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11/27/2006: "i only play it for real"

a fine piece of both political and poker writing. McManus is my hero....



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Bluff

What the World Series of Poker can teach us about the highest-stakes game of all
James McManus, James McManus is the author of "Positively Fifth Street," about how he parlayed $4,000 in advance money into $247,760 while covering the World Series of Poker for Harper's.

November 5, 2006

The World Series of Poker is played nowadays in the Rio's Amazon Room. This hangar of a convention hall seats 2,431 players and dealers at 211 oval tables, each one lighted by a white Noguchi-esque lantern, and far above that by scores of spotlights hung from black scaffolding along with surveillance cameras, ad banners and air ducts. As chips clack and clatter, thousands of cards are shuffled and pitched, peeked under, fingered and mucked, always clockwise. It's a Thursday afternoon in the summer of Hezbollah versus Israel, the foiled Al Qaeda plot to blow up jetliners with liquid explosives, the U.N. Security Council's ultimatum to Iran to stop enriching uranium. Here in Las Vegas, the air above the asphalt is a breezy 130, like a hair dryer held an inch and a half from your nostrils. Yet it's brisk enough today in the Amazon Room to shiver in heavyweight fleece.At seat three of table 129, I'm playing in event 30, $5,000 six-handed no-limit hold 'em. Six-handed poker lets you mix it up with some less-than-premium cards, because you have to outflop (which is to say outplay) only five opponents instead of the usual eight or nine. The prize pool today is $2,382,900, with 27% reserved for first place. Altogether there's $159 million at stake in 46 events spread out over seven weeks. Cops, dot-com billionaires, producers and actors and agents, cocktail waitresses and artists and poker pros with PhDs in game theory compete in this arena, eyed by long flocks of railbirds perched against velvet ropes. Tens of millions more are following the action online, in print, on radio and television on every inhabited continent.

I've just picked up the ace of clubs and king of hearts and thrown $100 into the pot. Everyone else folds to the kid in the "big blind." That's the player two seats to the left of the dealer who is required to bet before a "flop"—that is, before the first three "community cards" (those shared among all of the players) are dealt face-up in the middle of the table. Collectively, the community cards are called "the board." After the first three are dealt, there comes a fourth and then a fifth. That's the final community card, which is known as the "river" or, sometimes, "Fifth Street."

Now there's just me and the kid left to play out the hand. He tosses in three more black chips and stares at me through his Oakleys. I have $9,300 in chips; he has $12,000 or so. I got moved to this table less than 10 minutes ago, and I wish I knew more about him besides the fact that his glistening fauxhawk is anchored below his temples by comma-shaped sideburns. I can't help but wonder how long it takes him to fashion that hairdo just so. What sorts of products and tools are involved? I finally put him on—that is, I make an educated guess that he's holding—a medium pair or, at best, a much weaker ace than I have.

The flop comes 9 of clubs, 5 of clubs, jack of diamonds. Hairdo bets $800 and hardens the stare. With a couple of overcards—cards higher than any on the board—and, more important, sensing that he doesn't love his hand half as much as he's pretending to, I call.

The next community card dealt is the jack of clubs, putting a pair of jacks on the board and giving me a draw. That's four cards of the same suit—and just one away from the highest possible flush, with a single community card still to be revealed.

Hairdo bets $3,000 into the $2,450 pot. The stare plus the overbet convince me that he doesn't have another jack, let alone a full house, but probably has at least a pair; if he had better he would tempt me to call, not try to scare me away. To test this hypothesis, I push forward the rest of my stack, raising him $5,500. Technically this is a semibluff—a bet with a hand likely to be second-best now—but which has a fair chance of improving to the best hand by the river. That gives me two ways to win: make Hairdo fold or, if he calls, win even more if I hit an ace, king or club. The pot thickens.

As he carefully recounts his chips, I put him on 10s, maybe queens. He stares, counts and breathes in a way that makes it clear he will fold, then says "Call" and turns over the ace and 9 of diamonds! He called my "all-in" bet—one in which I've wagered all my chips—with nothing but second pair? Yes he did. More than a little baffled, I'm forced to turn over my flush draw.

