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Two madmen play poker: the North Korea bluff-off.



A game theory look at Trump’s North Korea strategy.


There was this one poker tournament I said I would attend, but I ran late, and so they just blinded me down as play continued. But everybody else played so aggressive that I actually came in third and cashed in without ever showing up. What a fun story! And say, here’s a horrifying graphic.



Who even thinks, “Hey, let’s put THIS idea in their heads”?

Per the reliable Quinnipiac University poll, 46 percent of self-identified Republicans would support a preemptive military strike on North Korea—a nuclear power with the capability to devastate Seoul and the nearly 30,000 American troops stationed therein — right now, with no armed provocation.

The Hermit Kingdom may have a scarcity of resources, but it does have about one million active-service soldiers and as many as five million in reserve. Here in the US of A, we have a little over a million active-service soldiers. So 46 percent of Republicans support either thermonuclear assault or a draft. If Quinnipiac’s boffins said, “Would you support a draft to fight North Korea?” I expect the number of draft-age Republican supporters would go way down. But hey, that number has gone up from 28 percent of Republicans in the last two weeks, per an earlier ABC poll. President Trump’s “fire and fury” bombast energized his base, and they’re ready to make the Korean Peninsula a smoking crater. Even if it kills some of them.

How did we get here? A simplified answer: Both Trump and Kim Jong-Un are kinda nuts. And they know there’s a time-tested theory behind nuclear-age confrontation that fits their personalities. It’s called the madman theory. (Trigger warning: I’m going to say “crazy” like it’s a bad thing. Mental illness is complicated, and this is a simplistic article about war. Apologies in advance.)

President Nixon’s foreign policy rested on a Machiavellian dodge: He would simulate madness. So he launched Operation Giant Lance, a three-day run of nuclear bombers near the Soviet border. By convincing Brezhnev he would risk nuclear war, Nixon thought Brezhnev would beg for peace.

It failed. We don’t know that Brezhnev understood that Nixon wanted him to think he was crazy, and even if he did, Brezhnev himself wasn’t crazy, and he didn’t think Nixon was either. Later, the START agreement got done because President Bush Sr. and President Gorbachev weren’t crazy. The New START treaty got done because President Obama and President Medvedev weren’t crazy either. Uncrazy people can do uncrazy things like ensure world peace.

The madman theory collapses because the world is led by mostly sane people. But there’s a risk of two insane leaders leading two opposing nuclear powers. When that happens, all bets are off. And it’s worth understanding that with nuclear weapons, we are making big-time bets. So let’s talk about betting.



One of us wrote about poker in this magazine. Spoiler: It wasn’t him.

The madman theory plays out every day for far lower stakes in the world of competitive poker. In poker, a “maniac” is a very aggressive player who plays lots of hands, often out of proportion to the expected value of those hands. Maniacs crash and burn at the table most of the time, because playing 4–9 offsuit a lot gets you killed much more often than not. Maniacs don’t care. But they should.

When one maniac plays at a table with five non-maniacs, he should lose pretty much all the time, because someone will have a better hand than him and play it, while the rest of the players will let him do it. But when two maniacs are at the same table, it’s common for the conservative players to let them fight each other. This can result in one maniac quickly busting out at the other’s hands—but now there’s a maniac with a large stack of chips.

When a maniac has a large stack of chips, suddenly his madness is a weapon. He can afford to lose some chips, so he wades right in, damn the torpedoes. If a sane player isn’t willing to risk all his chips, he’ll buckle, and the maniac will collect more and more chips. The traditional way to beat a maniac who has a big stack is to either have a bigger stack or much better cards.

The trouble with the current standoff in North Korea is that both players are apparently maniacs, and both think they have the big stack. Both men have shown they are insecure about size (for various reasons), and so they are prone to posturing. But who really has the big stack here?

I doubt it’s us. Nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula is not something America can have. If Pyongyang destroys Seoul or even Tokyo, millions die, the world economy collapses, our Japanese-held debt is called in, and everybody suffers—and that’s the best case scenario. Worst case is war with China and Russia and hooboy I can barely type it out. We don’t win a fight with a nuclear power. Everybody, including Kim, knows it. At least everybody except Trump, that is.

Trump only has the big stack if he is 100% irredeemably die-in-a-holocaust insane. And he is at least a little bit nuts, as I said. But the White House isn’t. General Kelly isn’t. Rex Tillerson isn’t. Mike Pence isn’t. Nikki Haley isn’t. Even the guy named “Mad Dog” Mattis isn’t. The truly bonkers cats like Gorka and Bannon are long-gone. Trump is Mad King George, alone in his straitjacket. He’s the only one who wants to de-certify Iran’s nuclear pact compliance; he’s the only one telling Putin that he won’t re-up the START agreement; he’s the only one who thinks 4,000 nuclear weapons aren’t enough.

So Trump continues his Crisismonger-in-Chief “strategy.” Maybe he thinks it’s a reasonable play. But it only works if Kim Jong-Un thinks it’s a reasonable play, and, as a poker player, Kim’s savage “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” takedown makes me think he doesn’t. Leastways, he’s not backing down at all. Kim’s playing the big stack, and while I personally wish he’d leave the table and make peace with his neighbors, aggression might not be a bad play in his position. Now, I want it to be a bad play. So does Trump, I expect... no, I hope.

I mentioned that the traditional way to beat a maniac who has a big stack is to have a bigger stack or much better cards. That’s not the only way. The other way is cooperation. Remember the tournament where everyone was so aggressive that I came in third despite not playing at all? Well, there’s a reason I didn’t come in second. Eventually, after all the carnage, the last two players decided there was no point to fighting while I was a factor. So they sat on their cards until I blinded out for good, then split the pot. If maniacs abound, the best way to survive is to work with other non-maniacs (in a non-colluding manner, of course) and figure out a way to isolate the maniacs’ damage.

We can do that with North Korea. We could, for example, decide to work diplomatically with China and Russia and our allies to isolate and cut off North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. We can try to raise the country’s standard of living, or bombard them with propaganda, or impose sanctions, or—wait, this is exactly what we’ve been doing for decades and no one has been obliterated in atomic fire. I like it that way. So, all we need to do is not have a madman of our own in charge of our nuclear codes. Maybe we should work on that.🔷



Series of articles about politics and game theory:



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(This piece was first published on The Blog!)


(Cover: Flickr/The White House/Joyce N. Boghosian - President Trump boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews - 10 May 2018.)


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Game designer, puzzlecrafter, author, and president of Seattle's Lone Shark Games. His puzzles and game articles frequently appear in Games Magazine, The New York Times, and The Chicago Tribune.
Seattle, Washington, USA. Website

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