Iran's Poker-Like Stand-Off

Author and high-stakes poker player James McManus talks about the parallels he sees between the political posturing of Iran's president and a game of poker.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Cold War power struggle between the United States and Soviet Union was often termed a chess match. But author and high-stakes poker player James McManus argued in a recent Los Angeles Times article that it wasn't. He believes, that the Cold War, and certainly the current standoff with Iran over its nuclear ambitions, is more like a game of poker, where the stakes can be historic.

Mr. McManus is the author of Positively Fifth Street and is writing a history of poker. He joins us from NPR's Chicago bureau. Mr. McManus, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. JAMES MCMANUS (Author, Positively Fifth Street): Happy to be here, Scott.

SIMON: And why poker and not chess when it comes to Iran right now?

Mr. MCMANUS: Because in chess all the information is available, easily available, to both players. Whereas in poker there is incomplete information. And the best hand doesn't necessarily win. It has more to do with being able to persuade your adversary that certain things might or might not happen.

SIMON: So we're talking about bluffing.

Mr. MCMANUS: That's right.

SIMON: You cite a history of bluff-based card games in Iranian history.

Mr. MCMANUS: That's one of the most amazing ironies about this situation is that the Persian game of As Nos(ph), My Beloved Ace, is commonly credited with being one of the most immediate precursors of poker.

SIMON: So - not to put words in your mouth, but you think the president of Iran thinks in these terms very naturally when he wants to make a strategic argument.

Mr. MCMANUS: Yeah. Not just me. I mean Warren Christopher, when he was writing in the New York Times, says that - he's been negotiating with them since 1979 over the hostage crisis, and when he was secretary of state for Bill Clinton - and he has noticed that they employ what he calls bazaar behavior - not B-I-Z, B-A-Z-A-A-R. It's the negotiating tactics that many of us are familiar with, when you go to a Middle Eastern bazaar or any sort of marketplace in which the seller of a particular item feints, pretends that he will walk away from the table.

SIMON: Now, I realized I'm speaking at a time when the competency of U.S. intelligence policies has been undercut by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But all of that being said, isn't - aren't Iran's boasts in the U.S. concern more than just Iran's boasts in that people in intelligence take it seriously and think that in fact Iran could be close to developing nuclear technology if they had certain assets that they were permitted to have?

Mr. MCMANUS: Well, I certainly didn't mean to suggest that the possibility that someone is bluffing - particularly Mr. Ahmadinejad - implies that we don't believe he might be in charge of programs that he has claimed to be in charge of. That's the scary part of bluffing. That's why a device such as a poker bluff in which you leverage uncertainty works so well.

Because there's a very real possibility that he may have the weapons soon and would be willing to use them.

SIMON: Another point you make in your article about Iranian history is that in addition to creating bluff-based card games, there's a reverence for martyrs in Iranian history, and a lot of people are worried that in a nation in which martyrdom is revered as a tactic and a realization, nuclear weaponry can be especially dangerous because then it's not deterred by mutually assured destruction.

Mr. MCMANUS: When you have a president of Iran who served during the Iran-Iraq War as a basige(ph) recruiter - in other words, he signed up people and trained them and encouraged them to walk across mine fields - most of these people were children, by the way - and when one of the first speeches he gives after being inaugurated as president says that martyrdom is the highest art form that human beings can participate in, you have an altogether different ballgame.

Ultimately we may have to eliminate the possibility of bluffing, given the apparently suicidal nature of Ahmadinejad and his policy. However, he too could be bluffing. One of the things that I ask in the article, is he really a martyr or does he just play one on television?

SIMON: James McManus. His article, entitled Bluff: What the World Series of Poker Can Teach Us About the Highest Stakes of All, appeared recently in the Los Angeles Times; also the author of the book Positively Fifth Street, and is writing a history of poker. Mr. McManus, thank you very much.

Mr. MCMANUS: Appreciate you having me on.

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