News networks often package their debates as overheated blood sport. (“CRUZ! WALKER! PAUL!”) Usually, it’s pretty ridiculous. But just this once, the metaphor might hold. Monday’s matchup, the first of three between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, promises to be the most high-pressure head-to-head in generations. With a nearly dead-even race, an expected TV audience to rival the Super Bowl’s, and the fate (and perhaps the existence) of the free world hanging in the balance, it’s hard to imagine higher stakes.
So, as we sought to game out both candidates’ strategies, we turned to someone familiar with high-stakes contests: six-time World Series of Poker champion Daniel Negreanu. The Canadian-born Negreanu is not only the biggest live tournament poker winner of all time, he is also a political junkie. He recently became an American citizen, in part so he could vote in this election, and when we caught up with him he had just completed a red-eye flight during which he had stayed awake listening to political podcasts.
Debates, he says, are “absolutely 100-percent” comparable to poker. “The similarities are striking,” he says. “With poker, you develop strategies based on your read of what your opponent is going to do. That’s no different from Hillary and Trump, trying to exploit the others’ weaknesses and minimize their strengths.”
The first dynamic for both candidates to consider, Negreanu says, is that one-on-one poker–or heads-up, as it’s known–is fundamentally different from playing against a large field. In Texas Hold ‘Em, the most popular tournament poker game, each player receives two cards before the first round of betting. At larger tables, because the position of the “blinds”–the people responsible for placing the ante bets–rotates, players get more chances to see those two cards without risking any money. So weak players can wait until they have very, very good cards, then bet them heavily.
But in heads-up play, “your weaknesses get magnified.” When there are only two players, you can’t avoid those ante bets, which makes it expensive to fold pretty-good cards. That means you may have to play hands you’re less sure of, a much more difficult prospect. As Negreanu puts it, “in heads-up, you have to have a grasp of the technical aspect of poker”—the underlying math that determines which hands to play.
That could pose a challenge to Trump, who so far has only debated on a crowded stage. He’s used that platform to his advantage, surgically attacking his opponents with well-timed zingers. In a one-on-one debate, Negreanu predicts, he’ll be less able to rely on that kind of isolated strike, because he’ll have to field so many more questions and fill so much more time. In that kind of match-up, he says, substance always beats luck. “If you and I were to play one hand of poker, there’s a 50-50 chance you could win,” he says. “But after a million hands, you’re going to lose.”
Clinton took a conservative approach to her primary debates, rarely attacking Senator Bernie Sanders. That made sense from a poker perspective. When you have many more chips than your opponent–and Clinton was always the odds-on favorite to win the nomination–you tend to take fewer risks, not wanting to give anyone else even an outside chance of getting lucky and catching up. But now, with some polls showing a tight race, Clinton needs to get more aggressive.
It would be smart for his campaign to throw a curve ball to keep her off balance. If he shows up presidential and relaxed and she’s unable to shake him, he wins. Poker champion Daniel Negreanu
Negreanu says that most players try to set traps for their opponents. If they know they are playing against an aggressive player, for instance, they will pretend to have weaker hands than they actually hold, counting on their opponent to bet heavily. That seems an obvious strategy to use against Trump, who seems incapable of folding the political equivalent of bad cards. When the parents of a fallen soldier spoke out against him at the Democratic National Convention, he attacked them instead of changing the subject. When his history of birtherism threatened to derail his campaign, he prolonged the debate by accusing Clinton of starting it. “The key is, she has to hit him where it hurts so he gets off-track and reckless,” Negreanu says. “Then she can just sit back and say, ‘See?’”
But Negreanu says Clinton can’t wait forever for that moment to occur. And this is where poker psychology comes in. In cards, it’s helpful to know what your opponent thinks of you, and then to subvert those expectations. For instance, if someone has a reputation for playing aggressively, it might behoove them to only play strong hands, because their opponent is more likely to assume they’re bluffing. Clinton may expect Trump to be aggressive, but Trump’s team is surely aware of that expectation. “It would be smart for his campaign to throw a curve ball to keep her off balance,” Negreanu says. “If he shows up presidential and relaxed and she’s unable to shake him, he wins.” (Then again, he presumably knows that she might be anticipating this counter-programming, in which case he may try to catch her unawares by debating exactly as anyone might expect him to.)
Generally speaking, it’s good strategy to counter your opponent’s playing style. So if someone is folding reasonably strong hands, it’s best to play weaker hands. Likewise, if someone is betting aggressively, it’s smart to be cautious before entering a pot. By that logic, if Trump enters the debates as his usual aggressive, erratic self, Clinton can probably afford not to take too many risks. But if he adjusts to become more buttoned-up and unflappable, she may need to come at him a little more forcefully. “If your opponent’s not screwing up, you’ve got to force him to,” Negreanu says. “She may have to let her guard down a little.”
What Clinton can’t do, Negreanu says, is try to match Trump’s strategy. If Trump comes out boisterous and aggressive, Clinton shouldn’t try to match his fire. (That’s what Marco Rubio tried to do during the primaries, to his regret.)
One final wrinkle: Both candidates can’t just pursue the same strategy throughout the course of the debate. Poker players tend to adjust their play several times during a game, in an attempt to keep their opponents off balance. A player may start out aggressive, then tighten up and play only sure-fire winners. Both Trump and Clinton should do something similar–varying their aggression and passivity, and countering their opponents’ efforts to do the same.
A Long Tournament
It’s worth remembering that Monday’s debate is just the first of three. If poker is any guide, that means we won’t be able to crown a definitive winner when it’s over—unless one of the candidates makes a big mistake. “You can’t win a tournament in its early stages, but you can lose it,” Negreanu says. “The first debate should be a feeler debate, a chance for both candidates to see how it goes, look at the polling and pundits, and adjust for the second debate. If you’re doing poorly after both of the first debates, then number three is the time to go all in.” It’s worth remembering that President Obama woefully underperformed in his first debate with Mitt Romney, only to rebound after Romney falsely depicted his response to the Benghazi attack. (A tip for both debaters: If you hear your opponent say “please proceed,” as Obama did when he noticed Romney stumbling into this trap, you’ve just bet a lot of chips on a losing hand.)
As with poker, the contest is likely to go to the candidate that can keep their cool under pressure.
Ultimately, Negreanu says, you can’t engineer a moment like that. Instead, as with poker, the contest is likely to go to the candidate that can keep their cool under pressure. “When you’re deep in a tournament, there comes a big moment when you know you have to make a big play,” he says. “And you have to be able to make that play without worrying about what happens if it doesn’t work out, if you’re going to lose your house. Just focus on strategy and deliver.” That, Negreanu says, is what has defined the best debate performances—when George W. Bush brushed off Al Gore’s attempts to intimidate him, or when Ronald Reagan poked fun at his own age.
And that might represent Clinton’s greatest vulnerability. She sometimes performs very well in high-pressure situations—take her cool response to the Benghazi hearings in Congress. But by her own admission, she is not always comfortable as a politician. If she projects unease or stress, she will come across like an anxious bluffer desperate not to get called. If that happens, all the planning in the world won’t save her. “It’s one thing to create a game plan,” Negreanu says. “It’s another to deliver when pressure is high.”
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