"Yeah, baby!" barks Hairdo. "Yeah! What a call!" And it was quite a call, one that any coiffed kamikaze would be mighty proud of, if he did say so himself. Yet I still have 12 "outs"—unseen cards that could complete a winning hand. "No club!" he yells at the dealer. "Just put a red deuce on that board!"

I stand up, getting ready to exit the Amazon Room but unable to not watch the dealer turn over the 7 of spades. Hairdo claps sharply, just once. He called my bluff with next to nothing, and I didn't get lucky enough to beat him with the last card. He's either a genius or a suicidal fool, but I'm history.

Last spring, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held a pep rally in his country's holiest city, Mashhad, which means Place of Martyrdom. Wearing traditional Persian garb, bearded young men whirled about among fluttering doves, chanting "God is great!" and brandishing silvery tubes of uranium hexafluoride. No Monty Python skit, their joyous danse macabre served as the overture to Ahmadinejad's triumphant claim: "Iran has joined the club of nuclear nations."

President Bush implied that this claim was premature. "We want to solve this issue diplomatically," he said, but refused to rule out the use of force "to prevent Iran from developing" nukes. "All options are on the table," he warned, presumably including a nuclear strike. In reply, Ahmadinejad rattled his scimitar, vowing to "cut off the hand of any aggressor." His boss is Iran's religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who calls those who seek reconciliation with America "simpletons and traitors." The two countries haven't officially spoken since 1979, when Islamist radicals seized the American Embassy, took 52 hostages and clinched the revolution that put the mullahs in power. Now Ahmadinejad says shutting down the uranium enrichment program "is our red line, and we will never cross it." To those who might be angry about the program: "We say: 'Be angry at us and die of this anger.'"

"Ahmadinejad and the Iranian regime are bluffing," at least according to Gerald Steinberg in Toronto's Globe and Mail. "Rather than a sign of strength, the premature and exaggerated boasts appear to reflect weakness." On the other hand, the headline above a Nov. 1, 2005, op-ed piece by Martin Indyk in the Los Angeles Times declared, "Iran's bluster isn't a bluff."

Despite diametrically opposed views, each writer, like thousands of their fellow journalists and pundits, correctly assumed that his readers understood what a bluff is—the devilishly cunning mechanism for leveraging uncertainty at the heart of America's national pastime as well as a key tactic in our military strategy, especially since the dawn of the nuclear age.

At least 250 years before our country was founded, Persians were playing bluff-based card games with decks of four suits: coins, goblets, polo mallets and scimitars. In the late 18th century, their vying game As-Nas (My Beloved Ace) became the prototype for the 20-card French game poque. Introduced by Napoleon's troops to New Orleans, poque evolved into 52-card poker on Mississippi steamboats in the decades after the Louisiana Purchase. Union and Confederate soldiers played the game between battles, then brought it home to every state and territory. By 1970, when the first World Series of Poker was hosted by Benny Binion at his Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas, the variation of choice was no-limit Texas hold 'em. During the next 36 years, the number of challengers in the main event mushroomed from seven to 8,773, including players from 56 countries. But only one country besides the U.S. has produced more than one champion: Iran.

Amir Vahedi is one of the likeliest Iranians to bring this number to three. Born in Tehran in 1961, Vahedi enlisted in the army during the war with Iraq (1980-88). After he'd served for two years in that hideous bloodbath—poison gas was deployed and martyr brigades of children, called the Basij, marched across minefields—Vahedi's mother begged him to desert his unit and leave the country. Despite his determination to serve with honor, he decided to obey his mother's desperate plea. He was imprisoned in Afghanistan, but upon his release obtained a forged passport, made his way to East Berlin, slipped into West Berlin and eventually arrived in Los Angeles. Here he drove limos and learned to play tournament poker, achieving enough success with the latter—his lifetime earnings exceed $2.5 million—to be immortalized with a cigar-chomping bobblehead. Affable and gregarious away from the tables, Vahedi is almost recklessly aggressive while playing hold 'em. "To live in a no-limit tournament," he has famously observed, "you have to be willing to die."

