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Poker Politics: Taking the Flop Down the River

Sweaty brows under hot lights. Moist lips whispering sweet little lies. Stone cold stares. No, I'm not describing the recent presidential debates between Sen. John Kerry and George W. Bush. I'm talking about televised poker tournaments. In a blow for overweight cigar smokers everywhere, a number of channels have begun treating card games as a sport. It seems like you can't turn on the TV without seeing high-stakes Texas Hold 'Em. Can anything be learned from this cultural phenomenon?

Yes. Politics is a lot like poker.

As each candidate receives hole cards, Bush has the obvious advantage. He's treated with kid gloves by the media; controls all three branches of government and seems to find corporate campaign contributions stuffed in his sock drawer. In contrast, Kerry faced an uphill battle. He lagged behind in fundraising and allowed Bush to define many of the major issues in the campaign. Kerry's got an interesting biography and decent policy proposals, but his starting hand will need some help to beat Bush.

Yes. Politics is a lot like poker.

"The flop" comes next. This is where the bulk of the cards are dealt. After failing to counter Bush's post-convention bounce, Senator Kerry let attacks from the Swift Boat Veterans for Making Stuff Up throw him off balance. His running mate seemed to join Vice-President Cheney in an undisclosed location. Kerry's campaign couldn't harness global events, like the chaos in Iraq, to put Bush on the defensive. Kerry was literally flopping in the game of politics. Unless Kerry got his act together, he could have lost to Bush's inferior hand.

Bush performed well. Besides letting surrogates do his dirty work, the President had some fun bluffing the American people. Bush ran around claiming Kerry was a flip-flopper and the most consistently liberal person in the United States Senate.

As the candidates approached the next stage of Texas Hold 'Em, which is called "the turn," events can dramatically change the game. Both players have the potential to use this card to their advantage, but it can seriously change the momentum. For Bush and Kerry, the debates were high stakes.

And it certainly turned in Kerry's favor. The first debate, which focused on foreign policy, was supposed to be Bush's strong area. Instead, Kerry hammered the President on subjects ranging from Iraq to North Korea to Iran. They don't cover this much ground in the "World Poker Tour" on the Travel Channel.

The second debate and third debate went the same way as the opening round. Although Bush preformed better than the first time and seemed a little more relaxed, he was still very defensive. And then there was the great moment of not being able to remember any mistake he had ever made. When a player asks to see your cards in poker, and you won't tell, that's a pretty good indication that you're beat.

And then there is "the river." This is the last card dealt and it can change the entire game. Which candidate will the river sweep into the White House? And who will be drowned?

The candidate who needs a last minute miracle is Bush. Sure, the polls show a dead heat, but the majority of the country thinks we're on the wrong track. These kinds of indicators usually spell trouble for incumbents. So Bush could use a few aces in the hole.

Will Osama Bin Laden turn up the day before the election? What about a surprise trip to Baghdad by our commander in chief? Maybe Karl Rove will dig up some photographs of Kerry and Ho Chi Minh making out.

Sen. Kerry just needs things to keep going how they have been. The war in Iraq isn't likely to improve before election, neither is the economy. That's the great thing about poker. Bush can bluff all he wants, but when the chips are down and the cards are shown, a full house still beats two pair.

Ben Waxman is a student studying politics at Juniata College.