#191: “Like A Boss”

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If anyone out there has not seen Farhad Safinia’s extraordinary political drama ‘Boss’, I wholeheartedly recommend that they rectify that ASAP. Starring Kelsey Grammar as Mayor of Chicago Tom Kane, the story follows the Machiavellian machinations of a most monstrous political powerhouse as he struggles with the symptoms of a degenerative neurological disorder and the knowledge of his impending demise. Unlike Walter White in ‘Breaking Bad’, this character is not spurred into action by his diagnosis. He is already a political bohemoth. Rather, he is a modern day King Lear, a man already in power who becomes even more dangerous behind the wheel when his own survival is brought sharply into focus.

Watching ‘Boss’, I couldn’t help but think of the ways poker and politics are similar. Tom Kane is a manipulator, a bluffer, a trapper. He is constantly performing, playing different roles with different people, contriving situations where he has the upperhand and exploiting his edge with a ruthless disregard for the cost to others. He is, in many ways, the consummate poker player. When you are playing the game, it is your job to con and coerce, to beguile and ensnare. Poker is Realpolitik in its most simplistic form and those who succeed either consciously or unconsciously understand this. They are realists; they accept the rules of engagement, they understand that they are waged in a battle of competitive self-interest and, above all, they are pragmatic.

But Tom Kane takes a bad beat. His life is thrown off kilter by his diagnosis. He knows he will gradually lose control of his most basic physical and mental faculties, eventually succumbing to dementia. The frustration that this causes manifests itself, as with a poker player, in self-pity, then anger and then by him lashing out at others. His judgement is affected and he begins to diverge from optimal game theory. In other words, he tilts.

However, Tom Kane is a creative man when backed into a corner. Even if it is a corner of his own making. He might tilt off a few chips but he knows how to win them back and more. He understands the game better than anyone, a beast in every sense of the word.

My girlfriend Saron pointed out to me recently that when it comes to the dichotomy between doing what is right and what benefits me the most (when of course they are two different things), my job has trained me to do the latter. The scary thing is Tom Kane is a monster but he is an exemplary poker role model. So, I was forced to admit that she was right. But I thought it was important to point out one thing. I don’t live at the poker table.