Hearts and mindless

Poker-playing presidents won the Cold War. It’s probably no accident that the first president of the post-Cold War era was a hearts player.
Poker 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.
And 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 hand.
The 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 game?
Hearts 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.
When 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.
There 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.
The 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.
Picture, 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.
There 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.
The 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.
On the 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.

Last Revised: 02.10.03    Publisher: Joseph Gus Fitzgerald