What if the Missouri GOP Senate primary was a hand of Texas Hold ‘Em? | Opinion

September 27, 2021 5:55 am

Politics is like poker: weak hands get aggressive; strong hands play possum (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

In my experience, mixing politics and poker is not without risk.

But just like that first time, I couldn’t resist, and so as Missouri’s U.S. Senate race begins to take shape I find myself pondering: if each candidate held a Texas Hold ‘Em starting hand, what would they be, and why?

Texas Hold ‘Em, for the uninitiated, is a popular poker variant in which two cards are dealt face down (“in the hole”) to each player, while five “community cards” are dealt face up in three phases – first, a group of three cards (“the flop”), then a single card (“the turn”), and a final card (“the river”). 

Each player seeks the best five-card poker hand from any combination of the seven cards (their two hole cards plus five community cards). Players may bet before the flop is dealt and after each subsequent phase; the best live hand after the betting rounds wins the pot.

The key to being a winning player over the long term is discipline – the discipline to fold roughly three-quarters of all starting hands. That’s because players who play middling hands often end up losing narrowly to superior starting hands.

And now, the hands dealt thus far:

Attorney General Eric Schmitt: Ace-King off-suit.

AK offsuit is one of the strongest possible starting hands, given that in Hold ‘Em, aces are not only the highest card, but can also be played as a low card in order to make a straight (i.e., A-2-3-4-5).

Players who peer at their hole cards and see “Big Slick,” as AK is widely known, often feel their pulse quicken and raise the stakes by doubling, tripling or quadrupling the amount necessary to stay in the hand.

But AK has another, rarer nickname – “Anna Kournikova” – derived both from its initials but also the rounders’ theory that like her, it looks great but rarely wins. Many players have lost big money raising the stakes pre-flop with AK only to see a series of community cards that fail to improve their hand.

Like AK, Schmitt makes a strong first impression – a towering 6’6”, the former college baseball player cuts an imposing figure. As attorney general, he has the right pedigree and the best platform from which to make news. The McConnell-aligned Washington, D.C., strategists pondering whether to dump millions in Missouri to prevent an Eric Greitens nomination could make or break the race, and when Schmitt makes the rounds in Washington, his presence and ability to talk strategy with sophistication will set him apart.

However, some insiders wonder how he’ll hold up under fire. Last week saw the race’s maiden skirmish, and while Schmitt’s team is helmed by seasoned brawler and oppo legend Jeff Roe, last week provided a preview of the expected line of attack (hint: China) from Greitens’ amply-funded Super PAC.

Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler: 9-10 suited.

It’s a hand that isn’t particularly intimidating at first blush, being lower than all the face cards, but is full of opportunity. A 6-7-8 flop is a dream, as is a flop of three cards of the same suit as the hole cards. The best-case scenario is the potential for a straight flush – five suited cards in a row numerically – the best hand in poker.

Like 9-10 suited, Hartzler’s candidacy is full of possibility. She has more credibility with the pro-life community than anyone in the race, and the Texas abortion case and looming state legislative attempt to pass a similar statute could turbocharge that issue this cycle. She’s a humble, plainspoken woman in a field of increasingly bombastic and unhinged men, which could work to her advantage if – and this is a big if – primary voters tire of the Trumpian bluster over the next year.

So while Hartzler’s suited 9-10 may not look daunting – and certainly didn’t scare her colleague Rep. Billy Long – she has more upside potential than anyone in the race.

Trial lawyer Mark McCloskey: Jack-four suited

Going “on tilt” is a poker term for a state of frustration or euphoria in which a player adopts a less than optimal strategy, resulting in the player becoming overly-aggressive and making huge, unwise bets. The term originated from pinball, where some machines flash the word “TILT” and freeze the flippers when an angry or animated player physically tilts the machine.

Mark McCloskey holds Jack-four suited, a relatively poor hand that should almost always be folded due to the fact that a) it contains no high cards, and b) a straight is almost impossible, since the gap between “Jack” and “four” is too large, except in the unlikely case that four community cards comprise 4/5 of the straight.

The last time the gun-toting McCloskey played J4 suited by pointing his AR-15 at peaceful protestors, he got a miracle flop (AKQ of the same suit), giving him the “nut flush”: a meteoric rise that made him an ephemeral Fox News hero.

