Phil Helmuth Explains Donald Trump, the Poker Player
by Jeremy Greenfield
Republicans are scrambling to find a way to defeat Donald Trump. Here’s one idea: Think of him as the toughest poker player you’ve ever faced.
“Trump is the ultimate ‘loose-aggressive’ player,” said poker champion Phil Hellmuth in a recent phone interview. Hellmuth has won 14 World Series of Poker events — the most ever.
Many years ago, during the heyday of online poker in the U.S., for a very brief (and parentally disappointing) period, I made my living playing poker, mostly online and without much success. I often encountered this type of player, known to students of the game as “LAG.”
The LAG will play many hands, some with good cards, but much more often with mediocre or even bad cards, betting and raising the stakes each time. The strategy is to make other players fear you so much that they are cautious about playing against you and will often fold, even when they are likely to have a better hand, ceding small amounts of chips in the hopes of saving up for a big confrontation. The LAG wins many small skirmishes this way, amassing chips and becoming more powerful. The loose-aggressive player wants to control the table, own the table and run the table. Sound familiar?
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Trump seems willing to take up any position that might give him an advantage (play any two cards), move forward rather than backward on any issues (he never apologizes — always raising the stakes, never folding), and when he is attacked, he hits back, even when the attacker is the Pope. People often think of Trump as a bully, but it’s not as accurate an analogy, because for the playground bully, being cruel is the point. There is no larger game. With the LAG — and with Trump — the bullying behavior is a strategy with the goal of winning all the chips. It’s bullying with a plan.
So, how do you beat the loose-aggressive player? I wasn’t very good at beating these kinds of advanced players in my day, so I talked to someone who eats them for breakfast: Hellmuth.
According to Hellmuth, who is known for his insights into the strategies of opponents, there are two ways to beat the LAG.
“When you’re playing against a loose-aggressive player, think of a harpoon. You nail them with a harpoon, on one big pot for all their chips. They’re a big target,” Hellmuth told me, adding, “and Trump is a big target.”
In poker, what this means is being patient and waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike, Hellmuth explained.
The analogy to politics and Trump’s rise is simple. Trump enters the fray at every turn and controls the topics of discussion, winning small battles that earn him a steadily increasing number of supporters. The more supporters he amasses, the more small battles he wins, the more powerful he becomes. The harpoon strategy dictates then with the LAG that the way to defeat them is to wait to be dealt a very powerful hand; it can take time and patience. When this happens, allow the LAG to bet and raise the stakes of the hand until many chips are in the pot, and then, of course, win the pot with the superior cards.
“Trump has made a target of himself over and over and over again,” said Hellmuth, referring to the many times Trump has made statements that one would think would make him vulnerable to attack: disparaging Mexican immigrants, attacking popular Republican Senator John McCain, espousing traditionally Democratic party positions on key issues like health care.
But it hasn’t worked. Poker, like life, involves a bit of luck, and sometimes inferior cards win.
“He’s playing many weak hands, so you’d expect him to get harpooned a lot,” said Hellmuth, who is a student of politics but not politically affiliated and has no candidate he yet supports. “The problem is you’ve harpooned Trump five times and he’s so smart, he’s so resilient, he has so much style, he’s changed the rules of poker.”
Trump’s rivals in the GOP primary — Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — have watched others try this strategy against Trump. Think of when Jeb Bush demanded Trump apologize during a September debate for comments Trump made about Bush’s wife. Trump didn’t back down, emerging from the harpoon moment unscathed.
And, besides, Rubio and Cruz are running out time. Waiting for the right moment to launch a harpoon takes patience, and Super Tuesday is around the corner, followed quickly by a series of huge primary states, where many chips will be in play for the LAG, Trump, to gobble up.
But, there is another way to defeat the LAG, Hellmuth told me.
“The first way is patience. The other way is you take it to the next level,” he said. “You have to come over the top, raising the stakes.”
He explained further:
“The LAG controls the pace of the game, controls the flow of the game, controls how much money is put in the pot and pushes the pace to make sure every pot is bigger. Whether he has good cards or not, he has faith that he can outplay you or get lucky. The way you defeat that is to get even more money in — you have to get more aggressive. You make sure that every time you have a hand that’s likely to be better than his hand, you’re getting big raises in. You have to have good discipline, but you get aggressive.”
Translating that into layman’s terms, you don’t wait around forever for the perfect opportunity, but when something pretty good presents itself, you go for it, giving it everything you’ve got.
And, in fact, we’ve seen that work against Trump in this election. When Rubio attacked at the last GOP debate with a flurry of zingers about Trump’s hiring of foreign workers, his inheritance, his business savvy, it bloodied the frontrunner.
“Rubio made a smart move. He finally took it to the next level. He assumed he was just going to win with patience and when you’re waiting for someone else to implode and they don’t implode, all of the sudden you’re way behind in the chips and Super Tuesday is coming up and you can’t wait anymore. Rubio can’t wait. Rubio changed tactics, finally aggressively attacked Trump — and he looked pretty good doing it.”
And Trump has spent much time in the days following the debate answering questions about the hiring of Polish workers 35 years ago and his upcoming lawsuit defending Trump University.
Trump’s rivals seem to know by now that to have a chance in the primary — or in the general election — sitting back and waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike hasn’t been a winning strategy. Punching back at any reasonable opportunity could be.
You’re in a poker tournament, at the final table of ten players. One of them is a loose-aggressive bully who is quickly amassing chips and eliminating rivals. If you just wait, you think, until it’s down to just the two of you, then you’ll take him on — and win. Even if you should get to that point, one problem with this strategy is that by the time you do, your opponent is likely to have so many more chips than you, that winning in the end is a long shot.
Rubio bullied the bully. Two things happen at the poker table when you do that. First, other players see that the LAG can be beaten, and some may be emboldened to use a similar strategy. Second, the LAG knows this, and will often quickly move to reestablish dominance. Trump has done that time and again in this election when he’s been attacked.
Like the highest-level poker, this election is being played on the emotional level. Many elections have come down to specific policies, party loyalty, how the economy was doing. This election, however, is about raw emotion.
“Trump has changed the rules of the game,” said Hellmuth, adding, “and we’ve let him do that.”
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