Big Bet Politics: what craps and poker say about McCain and Obama

Categories: John McCain
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God, Albert Einstein said, does not play dice with the universe. All due respect, recent scientific advances show that it isn't whether the Creator does in fact allow chaos to dance with order, and the question isn't whether life is a gamble but how.

Whether or not the deity plays dice, John McCain does. At 14 hours a stretch.

Why should you care? Because all life is risk. It's how we take risks, the time and manner of the chances we take. How you gamble says a lot about you, because the decisions you make while gambling are often metaphors for the way you approach life. This is particularly true in the case of the two major-party presidential candidates, whose games of choice speak volumes about who they are.

Ever wonder why you never see them tear down a casino -- except to build a bigger casino? The answer is math.

Whenever your risk your money, you should ask yourself if the gamble is an overall winning decision. Statisticians and gambling nerds call these calculations expected value calculations.

The idea is to find out if you were to take an action 1,000 times, would you have a positive expectation or a negative expectation? Sometimes you'll win while making a wager, and sometimes, you'll lose. The challenge is finding out how often you'll win, how much, and whether the risk is worth it. The answer for almost every table game is no.

In craps, the decision that gets you the highest expected value is walking away from the table before you roll the dice. If you play the game long enough -- this is also true of slots, or virtually any other pit game -- you will go broke. It is a mathematical certainty.

That's because the house figures in an edge for itself on every wager. For every dollar you bet in a casino pit game, you stand to gain less than a dollar over the long term. Over the short term, you might win. In the long haul, your wallet will become ever-lighter as the casino builds a new wing.

Naturally, craps is McCain's chosen addiction.

McCain is an avid gambler. Wes Gullett, a close friend who worked for McCain for years, told me that they used to play craps in Las Vegas in fourteen-hour stints, standing at the tables from 10 a.m. to midnight. “Craps is addictive,” McCain remarked, and he headed for the fifteen-dollar-minimum-bet tables. At the most obvious level, the game is incredibly simple—players rotate turns throwing the dice, and you either win or lose depending on what number comes up. But McCain’s betting formula makes it much more complicated. “Uh-oh!” he cried, as a player accidentally threw the dice off the table. “This is a very, very superstitious game,” he said.

Call it superstition or a system, you keep throwing those dice, you're going to lose money. There are only two games in a typical casino where, over the long term, you can turn a profit. One is blackjack, if you can count cards effectively and find a casino where they've never heard of the MIT blackjack team.

The other is the game of choice for McCain's Democratic rival, Barack Obama.

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Obama plays poker. Significantly, the popular card game is the only common casino enterprise where you don't play against the house. You play against other players, and over the long term the money migrates from the lesser players to those who are more skilled.

The house makes its money from the rake -- a small percentage taken out of every pot -- so the casino's edge doesn't make long-term profit impossible for every player. As long as your skill level is enough to overcome the rake's disadvantage, you can show a profit. The casino gets to keep building ever-larger additions, and the successful card shark makes cash.

Everybody wins, except the losing players. This is why it's possible for there to be a steady population of professional poker players, but never any pro dice shooters or slot junkies. This isn't to say it's easy. Most people who play lose money at poker. But rare people are able to excel, and even Obama's Republican colleagues from Illinois -- no fans of his politics -- have praise for his skills.

For summary comparison purposes: Barack Obama plays one of the only games it's possible to win at; plays it in a way that avoids negative expected value; and by all accounts, plays it pretty well.

John McCain is intensely dedicated to a game that is expensive to play, consumes inordinate amounts of time, and is mathematically impossible to win over the long term. He takes this gamble, relying on superstition and hope, while the cold and brutal realities of inevitable collapse breathe chills down his unsuspecting back.

You may want to take this as a metaphor for his emphatic endorsement of Republican foreign policy towards Iraq. You may want to take this as an allegory for his decision-making processes generally. Or you may want to blow it off, figuring McCain is just a super-rich guy who doesn't mind dusting off a fat wad of cash playing a game it's impossible to win.

Which might even be true. But I wouldn't want to bet on it.


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