Is Dick Cheney a Fish?

Most reviews of Dick Cheney’s recent autobiography In My Time describe it as gruff and assertive. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, as that was Cheney’s trademarked rhetorical style while in office, but I would have thought a man known as a master of bureaucratic string pulling would have taken a different tack in his memoir. Based on the critical response and excerpts I’ve read, it seems almost impossible that Cheney’s book would sway anyone not already on his side. The response to the book has been polarized; of 205 customer reviews on amazon.com, 164 gave it either 1 or 5 stars (the lowest and highest ratings). While many have found the book variously interesting, inflammatory, infuriating, or laudable, few have found it persuasive.

A curious fact about poker is that fish, because they are fish, constantly have available to them more profitable opportunities than good players. For example, a highly typical line for a certain kind of fish is to raise the minimum with pocket aces, the best starting hand. Therefore when I open the betting and face a min-raise from a fish, I assign a high probability to the chance that they have aces. Depending on my hand, I’ll either fold or call and hope to flop a hand stronger than aces. If I don’t, I’ll usually fold to a flop bet. Since it’s pretty hard to make a hand stronger than aces that means I’m folding most of the time, which in turn means that the fish could take this line at any time with any two cards and take my money hand over fist. But he never, ever will: that’s what makes him a fish. He’ll just keep doing it with aces and no other hands.

There are many profitable styles in poker, just as there are many ways to lose. The defining characteristic of fish, in my opinion, is not playing too many or too few hands, or raising too much or too little; it is a lack of self-awareness. Conversely, the defining trait of good players is understanding how others perceive them, molding that perception, and exploiting it.

I would have thought Cheney would be a tough poker player, but if his book is any indication he’s not. Is it possible that one of the most significant political players of our time is nothing more than a highly motivated, forceful fish?

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