THE STUDY MARCH 2, 2012
Amid growing tension about Iran’s nuclear program and the possibility of an Israeli strike (with or without advance notice to the United States), President Obama sat down for an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. When discussing the potential for a U.S.-led assault on Iranian nuclear facilities, Obama said, “I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff.” Wait, really? Put aside dangerous geopolitical friction for a moment. With a mindset like that, is the president any good at poker?
Research on the probability and game theory of poker suggests that if you were sitting across the table from Barack Obama, you might soon have his money. One academic study of poker-playing software notes that the program itself has a built-in bluffing mechanism through the partial randomization of its bets. This, the authors argue, serves an important tactical purpose: When the program (and, indeed, when a human player) over-represents the strength of a hand, better-handed players are chased away; when it under-represents the strength of a hand, weaker players stay in longer and lose more of their money. The cumulative effect of this tactic serves a strategic purpose, as game theorists have argued, by creating a basic and persistent uncertainty in opponents’ minds. Whether that method is a safe bet for international affairs is, of course, another matter entirely.