Monday, November 06, 2006

Of Persians, Poker, Bluster and Bluffs

James McManus, who writes brilliantly about poker, had a piece in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend that really is one of the most useful things I've seen about the diplomatic showdown with Iran over its nuclear program. Can President Bush master the game of Tehran Holdem? You may need to register to read the whole article online and get the nuances of winning with weak hands, developing a narrative, and so on. But here are some of McManus's observations:

...At least 250 years before our country was founded, Persians were playing bluff-based card games with decks of four suits: coins, goblets, polo mallets and scimitars. In the late 18th century, their vying game As-Nas (My Beloved Ace) became the prototype for the 20-card French game poque. Introduced by Napoleon's troops to New Orleans, poque evolved into 52-card poker on Mississippi steamboats in the decades after the Louisiana Purchase. Union and Confederate soldiers played the game between battles, then brought it home to every state and territory. By 1970, when the first World Series of Poker was hosted by Benny Binion at his Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas, the variation of choice was no-limit Texas hold 'em. During the next 36 years, the number of challengers in the main event mushroomed from seven to 8,773, including players from 56 countries. But only one country besides the U.S. has produced more than one champion: Iran.

Amir Vahedi is one of the likeliest Iranians to bring this number to three. Born in Tehran in 1961, Vahedi enlisted in the army during the war with Iraq (1980-88). After he'd served for two years in that hideous bloodbath—poison gas was deployed and martyr brigades of children, called the Basij, marched across minefields—Vahedi's mother begged him to desert his unit and leave the country. Despite his determination to serve with honor, he decided to obey his mother's desperate plea. He was imprisoned in Afghanistan, but upon his release obtained a forged passport, made his way to East Berlin, slipped into West Berlin and eventually arrived in Los Angeles. Here he drove limos and learned to play tournament poker, achieving enough success with the latter—his lifetime earnings exceed $2.5 million—to be immortalized with a cigar-chomping bobblehead. Affable and gregarious away from the tables, Vahedi is almost recklessly aggressive while playing hold 'em. "To live in a no-limit tournament," he has famously observed, "you have to be willing to die."

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to have adapted this as his rallying cry. He was a Basij instructor during the war with Iraq and lately has been extravagant in his praise for suicide bombers. Soon after his inauguration speech, he asked, "Is there any art more beautiful, more divine and more eternal than the art of the martyr's death? A nation with martyrdom knows no captivity." And if, as he believes, the Twelfth Imam is about to return to destroy the infidels, why should he compromise, especially when a reported 9 million Basij formed a 5,400-mile human chain to support his nuclear program?

But is Ahmadinejad really a martyr himself, or does he just play one on TV? More crucially, can the West accept nuclear weapons in the hands of a demagogue obsessed with self-slaughter?

Even though his regime probably has no warheads, it counts on belligerent pronouncements toward Israel—which "must be wiped off the map"—and America to unnerve world energy markets, raising fuel prices while enriching Iranian coffers at the rate of nearly $1 billion a week. This in turn enables Iran to fund Hezbollah and Shiite jihadis more lavishly, to pay hefty sums to import nuclear expertise, and makes it less vulnerable to economic sanctions. In this sense Ahmadinejad has us almost literally over a barrel. Meanwhile, Iran's nuclear program edges closer to yielding the estimated 15 to 20 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium necessary for a warhead or suitcase bomb. Ahmadinejad and the atomic ayatollahs may have banned gambling, but they have communicated a willingness to risk millions of lives—Muslim, Christian and Jewish—in the ultimate no-limit staredown.

More general bluffing guidelines include:

Bluster = Weakness. If Ahmadinejad claims to already have "the full gamut of nuclear technology," a pokeraticious diplomat will infer that he doesn't. She'll put him on a much weaker hand and re-raise. If he tries to stare her down, she'll remain serenely confident that leaders holding powerful cards tend to downplay or even—the Israelis again come to mind—deny the existence of a nuclear arsenal.

Isolate your opponent. One player is exponentially easier to bluff than two or three. This is why Rice tries to isolate Iran by accepting Chinese and Russian demands to limit sanctions against their affluent client.

Project strength. After defeating Saddam Hussein, the U.S. failure to create a stable peace in which democracy could thrive makes us look weak. So does Israel's failure to disarm Hezbollah. So does our failure to capture Osama bin Laden.

Seem to mean it. As the physicist and educator Jeremy Bernstein observes, "The Israelis seem to mean it when they say they would not allow the Iranians to have nuclear weapons." Harry Truman clearly meant it in 1946, as did Kennedy in 1962. Indeed, the entire first and second world wars and the Cold War, as well as Operations Desert Storm and Joint Endeavor, made us appear very much to mean it, while Vietnam, Somalia, the fiasco in Tora Bora and now Iraq II all cut in the other direction. For his part, Ahmadinejad seemed to mean it when he recruited children to march across minefields, and, lately, as he arms and funds Hezbollah and countless Shia suicide bombers.

Expect duplicity. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who also negotiated for the release of American hostages in 1979, warns that Iranian negotiators will deploy "bazaar behavior" resembling that of "a Middle Eastern marketplace, with outlandish demands, feints at abandoning the process and haggling over minor details up to the very last minute." He counsels our current negotiators to remain steadfast but realistic. Or as Doyle Brunson, winner of a record 10 WSOP bracelets, has noted, "Luck favors the backbone, not the wishbone."

Make sure your hole cards remain face-down. Israel, unlike North Korea, has never shown its hand by conducting a test, but is widely assumed to have nuclear weapons. It's safe to assume this is why Iran bars Atomic Energy Commission inspectors from several key sites.

Keep all options on the table. This includes even the most baldly Strangelovian. The trigger finger of Vice President Dick Cheney could seem even itchier, for example, if he communicated through back channels something along the lines of: "Keep rattling that rickety scimitar in our face, Mahmoud, and we'll turn Tehran and Natanz into parking lots that glow in the dark."

The most spectacular upside of a nuclear bluff is avoiding warfare. If we or the Israelis can make Iran's leaders believe their research enrichment facilities and even a city or two will be nuked if they don't halt enrichment, we might short-circuit their quest for weapons-grade material and avoid having to kill a single Iranian.

The downside, of course, is increasing the risk that we'll overplay our hand and push a desperate opponent too hard, unleashing a whirlwind of suicide bombers—or worse.

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