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  • Writer's pictureParley Policy Initiative

Managing crisis is a Poker game, not Chess

Amidst the on-going Ukraine crisis, there is no shortage of pundits claiming that Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing chess against the western world. While this metaphor is meant to imply a strategic approach to a zero-sum game, it obfuscates the true nature of the situation. After all, playing chess implies two players who start with the same pieces and can see everything that is on the board. The problem is crisis is nothing like that.

When looking at the characteristics of crisis, we must realize that it more closely resembles a game of poker than chess. Why is that, and what difference does the analogy really make?

Let's first look at some key characteristics of poker:

Poker players operate with incomplete information. They have a rough idea of many chips each player holds, they know their own cards, and they can see whatever other cards are already on the table. Everything else has to be gleaned from pre-existing knowledge of their opponents, assessment of the players' choices in the game, and observation of their tells.

Poker players behave differently based on the strength of their chip counts. In other words, the amount of money that a player has relative to the others at the table will influence their decision making.

Poker often involves more than two players. Unless the game is nearly finished, a hand of poker will start with multiple players at a table, any of whom can influence the outcome of the game.

Every card dealt alters the odds of who will win. A player who holds the strongest hand on the Flop and the Turn could lose it all on the River. For the uninitiated, this simply means that every step in the game requires new assessments and calculations.

Luck is a factor. Although skill is required to be successful in poker, it is still a form of gambling where one can play a hand as perfectly as available information permits and still lose.

Now, replace “players” with “governments” and “chips” with “instruments of power,” and the same things apply in crisis situations.

But arguing an analogy has little utility on its own. The importance of the analogy here is that it can offer important lessons for decision makers who may be responsible for crisis management.

The following represent some important lessons that poker can offer crisis managers:

Don’t try to guess the exact hand the other player is holding; rather, assess the range of possibilities. Instead of fixating on one particular assessment, it is important to keep in mind all of the opponent's potential motives and options. Your main goal in assessments is to eliminate those that are neither feasible nor reasonable with whatever information you have.

This is incredibly important, since locking oneself onto a single assessment eliminates flexibility and increases the potential for misinterpretation and miscalculation. Determining a range of possibilities requires more work, but it allows for a more agile approach to a developing crisis. As more information becomes available, you can whittle down the range further.

Avoid becoming pot committed. The sunk cost fallacy (the notion that too much has been invested to change course) and loss aversion can lead to irrational decision making. Accepting limited costs in the short-term is better than over-committing and losing more in the process.

Avoid “tilt.” Tilt is a state of mental or emotional confusion or frustration in which a player adopts a less than optimal strategy, usually resulting in that player becoming over-aggressive. In crisis situations, fear, anger, vengeance, hostility, and other emotional factors can seep into decision-making processes and fuel unnecessary escalation rather than allowing for clear-headed approaches that can minimize costs and open the door to better solutions.

Play tight and aggressive. The best poker players are those who play tight and aggressive, meaning they are selective in which hands they play, but when they play, they do so deliberately and resolutely. This is so they can convey the signals they intend to send and so they can control as many factors in the game as possible. Importantly, tight and aggressive play does not mean rigid and reckless--the best players maintain agility and make calculated plays. The same concepts apply in managing crises.

The smaller the chip stack, the more aggressive a player must be. A good player knows that an opponent with more chips (aka resources) has additional leverage and options available. As such, the more vulnerable player must make bigger moves when taking action so as to disrupt a stronger opponent's plans. Parties locked into a crisis must understand this dynamic and adjust their approaches accordingly.

Like any analogy, the comparison is imperfect, but there is still utility for policymakers to glean lessons from game theory--in this case, as expressed through poker. Especially when the stakes are high, every extra bit of insight has utility.

Cable No 9_Managing crisis is a Poker game, not Chess
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