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to have adapted this as his rallying cry. He was a Basij instructor during the war with Iraq and lately has been extravagant in his praise for suicide bombers. Soon after his inauguration speech, he asked, "Is there any art more beautiful, more divine and more eternal than the art of the martyr's death? A nation with martyrdom knows no captivity." And if, as he believes, the Twelfth Imam is about to return to destroy the infidels, why should he compromise, especially when a reported 9 million Basij formed a 5,400-mile human chain to support his nuclear program?

But is Ahmadinejad really a martyr himself, or does he just play one on TV? More crucially, can the West accept nuclear weapons in the hands of a demagogue obsessed with self-slaughter?

Even though his regime probably has no warheads, it counts on belligerent pronouncements toward Israel—which "must be wiped off the map"—and America to unnerve world energy markets, raising fuel prices while enriching Iranian coffers at the rate of nearly $1 billion a week. This in turn enables Iran to fund Hezbollah and Shiite jihadis more lavishly, to pay hefty sums to import nuclear expertise, and makes it less vulnerable to economic sanctions. In this sense Ahmadinejad has us almost literally over a barrel. Meanwhile, Iran's nuclear program edges closer to yielding the estimated 15 to 20 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium necessary for a warhead or suitcase bomb. Ahmadinejad and the atomic ayatollahs may have banned gambling, but they have communicated a willingness to risk millions of lives—Muslim, Christian and Jewish—in the ultimate no-limit staredown.

Parallels between poker and nuclear showdowns are seldom neat or one-to-one, yet no game resembles high-stakes diplomatic and military maneuvers more closely. Those who think chess is a better tactical model should recall the opinion of Oskar Morgenstern, co-author of "Theory of Games and Economic Behavior" in 1944. "The Cold War is sometimes compared to a giant chess game," he wrote. "The analogy, however, is quite false, for while chess is a formidable game of almost unbelievable complexity, it lacks salient features of the political and military struggles with which it is compared." Since chess is a game of complete information, it provides no opportunities to bluff, leaving it "far removed from political reality—where the threatening nation has to weigh the cost not only to its enemies, but to itself, where deceit is certainly not unheard of, and where chance intervenes."

Chance, deceit and cost-effectiveness are basic to poker, a game in which, as Morgenstern emphasized, "THE BEST HAND NEED NOT WIN." Why not? Because strong players with weak hands can deploy "artful deception through bluffing" to steal pots from weak players with strong hands. It is the bluff that makes poker a useful model for "countries with opposing aims and ideals," for those that "watch each other's move with unveiled suspicion."

Our country was suspicious, of course, when Iran sought warhead designs from Pakistan while developing long-range missiles capable of delivering those warheads. According to Raymond Tanter, formerly of the National Security Council, Iran has used reverse engineering of secretly purchased hardware to get "a screwdriver's turn away from enriching to bomb-grade levels."

In 2003, Tennessee accountant Chris Moneymaker advanced from a smaller $39 satellite tournament on PokerStars.com to a $10,000 seat in the World Series of Poker main event, his first live tournament. Much more startling, he outlasted 839 players and found himself heads-up against Sam Farha, a charismatic and intimidating Lebanese pro, for the $2.5-million first prize. Even though he had the chip lead, Moneymaker offered to split the $1.2-million difference between first and second prize and play for only the solid gold bracelet given to each WSOP winner. As by far the more experienced of the two, Farha declined.

As the definitive hand of their match began, Moneymaker had $4.62 million in chips, Farha $3.7 million. The first two bets at the table were $20,000 and $40,000, followed by $5,000 antes. Moneymaker had a king of spades and a 7 of hearts—a better-than-average hand "heads-up" (that is, when only two players are left), and he prepared to make a small raise to $100,000. "Don't do it!" joked Farha with an unlighted cigarette jutting from his lips. (Farha doesn't smoke but seems to feel his ever-present cigarette enhances his Bogart-like presence.)

