presidents won the Cold War. It’s probably no accident that the first
president of the post-Cold War era was a hearts player.
is of course a game of bluff and guess, of how well you know your opponent, of
how much you show in your face. It’s a game where you wait for the big hand
and don’t lose a lot if it doesn’t come. It’s a game of patience and
restraint, punctuated by wild dares and crazy chances when you’re far enough
ahead to take them or so far behind it doesn’t matter. If it’s stud poker
with no ante – and purists will tell you that draw poker is not poker – you
can play for weeks without any investment other than time while waiting for the
main chance. And when the cause is ailing or lost, you can fold the current
hand, or cash in and go home. Ask Gorbachev.
then there’s the name, evoking as it does images unconnected with the game
itself – red-hot poker, poker up the whatever – and images rooted in the
game’s mystique – poker face, poker chip, four-flusher, full house, pat
hearts mystique? I’d have to look it up. The game’s enduring phrase? Shoot
the moon, which evokes frat boys misbehaving as much as it does anything else.
And the name itself, while romantic and pretty, doesn’t even evoke a card game
unless the speaker specifies: Hearts, the breakable commodity, or hearts, the
is a game of tricks but no trumps, without the cachet of bridge. The high card
takes the trick. And the trick is to lose points. The player with the fewest
points when another player hits a milestone is the winner. Instead of the game
being centered on human achievement and success, it is centered on not losing,
on being no worse than anyone else. How very Third Way! The exception to playing
to lose points is shooting the moon: attempting to take all the cards, in which
case each opponent is saddled with all the points while the successful player
sits fat and happy with none.
one player is attempting to shoot the moon, the others will try to stop him. Or
when one player is well ahead in points, the others will try to dump cards on
him. It’s a friendly game, unless someone tries to get ahead. It’s almost
non-competitive, unless someone starts winning. The trick isn’t to win, it’s
to not lose, and while there’s no sin in losing, the only teamwork is when the
losers gang up on a potential winner. The parallels to presidential primary
politics are either obvious or they’re not, so I won’t dwell on them.
are three types of players in hearts. The first type plays to lose tricks and to
hang on until the actions of others determine the outcome of the game. In a
four-handed game, this player is always second or third. The second type plays
conservative, trick-losing hearts until just the right hand comes along to shoot
the moon. This player is a consistent second or third, and sometimes wins.
third type of player tries to shoot the moon almost every other hand, and makes
it as often as not. This player takes 25 points as frequently as he dumps 26 on
his opponents, and gleefully joins in, often leading, the feeding frenzy when
someone else pulls ahead and has to be swatted down. This player is always first
or last, and people who hate him for his cut-throat playing style will always
sit down to another hand with him because they so enjoyed following his lead in
defeating another player who had gotten away from the pack.
if you will, the hopeful player sitting down to a hand of hearts with Bill
Clinton. He’s honored to be allowed to play, thrilled to be beaten by a
master, and he’s happy to share his seat – and to ignore his vague unease
about the glad-handing dealer – when he’s abruptly pushed away from the
table so someone else can sit down and try to provide a new challenge.
are in this world professional bridge or poker players, and I suppose there may
be professional hearts players, perhaps country club camp followers on the pro
badminton circuit. Hearts though is played not for money – a penny a point or
a dollar a game to keep it interesting perhaps – but for the love of the game
and for the socializing aspects, and is dominated by those who can smile at
their fellow trick-losers while taking advantage of their inability to play real
cards for keeps.
comparison might be between a George McGovern and a Bill Clinton. The one,
however misguided, looks on a crew of liberal chanters, ranters and tree-huggers
and sees people with a genuine desire for comity and egalitarianism. He loses
with them and exits smiling. The other looks at the same people and sees
suckers, people who’ll sit at the table with him and play his game, and
who’ll sort of accept his story when he robs them blind a penny at a time and
tells them with a boyish grin that he was just playing.
one hand is the kind of president who can guess well and bluff convincingly when
the stakes are mutually assured destruction. On the other is the kind of
president who can change his Kosovo strategy every two weeks and dismiss
criticism by claiming that was last game and he’s already won that dollar.
Poker is played with a stony glare. Hearts is played with a smirk.