Can Poker Strategy Defeat Donald Trump?

By Ben Hamill - March 25 2016


Ever since he joined the race for the Republican nomination for President, Donald Trump has held a bizarre underdog/frontrunner status. He has led in the polls almost from the very beginning of the race, but because his views are so often at odds with mainstream Republican positions, political commentators have been speculating on his inevitable fall from the top almost just as long.

But after Trump’s strong Super Tuesday showing, it seems that his run for the nomination is virtually unstoppable. Well, it seems to be resistant to the tactics employed by his opponents to this point. But is there a different set of tactics that could have an effect on his rise to the top? The Street asked poker champion Phil Hellmuth for his assessment of the situation and, not surprisingly, he had some fascinating poker-strategy insights that might well put a chink in Trump’s armor.

Comparing Trump’s campaign style to that of a poker player, Hellmuth characterized Trump as ” the ultimate ‘loose-aggressive’ player.” A loose-aggressive player (LAG) plays as many hands as possible, constantly raising the stakes so that other players start to become wary of his tactics and fold, sending the chips flowing towards the LAG. Over time, the fear created by the aggressive betting strategy gives the LAG not only more chips but also the power to set the terms of the betting because players are willing to sacrifice small amounts of chips, preferring to save their firepower for the big hands.

Bullying With a Plan

Of course, the LAG strategy can be effective if a player is willing to assume the risk that’s involved. While some people might call the tactic a form of bullying, The Street is careful to point out that it’s more than simple bullying. “With the LAG — and with Trump — the bullying behavior is a strategy with the goal of winning all the chips. It’s bullying with a plan.”

It’s also a strategy that poker champions like Hellmuth have encountered often enough to know how to counter it. “When you’re playing against a loose-aggressive player, think of a harpoon,” Hellmuth said. “You nail them with a harpoon, on one big pot for all their chips. They’re a big target… and Trump is a big target.”

In other words, the harpoon counter means waiting for the right time – when the stakes are high and you have a particularly strong hand – then letting the harpoon fly. The problem, Hellmuth admits, is that Trump seems to have been harpooned numerous times throughout the campaign and still come away unscathed, or even more powerful. If anything, his support among voters is growing though the primary season.

Another Way to Beat the LAG

If the harpoon strategy doesn’t bring results, Hellmuth, a 14-time winner of the World Series of Poker, has other suggestions.

“The first way is patience. The other way is you take it to the next level,” Hellmuth said. “You have to come over the top, raising the stakes.” In other words, he explained, every time you have a hand that could be a winner, you take control of the betting and keep raising so that the stakes are always higher than the LAG wants them to be. Then the intimidation of his tactics starts to wear away.

“The LAG controls the pace of the game, controls the flow of the game, controls how much money is put in the pot and pushes the pace to make sure every pot is bigger,” Hellmuth told The Street. “Whether he has good cards or not, he has faith that he can outplay you or get lucky. The way you defeat that is to get even more money in — you have to get more aggressive.”

Time will tell if the tactic will work against Trump, or even if any of his Republican opponents are up to the challenge of employing Hellmuth’s counter-strategy. Once thing is certain, however. The poker champion has been far more successful in clarifying Trump’s strategy than virtually any of the political commentators. Perhaps poker really is the perfect analogy for human behavior, where every move has a countermove. And maybe it’s possible that the perfect candidate for President may not be from the business sector or the political sector, but may well emerge from the ranks of professional poker.

Video Poker Any Way You Like it at GG Poker Casino