loose and aggressive game. While the United States may have more total power than China, in this specific game the combination of distance from American bases and comparative spread of American resources globally makes China relatively more powerful. The Chinese are pressuring both the United States and the local nations that oppose China across multiple fronts, from cutting off resupply of Filipino outposts, to dredging submerged reefs in order to erode international law and norms that present barriers to Beijing’s aims. Under pressure, the local nations which oppose China are forced to play tight and as aggressively as they can, since they have significantly fewer resources than China but much at stake. Accordingly, the Philippines is planning investments in its maritime capabilities with an eye towards countering Chinese coercion, and Vietnam just purchased additional Kilo-class submarines from Russia that are ideal for holding China’s more numerous surface fleet at risk.
Nations like Malaysia and Indonesia are executing holding strategies by playing tight and passive, trying to avoid getting enmeshed in this conflict. And where does this leave the United States? Faced with China’s maritime territorial expansionism in the region as well as its assaults on international maritime law and norms, the United States has until recently (from 2012 until now) backed away from any chance of confrontation, eschewing Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) or similar measures that would challenge the legitimacy of China’s maritime claims and island-building campaign. In response to ever-increasing Chinese assertions of sovereignty over the territories of other nations friendly to the United States, official Washington has remained relatively silent. Despite a widely advertised “Pacific Pivot,” as the Chinese navy and coast guard increase their presence in the South China Sea, U.S. Navy presence is shrinking due to the combined effects of high operating tempos and declining force structure. It should be clear by now what “strategy” the United States has adopted; it is playing loose and passive.
If limited to a single game balanced by gains in others, one could argue that it is conceivable a loose and passive game might be overcome. Perhaps it could be argued as well that the United States is playing tight and aggressive, folding in some cases to push elsewhere. However neither assertion is supported by credible evidence. The United States is playing myriad games, (denoting a loose strategy) and playing aggressively in few if any. That Bashar al-Assad remains in power after crossing an Obama administration “red-line,” while Russia continues to violate the Minsk agreement in Ukraine and China acts with impunity in the South China Sea, provides ample evidence of this non-strategy being practiced globally. Whether in Eastern Europe, Syria, Iraq or elsewhere, American strategy today seems to be the same: play every hand, fold if pushed at all.
Whether intentional or just the result of an inability to handle multiple concurrent international issues (the latter is more likely), this non-strategy must be reversed. For as surely as it is a recipe for disaster in poker, so too is it on the world stage. The end result of this approach will be a gradual but unavoidable loss of influence and power for the United States across the world. In our place, asserting themselves within their respective regions and beyond, will be actors like Russia, Iran and China, along with their allies — nations whose foundational beliefs are inimical to democracy, free expression, and free trade, the very precepts that have enabled the historically unprecedented global prosperity and stability we bask in today.
Jonathan Altman is a Program Analyst with Systems Planning and Analysis, Inc. who holds a Master’s Degree in International Security from the Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not reflect the official positions of Systems Planning and Analysis Inc., and to the author’s knowledge do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, any U.S. armed service, or any other U.S. Government agency.
Photo credit: Robin Corps