Back when I used to play poker for a living there was a guy who we’ll call Jake. Jake was a young guy. Younger than myself even (and I was probably 22 or 23 at the time of this story) and, well, kind of a dunce.
When Jake showed up on the scene, he was terrible. He was what we called loose-passive. Loose meaning he played a lot of hands, and passive meaning that he was usually checking and calling rather than betting and raising.
At the lower limits, loose-passive is a recipe for disaster. In fact, all you have to do to win at low limit poker is be the opposite, tight-aggressive. I call it “the secret” even though really it’s in the first paragraph of every poker book ever written. The tighter and more aggressive you are (to a point, anyway) the more you win. It’s really that simple at the bottom rungs. And the aggressive part is a lot more important than the tight part too, because most players are loose and passive. You can play a lot more hands when you know you’re going to get a bunch of calls when you hit.
Eventually the Peter Principle kicks in. The people who win at the lowest stakes move up to the next level, and the people who win there move up, and so on and so forth until every single player in the world is either in the process of going broke or thinking “maybe I should move to the bigger game.”
Eventually you get to a point where everyone knows the secret, and the game becomes something much different. It becomes this beautiful combination of art and science, a test of intellect and will power. A lot of people get cracked there.
(There’s this weird edge case, where the highest stakes game in the room is often easier than the ones right below it, because a few very wealthy guys who don’t know what they’re doing sit down, but otherwise the rule is generally that the higher the stakes, the better the opposition.)
Jake being young, he didn’t have much money to lose, but he lost it all and went back home to West Virginia. The nice thing about the low limits is you can just wait until your next paycheck and buy right back in again. I spent most of my 18th year doing exactly that before I learned to not spend my winnings on mp3 players and bad chain steakhouses.
Somewhere along the line Jake must have found the secret. I started hearing rumors about how good he’d gotten. He probably started playing a little tighter and a lot more aggressively, and he started winning. He moved up and started playing even more aggressively, and kept winning until I was hearing about it through the grapevine.
I hadn’t seen him in over a year, and then one day he landed at my table. Or I should say tables, since we were playing online and everyone was playing a few at a time. We were playing $40/$80 Texas Hold’em, which means the betting increments on the first two rounds were $40, and the last $80. That’s pretty big stakes online, where the action is fast and you’re playing a few tables. You could win or lose six figures in a week. At one point or another I did both.
Anyway, Jake had built himself up a bit of a bankroll and decided to sit down. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say I watched the guy lose every penny he had. I got more than my fair share of them.
See what happened was, he kept playing the same way he had at the lower levels. He played too many hands and bet and raised just about anything. As the Peter Principle predicts, he had risen to the level of his own incompetence.
An overly-aggressive player, it turns out, is really easy to play against. In fact, it’s just as easy as an overly-passive player, you just do the opposite.
As a thought experiment, imagine you were playing against a bot that just bet or raised every single time it had the opportunity to, no matter what. How would you play against it? The answer is pretty obvious. If your hand was better than average (since the bot is doing this with anything, you can just assume it has an average hand) you’d raise. If it was close enough that the money in the pot gave you odds to, you’d call. And if your hand was much worse than average, you’d fold. Sure, you’d get cracked sometimes when the bot just happened to be raising a full house and you had two pair, or you folded a bad hand to a terrible one. But over even a relatively short session you’d destroy it. You’d win every chip, every time.
An overly-aggressive human isn’t quite that simple. He’s still only playing 30% or so of his hands, and he’s not going crazy with nothing at all every time. You have to be a bit more wary, but the same basic principle applies. Call with a lot of stuff you might normally fold, raise a little bit with stuff you might normally not, and go ape shit when you have the nuts instead of trying to figure out how to get paid on it. It’s pretty easy really. They might get you for a session, but it doesn’t take long for you to break them.
What separates the good players from the bad is that the bad players just do one thing. They’ve got one gear. And when that’s the right gear for the situation, they win, and when it isn’t, they lose. It’s that simple.
So a few months back I was having a conversation with a friend about Donald Trump. The question came up about whether or not Trump was some evil diabolical genius. A lot of people think he’s some kind of brilliant con artist who is using his skills to become President. My friend thought so too.
My honest answer then was that I wasn’t sure. I suspected he was actually kind of an imbecile who has simply been doing the same thing for 40 years, and that recent societal shifts had just made that thing start working. But, I had to admit, perhaps he’s just playing on a level I can’t understand. Maybe he is a genius who is just seeing a few moves further than me and everyone else. Maybe his fourth grade grammar is not the mark of a buffoon but a carefully constructed ruse.
He has convinced our nation’s lower class that he, a guy born into inflation-adjusted billions, is their champion. Despite several bankruptcies, and the fact that his famous business book was ghostwritten by a guy who now calls Trump a sociopathic moron, he’s built a name for himself as a business mogul. He routinely contradicts himself in the same paragraph, refuses to release his tax returns (likely because they show he’s nowhere near as wealthy and successful as he claims, an assertion that has been put forth for decades by business magazines) and yet has convinced everyone that his opponent is the most dishonest candidate of all time. A guy who first came to fame for cheating on his first wife (of three) is the nominee of the family values party. All of that is impressive, however crazy it may sound. You really have to ask yourself if, despite his obvious personality flaws, he isn’t just brilliant.
The test, I thought, would be whether or not he keeps doing the same thing when he should be doing something else. Many of the pundits claimed that when it came time for the general, he should pivot. He should stop insulting people on Twitter all day and try to look presidential. He should stop saying so much racist stuff, run a tighter campaign, etc.
The pundits and politicians had been wrong about a lot of things though. If they weren’t, we would be talking about Jeb or Rubio. I thought there was a good chance Trump would go on ignoring them.
But that’s not what happened. He’s attempted all of the things the pundits prescribed, but has succeeded at none. He’s tried really hard to give a teleprompter speech or two, but then gone off script and off the rails. Had he not even tried the stuff the pundits said, I’d probably think he was brilliant (however evil) at this point and just seeing the board in a different way than everyone else.
But the minute he pulled out a teleprompter, which he said he’d never do but Hillary is the dishonest one, I felt I had my answer. This isn’t some world-class con man pulling off the ultimate heist. This is a used car salesman. He’s got his little bag of tricks and our country is just so sick of politicians that those same tricks that relegated him to political curiosity for the last couple decades started working.
I’m now convinced that Trump is really just a two-bit hustler. He’s got this thing he does, and it just happens to have found his moment. When it’s no longer the right moment, he’ll keep on doing it, because it’s just who he is. Let’s hope that time comes before November.