Moneymaker did it anyway, Farha called with a queen of spades and a 9 of hearts, and the flop came: 9 of spades, 2 of diamonds, 6 of spades. Having paired one of his down cards with the highest card now on the board, Farha then tried for a "check-raise," a maneuver in which you pass when it's your turn to bet, and then raise after someone else bets. Farha said later that he hoped to use it trap his opponent—only to be disappointed when Moneymaker checked behind him.

The "turn"—the fourth card dealt—was the 8 of spades. Farha still had top pair, but now he was looking at some scary straight and flush possibilities. Because he couldn't afford to let Moneymaker see another card, he bet what many amateurs would consider too much, putting $300,000 into the $210,000 pot. But instead of folding, the well-named accountant shocked him by raising to $800,000. "We said it was going to be over soon," said Farha, calling the extra half a million. He was right. Whoever won this pot would have a lock on the money and the bracelet.

When the 3 of hearts appeared on the river as the fifth and final community card, Moneymaker had missed all his draws. With a paltry king-high, he could only win this pot with a bluff. Farha checked, apparently planning to call when Moneymaker bluffed all-in—which is exactly what he did. Even so, Farha hesitated. "Must've missed your flush, eh?" Another good guess. His brain and mouth were playing perfect poker, but his right hand was having trouble following through. Faced with losing his shot at the championship, he tried again to get a read. "I could make a crazy call on you," he said, watching for a reaction. "It could be the best hand " But Moneymaker gave him not a word or a twitch to interpret. (He later said he was concentrating on his trip home.) Farha finally picked up his cards—the winning hand by a mile, his ticket to poker immortality—and discarded them into the muck.

ESPN commentator Norman Chad called it "the bluff of the century."

Brimming with fresh chips and confidence, the mouse made short work of the cat, and the poker world would never be the same. Tens of millions of online amateurs had watched one of their own parlay $39 into $2.5 million by getting phenomenally lucky (but no more so than anyone who wins this event) as well as by outplaying several fearsome pros. Internet poker sites boomed, in part by offering cheap (occasionally free) satellite tournaments that fed into the 2004 main event, for which entries tripled to 2,577. And presto: Another PokerStars qualifier, attorney Greg Raymer, won the $5-million first prize, so the snowball kept rolling: to 5,619 last year, 8,773 this year.

But it was primarily the bluff against Farha that triggered what the $100-billion poker industry calls "the Moneymaker Effect."

A successful bluff involves dozens of interconnected factors—an artful blend of nerve, mathematics, timing, psychology, pattern recognition and what might be called recumbent method acting. (At the most basic Stanislavskian level: If second-place money makes an accountant happy, he's gonna look happy to be called.) It also requires a coherent story line; it may mislead the opponent but shouldn't confuse him. Otherwise he might call just to satisfy his puzzled curiosity.

The most artful bluffs require a rational, smart, even ingenious bluffee. Facing a bad player—known as a "donkey"—or a foe bent on martyrdom, it's better to wait till you have a real hand. Your opponent must fear losing his chips and be able to imagine you having the hand your body language and bets represent. The story you sell him must be not only coherent, but also credible. As you lie to his face, after all, you're counting on him to believe you. And the more often you're caught bluffing, the harder it becomes to pull off the next one.

The Bush administration's credibility was undercut when its claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was seeking uranium from Niger both turned out to be false.

Iran, for its part, has been cited by the International Atomic Energy Commission for hiding enrichment activities since 1987. The question became, did the current regime want to join the nuclear club mainly to generate electricity, or to wield a nuclear club of its own?

One clue was provided when Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, a moderate in Iran's current political spectrum, observed that "a single atomic bomb has the power to destroy Israel completely." He and other mullahs even issued a fatwa sanctioning the use of nuclear weapons. Iran's vast oil reserves also undercut its claim to need a peaceful source of new energy. Much more revealing, however, was the admission by A.Q. Khan, godfather of Pakistan's bomb, that he smuggled into Iran both a spherical warhead design and P-2 centrifuge technology capable of quadrupling its nuclear enrichment capacity. Poker players call such things halogen tells because they are as unmistakable as bright lights in your face. Altogether they offer persuasive—some would say foolproof—evidence that Iran's goals are measured in megatons rather than kilowatts.

