Editor’s Note: Four of my favorite conservatives supplied material for this article. I think only one of them is actually a poker player, but the poker theme seems appropriate to the current situation in government. That is, we have a president who is incapable of telling the truth, which is helpful in a poker player, but not so good in a U.S. president.

Tell Me About It

Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie ... if you believe it.”

George Costanza


During a discussion about North Korea, a Trump enthusiast told me the president is different from other politicians, in that, “While they play chess, he’s playing poker.” I’m skeptical Trump is a poker player — he’s doesn’t seem like a fun guy, so I doubt it’s his style. And, although I have no idea which game would work best in a confrontation between Kim Jong Un and The Donald, I think I’m leaning toward crazy eights.

In many ways, chess is the opposite of poker. Unlike games with cards or dice, there’s absolutely no luck involved. Chess demands brains, focus and forethought. Lacking those qualities, I’ve never really excelled at chess, and, because it seems more like work than recreation, I’ve never really enjoyed it.

Poker, on the other hand, is great fun. The luck of the draw makes it unpredictable, but there’s enough skill involved that professional poker players rarely lose to amateurs, although it happens just often enough to keep things interesting. The psychology of the game requires people skills that help you to know, as Kenny Rogers once sang, “when to hold ’em” and “when to fold ’em,” as well as when to bluff.

One popular poker truism is, “You play the man, not the cards.” One way gamblers do this is by looking for “tells” — involuntary or subconscious behaviors, such as knuckle cracking, excessive blinking or verbal tics. Observant players try to determine what that tell indicates about an opponent’s situation. For example, in “Rounders,” the best poker movie ever made (Steve McQueen’s “Cincinnati Kid” ranks second), Matt Damon picks up on John Malkovich’s tell, which is eating an Oreo when he’s holding a powerful hand.

(BTW, if you’d like to learn more about poker, you can read “The Poker Cookbook,” co-authored by yours truly. This critically acclaimed how-to book has sold literally tens of copies.)  


On Facebook, the headline “BREAKING NEWS” is a liberal tell. It means you’re about to read a minor story that won’t even justify the capital letters. A similar tell is use of the word “just,” as in, “Jared Kushner’s admission just broke the internet!” This also shows the writer doesn’t really understand the internet, and is dopey enough to think the revelation that “Ivanka’s handbags sales are plummeting” will “break” it.

(This tendency toward hysterical hyperbole was in full view the night MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow got her hands on a single page from an old Trump income tax return, and embarrassed herself by acting like she was holding a smoking gun.)

Meanwhile, a conservative tell is the phrase, “I’m an independent.” You hear it from country club Republicans and white-supremacist wingnuts alike, but seldom from moderates. Right wingers embrace it, because they seem to think feigning independence lends credibility to extremist opinions.

The best example is Bill O’Reilly. Prior to his termination at Fox News for being white privilege’s answer to Bill Cosby, he spent most of his time on the air bashing the Left and almost never criticized the Right, all the while claiming to be unaffiliated and independent. His agenda — as well as his bromance with President Trump — made the notion of the “No-Spin Zone” as plausible as the myth that Fox had ever been “fair and balanced.”

One Trump cultist I know has a verbal tell in debates. Any sentence that begins with, “We all know …” will end with a screwball, reality-free, Alex Jones/Breitbart-style conspiracy theory, backed up by not a shred of evidence: “Obama loves terrorism, because he’s a Muslim,” “Bernie Sanders is an avowed Communist,” “Hillary Clinton is running a child sex ring,” “John McCain is a liberal” or “Donald Trump is a decent human being and a patriot.”

No politician has more verbal tells than The Donald, all of which seem to indicate the same thing. When he says, for the thousandth time, “Believe me,” you can assume that whatever preceded that imperative was a lie, and what’s coming next will be equally fictional.

This is similar to his repeated claim, “I have proof.” From a fantasy video of thousands of Muslims celebrating 9/11 in Jersey City to his teams of “researchers” in Hawaii busily proving Obama’s foreign birth, as well as his fallacious accounts of his conversation with a Gold Star widow, when Trump claims he has proof, expect to see it the same day you see his income tax returns, which will be in an IRS audit until the Second Coming.

The Donald’s most-effective tic is “fake news,” a tell that doesn’t seem to hurt him, because the public — especially the sheeplike deplorables who believe every noise from his mouth is gospel — has lost faith in the media. “Fake news” means the story is probably true, but he doesn’t like it. Because he can’t refute it, he’ll deny it, then slander the messenger. By the time the next news arrives, we’ve forgotten all about the previous lie, so he can do it all over again: Dissemble and repeat.

The Washington Post’s FactChecker listed 836 false or misleading claims Trump has made during his first six months in office. The nonpartisan PolitiFact organization found that, during the campaign, 76% of his statements were untrue. Some pundits have suggested that looking for tells might be pointless, because the president is a sociopath, so almost everything he says is a lie.

An old quip involving a tell bears repeating here: “How do you know when a lawyer’s lying? His lips are moving.” Replace “a lawyer” with “our president,” and you have a “telling” comment on how far our country has degenerated.

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