But instead of capitalizing on his 15 minutes of fame by picking up a few blockbuster personal injury cases, McCloskey went on tilt and announced a campaign for the U.S Senate. J4 is a bad hand, but it’s just good enough to get some mercenary consultant slated to collect 12% of your media buy to spin a yarn outlining a path to victory.

Unfortunately for McCloskey, his clock currently stands at 14:59.

Congressman Billy Long: 22

Occasionally, a very low pocket pair like “22” will hold up in a full game. But that’s highly unlikely, because usually one of the other players at the table will either start with a higher pocket pair, or catch a better hand on the flop, turn, or river – whereas small pocket pairs seldom improve, except in the rare case when a third deuce falls on the flop.

A Trump endorsement is Long’s third 2. Three 2s is called a “set”, and instantly turns a weak hand into a strong one.

Sure, most of the candidates seem to be prostrating themselves before Trump. And yes, it is embarrassing to watch. But far more than the other candidates, Long’s only feasible path to victory seems to hinge on a Trump nod.

Unlike Greitens and Schmitt, Long doesn’t start with statewide name ID, is polling in single digits and doesn’t bring billionaire donors to the race. And so, lacking a momentous event like a Trump endorsement, it isn’t clear how he would make up his current 20-point polling deficit.

A source close to Trump tells me Long is Trump’s personal favorite out of everyone in the race or pondering it.

That’s why Billy holds “22”: a longshot, but capable of shooting to the top of the field if the third deuce flops.

Former Gov. Eric Greitens: 99

99 is a strong starting hand but tons of cards that may hit the flop render it near-useless – for instance, any 10, Jack, Queen, King, or Ace, one of which is likely to be held by another player.

As with deuces, there are only two more 9s in the deck – except in this case, Hartzler is already holding one of them – and little else could improve Greitens’ hand.

Put another way: Greitens is leading most polls taken to date, but up to a third of voters remain undecided. And what undecided voter is thinking, “Well, I haven’t made up my mind yet, but once I learn a bit more about what this Greitens fellow did with his hairdresser in his family’s basement, I might be persuaded to support him”?

In other words, Greitens is unlikely to attract many new voters.

If several players remain in the hand, that might be a good omen for a starting hand of 99, because it presumably means they all have high cards – starting hands like AK, QJ, K10, etc. — which would be unlikely to improve precisely because other players are already holding the very cards they would need as community cards to make their high pairs.

Similarly, if several candidates remain in the race against Greitens, it’s a good sign for him, since he starts with a solid floor of 25%-ish and needs them to split the remaining votes.

Politics is like poker: weak hands play aggressive; strong hands play possum. Last week’s dust-up in which Greitens and Schmitt exchanged China barbs showed that even the two candidates topping the polls don’t feel like they’re holding pocket aces, kings, or queens: they don’t feel good enough about their starting hand to lay back and let the action come to them.

What will the community cards – or exogenous events shaping the race — be? It’s tough to say.  Looming D.C dramas of a potential government shutdown, debt ceiling standoff, and major infrastructure and budget reconciliation bills could give Hartzler or Long a moment to shine.

What seems certain is that the river card is a Trump endorsement.

Schmitt – the establishment choice – isn’t counting on Trump’s backing. Trump’s neutrality would be a win for him.

Greitens’ obsession with Trump’s endorsement – hiring Kimberly Guilfoyle, repeating the words “Trump” and “MAGA” like a hypnotized hostage, and constantly invoking the litany of second- and third-tier Trump lackeys who back him – is notable, but he retains a path to victory, albeit narrower, if Trump stays neutral. 

McCloskey got a shoutout from Trump himself and a prime-time RNC speech, but his campaign isn’t premised on Trump’s backing as much as it is on stoking the culture wars Trump inflamed. And Michael Flynn’s seeming abandon ment of McCloskey for Greitens likely shuts the door on any small chance he had to nab Trump.

Trump’s endorsement could be the “2” or “9” that makes Long or Greitens’ hands. Or his neutrality could be a so-called “blank” – a card that helps no one – which in itself would help the candidates not banking on it as their salvation. 

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Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith is executive director of the Missouri Workforce Housing Association, which supports development of safe, affordable housing. Previously, he taught public policy at Dartmouth College and The New School, represented the city of St. Louis in the Senate, and wrote three books: Trading Places, on U.S. party alignment; Mr. Smith Goes to Prison, a memoir and argument for reform; and Ferguson in Black and White, an historical analysis of St. Louis inequality. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Washington University.