Jon Friedberg, an MBA from Pepperdine who co-founded the interactive media company Reactrix, won his first gold bracelet and $526,185, defeating 2,890 opponents in event 17 with a series of dead-on reads and well-executed bluffs.

With four players remaining, he pulled off a classic semibluff re-raise with a six and seven of hearts. Two opponents had folded to him as he occupied the small blind (that's the slot to the immediate left of the dealer who is required to bet half as much as the big blind), and he decided to just complete the half bet to $30,000. The guy in the big blind was the hyper-aggressive John Phan, runner-up for the 2005 player of the year, who raised to $90,000. (Phan had $1 million in chips, Freidberg $1.8 million.)

Friedberg called the raise and watched the flop come 4-8-9 with two hearts, giving him four hearts—two in his hand, two on the board. Needing only one more heart to make a flush, and only one card away from a straight as well, he bet $120,000. Phan raised to $300,000. After noting that Phan would have $600,000 left—enough to play on—if he folded, Friedberg re-raised all-in. Phan folded.

Friedberg told me afterward that he rarely bluffs without having a decent draw to a strong hand, just in case he gets called. "Except," he added, "when I'm 90% certain my opponent has absolutely nothing." Such was the case when, with three players left, Friedberg had $1.7 million, Phan $700,000. Even with an unsuited 2 and 3, the worst possible "hole cards" (those dealt face down) in a game with three players, Friedberg raised to $60,000. Phan called.

On a flop of two aces and a 5, Freidberg bet $80,000. Phan called. The fourth community card was a 6, and Friedberg decided to go for a check-raise. When Phan obliged by betting $80,000, Friedberg raised $220,000, about half the size of the pot—"an amount that appears as if I want John to call." Buying this story, Phan folded.

"I was confident John didn't have an ace, based on his betting patterns and body language," Friedberg said. "I was certain he would surrender, thinking I had an ace."

"Do not press a desperate foe too hard," Sun Tzu counseled. Why not? Because a wounded animal often is more dangerous than a healthy one, which can run for its life. Likewise, a desperate human may act spitefully rather than pragmatically, choosing a martyr's death (and taking others down with him) over a lifesaving retreat. So if your opponent has been getting pushed around of late, it's probably best not to bluff him.

Iran feels that the West has been pushing it around since the Mossadegh government was overthrown in 1953 and the shah was installed. More recently Javad Vaeidi, deputy head of the Supreme National Security Council, admitted that giving up the enrichment program would be a national humiliation. To keep from losing face, the regime might be willing to go down in flames, taking with it as many infidels as inhumanly possible.

In "Big Deal," author Anthony Holden brilliantly illuminates the importance of saving face during the most perilous nuclear showdown to date. The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, Holden writes, "can be analysed in almost uncanny detail as a slowly developing hand, involving bluff and counter-bluff, with stakes as high as they go."

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, like "all the best poker players, was playing the man rather than his hand. He and Kennedy had played an earlier game at their Vienna summit, where the Russian leader had 'read' the new American president as young, inexperienced and easy to push around." Khrushchev therefore believed that, despite America's superior nuclear arsenal, Kennedy would prove too weak to keep the Soviets from basing missiles on Cuba.

When the 45-year-old president boldly blockaded the island, writes Holden, Khrushchev "folded his hand and conceded the pot." But with submarine-based Soviet missiles capable of hitting American cities, Kennedy needed to let Khrushchev save face, so he privately agreed not to invade Cuba once the Soviets dismantled the bases. "The true cunning of Kennedy's route to victory," Holden concludes, "was to enable his opponent to lose without being humiliated. The alternative might have proved a decidedly pyrrhic victory."

With an opponent committed to martyrdom, we have all the more reason not to humiliate him. We need to understand his identity in order to know which of his buttons we can and can't push. How do the atomic ayatollahs feel, for example, about being publicly dressed down by females?

The Security Council's position is represented by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett. After saying that the U.S. would negotiate face to face only if Iran suspends enrichment, both women warned that "further steps" would be taken should the offer be refused. Might not the sex (or race) of our secretary of State make American demands even harder to swallow? What self-respecting white-bearded mullah backs down from a Mozart-playing black woman?

The role of women in society isn't officially on the table, of course, but no issue more succinctly engenders the chasm between radical Islamism and the liberal West. If Iran's leaders shared more of our values—as Israel's, India's, Brazil's and South Africa's do—we'd be much less adamant about keeping their hands off the bomb.

Ahmadinejad's ideal is the caliphate of 1,100 years ago, when Islamic civilization was at its most advanced and virile. Meanwhile, women are forced to wear chadors and long skirts, ride segregated buses and elevators, receive inferior educations and medical care. People celebrating International Women's Day in Tehran were beaten by Revolutionary Guards. A woman who stabbed to death one of three men attempting to rape her and her niece was sentenced to be hanged.

Many hard-line Islamist heads of state have made it illegal under Shariah law to own a deck of playing cards, let alone gamble with them. Last year an Islamist judge in the Indonesian province of Aceh sentenced four women to be publicly beaten for participating in a card game involving 65,000 rupiah—about $7. More than a 1,000 people gathered after Friday prayer sessions to watch each of the women receive seven blows across their backs with a rattan cane. Another judge blamed the tsunami, which took 25,000 lives and destroyed much of the Acehnese economy, on women who didn't wear the chador.

Like most young women playing in the World Series of Poker, Chicago artist Shawnee Barton favors tank tops, which either go or clash with her pink-tinted ponytail. This summer, with 10 players left in event 15, what was revealed by her lime-green tank top may have helped to determine where she would finish. The action had folded to her on "the button"—the small round disk that moves from player to player in a clockwise direction following each hand. Even though she had nothing but an unsuited 10 and a 7, she tried to steal the blinds (the two opening bets) and antes (other money placed in the pot before the start of the hand) by raising three times the big blind's bet. Sitting in the big blind position, Laurie Scott had the largest stack of chips at the table. As Scott called the raise, she asked Barton, "You're not trying to steal the blinds, are you?"

"She had called me out and both of us knew it," Barton told me later. "My move was just too obvious. But when the flop came down K-5-2, I still bet about 60% of the pot because I wanted to stay in control of the hand and because I knew she'd either fold or go over the top of me. She was a really aggressive player who rarely just called. If she raised, I would fold. She stared me down for what felt like a couple of hours, but she finally folded. I took a deep breath. 'You could probably beat my jack, couldn't you?' she asked me. I told her I probably could."

During the next break, the male dealer, breaking protocol, came up to Barton and said, "Ooooh Chicago, I like your game, girl. I saw you bluffin' and I thought, 'That girl's got balls,' but I was hoping the other woman didn't call 'cause I knew you were beat. Your heart was pumpin' and your stomach was goin' up and down. I knew you were bluffin'. You gotta put on a big sweatshirt, girl."

Barton dug through her backpack and began draping herself with what she calls the "frumptastic outfit" she wore for the rest of the tournament. Flesh duly covered, she got mind-bendingly unlucky on three of the last big hands but still finished second and took home $123,178. This would have been worth 1.13 billion rupiah and at least 7,000 lashes in Aceh, to say nothing of the punishment for her day and a half in the tank top. Bottom line?

Cover up those tummies and pulse points, ladies. Unless, that is, you're purposefully deploying warm smiles and décolletage to distract your opponents from the issue at hand.

More general bluffing guidelines include:

Bluster = Weakness. If Ahmadinejad claims to already have "the full gamut of nuclear technology," a pokeraticious diplomat will infer that he doesn't. She'll put him on a much weaker hand and re-raise. If he tries to stare her down, she'll remain serenely confident that leaders holding powerful cards tend to downplay or even—the Israelis again come to mind—deny the existence of a nuclear arsenal.

Isolate your opponent. One player is exponentially easier to bluff than two or three. This is why Rice tries to isolate Iran by accepting Chinese and Russian demands to limit sanctions against their affluent client.

Project strength. After defeating Saddam Hussein, the U.S. failure to create a stable peace in which democracy could thrive makes us look weak. So does Israel's failure to disarm Hezbollah. So does our failure to capture Osama bin Laden.

Seem to mean it. As the physicist and educator Jeremy Bernstein observes, "The Israelis seem to mean it when they say they would not allow the Iranians to have nuclear weapons." Harry Truman clearly meant it in 1946, as did Kennedy in 1962. Indeed, the entire first and second world wars and the Cold War, as well as Operations Desert Storm and Joint Endeavor, made us appear very much to mean it, while Vietnam, Somalia, the fiasco in Tora Bora and now Iraq II all cut in the other direction. For his part, Ahmadinejad seemed to mean it when he recruited children to march across minefields, and, lately, as he arms and funds Hezbollah and countless Shia suicide bombers.

Expect duplicity. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who also negotiated for the release of American hostages in 1979, warns that Iranian negotiators will deploy "bazaar behavior" resembling that of "a Middle Eastern marketplace, with outlandish demands, feints at abandoning the process and haggling over minor details up to the very last minute." He counsels our current negotiators to remain steadfast but realistic. Or as Doyle Brunson, winner of a record 10 WSOP bracelets, has noted, "Luck favors the backbone, not the wishbone."

Make sure your hole cards remain face-down. Israel, unlike North Korea, has never shown its hand by conducting a test, but is widely assumed to have nuclear weapons. It's safe to assume this is why Iran bars Atomic Energy Commission inspectors from several key sites.

Keep all options on the table. This includes even the most baldly Strangelovian. The trigger finger of Vice President Dick Cheney could seem even itchier, for example, if he communicated through back channels something along the lines of: "Keep rattling that rickety scimitar in our face, Mahmoud, and we'll turn Tehran and Natanz into parking lots that glow in the dark."

The most spectacular upside of a nuclear bluff is avoiding warfare. If we or the Israelis can make Iran's leaders believe their research enrichment facilities and even a city or two will be nuked if they don't halt enrichment, we might short-circuit their quest for weapons-grade material and avoid having to kill a single Iranian.

The downside, of course, is increasing the risk that we'll overplay our hand and push a desperate opponent too hard, unleashing a whirlwind of suicide bombers—or worse.

On Aug. 10, with six players left of the 8,773 who entered the WSOP main event, Jamie Gold raised to $750,000. Richard Lee called from the small blind and Paul Wasicka called from the big blind. The flop came queen of diamonds, queen of spades, jack of clubs—an extremely scary board for anyone not holding a queen. Check, check, check. The next card was the jack of spades. Lee checked and so did Wasicka. Gold bet $800,000 into the $2.3-million pot, representing a queen or a jack.

As a film agent, Gold had represented James Gandolfini, Lucy Liu, Jimmy Fallon and Felicity Huffman. With his dark hair and motor-mouth chutzpah, he naturally calls to mind Ari Gold, the agent played by Jeremy Piven on "Entourage." The question for Lee and Wasicka remained: Did Gold really have a queen or a jack in his hand, which would give him a full house?

Both scanned Gold's face long and hard for a tell, and both folded. Before pulling in the Sierra of chips, Gold showed them his hand: a 3 of spades and a 2 of hearts. A stark-naked bluff. With more than his share of good cards and a number of similar bluffs, Gold went on to win the $12-million first prize.

Sixteen days later, Iran re-raised the Security Council by announcing it would ramp up enrichment activities. Ahmadinejad italicized the point by inaugurating a new heavy-water reactor, the kind that specializes in weapons-grade plutonium rather than electricity. This belligerent gesture came during large-scale war games when Ayatollah Rafsanjani declared: "We hope America has learned a lesson from the war in Lebanon and refrains from getting involved in another conflict."

Underscoring this veiled threat with violence, state television showed troops firing live ammunition from helicopters, dropping bombs in the desert and launching medium-range radar-evading missiles called saegheh, which means "thunder" in Persian.

Brig. Gen. Muhammad Hassan Dadress took pains to emphasize that Iran was not revealing "the major part of its military capability." By alluding to vastly more serious thunder, was he saying Iran has a nuclear ace, maybe two, up her sleeve—or, à la Jamie Gold and Jon Friedberg, just a trey and a deuce?


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