If Woodrow Wilson Played Poker, We Could Have Avoided World War II

By Dr. Al Schoonmaker

His mistakes at the Versailles Peace Conference to end World War I were so extreme that John Maynard Keynes, the twentieth century’s foremost economist, predicted in 1919 that the peace treaty would destroy Germany’s economy. This destruction indirectly led to Hitler’s rise to power, World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin’s domination of Eastern Europe, and many other disasters.

Wilson certainly didn’t want to destroy Germany. On the contrary, he wanted to create a new and better world, one based upon moral principles. His attempts to build heaven on earth led to the hell of Nazi Germany.

He inadvertently created this hell, not because he was evil, but because he was a well-intentioned fool. Keynes wrote: “Wilson was “a genuinely intentioned man… lacking that dominating intellectual equipment which would have been necessary to cope with the subtle and dangerous” negotiators for France and England, Clemanceau and Lloyd George.1 Winning poker players are neither well-intentioned, nor foolish. They have a “take no prisoners” attitude and are ruthlessly realistic.

Poker develops realism because it’s a brutally realistic game. If you have the cards and play them well, you win. If you don’t, you lose, unless you can bluff out the best hand (as his adversaries bluffed out Wilson). It’s as simple as that. No amount of hoping or praying has ever changed a card or put a chip into a player’s stack.

Wilson had the cards, but didn’t know how to play them. He was the most powerful man on earth. America had won the war – despite Wilson’s bumbling indecisiveness – essentially by default. No one else was left. All the other powers had lost the war.

England and France were nominal victors, but they were broke and exhausted, with an entire generation of their best young men dead on the battlefields. Germany and Austria-Hungary were defeated. Russia was tearing itself apart in a civil war; If Wilson had played his extremely strong cards well, he could have gotten almost everything he wanted, but he blew it.

His first mistake was one that winning poker players avoid: He played against better players. After decades in academia, he knew nothing about diplomatic negotiations, while Clemanceau of France and Lloyd George of England were masters of the game.2

Some of his key advisors told him not to go to “what, after all, would be no more than a sort of cut-throat poker game, where gamblers cheated and knives glistened.”3 He ignored their advice and his own limitations because he “was filled with missionary zeal … [and believed] he was the divine instrument of all the hopes” of mankind.4 As Keynes put it:

“Never could a man have stepped into a parlour a more perfect and predestined victim to the finished accomplishments of the Prime Minister [Lloyd George]. … This blind and deaf Don Quixote was entering a cavern where the swift and glittering blade was in the hands of the adversary.”5

His second mistake was to rely on morality rather than power. He had the power, but refused to use it. He made moralistic appeals to Clemanceau and Lloyd George, two nasty old cynics. He tried to appeal to their better natures, and they didn’t have any (at least for Germany).

[Clemanceau believed] “the German understands and can understand nothing but intimidation, that he is without generosity or remorse in negotiating, that there is no advantage he will not take of you… he is without honour, pride, or pity. Therefore, you must never negotiate with a German or conciliate with him; you must dictate to him.”6

“[Germany’s] economic system … must be destroyed.”7

They came to the conference with hardly any power, sat down at the table with barely a chip between them, but ended up with almost all the chips. They didn’t want a League of Nations, and they regarded Wilson’s Fourteen Points as childish idealism. They wanted to destroy Germany and grab every possible mark, ounce of gold, railroad engine, and inch of territory. Wilson conceded on virtually every substantive issue to get the empty victory of an unworkable League of Nations and the transparent pretense that his naive Fourteen Points had been implemented.

Keynes may have never played poker, but his analysis of Wilson’s motives and actions would fit a poker game between a minister and two card sharks.

“The President was like …a Presbyterian. His thought and his temperament were essentially theological, not intellectual.8

“his theological or Presbyterian temperament became dangerous….9

“Reverend Wilson” wouldn’t cut the cards for fear of offending the other players, which allowed them to stack the deck. He trusted them – because he naively believed they wouldn’t lie – allowing them to bluff him out of pot after pot. The naive little minister never even know that he had an unbeatable hand, and repeatedly let letting the sharks manipulate him into settling for a small token when he could have had anything he wanted.

Let’s very briefly discuss just a few of the principles of winning poker that could have helped Wilson. The words in quotation marks are the same or very similar to the titles of the chapters in my book, Poker Winners Are Different, that discuss these principles.

“Winners Are Brutally Realistic.” Poker winners must be realistic because every miscalculation costs them money. If they misgauge their hand, they can’t play it properly. If they misjudge their own or their opponents’ skill, they will play against better players and get beaten. Wilson made every one of those mistakes. He grossly under-appraised his hand, overestimated his abilities, and underestimated his opponents.

Wilson ignored his advisors’ warnings about his own weaknesses, his opponents’ intentions, and the consequences of yielding to them. He believed what he wanted to believe: that his missionary zeal and the morality of his cause would overcome his opponents’ greater skill and change them from obstacles to collaborators toward his cherished goals. They reinforced his self-deception by smiling at him and rewording their positions so they seemed to support his values, while obviously violating them.

[The] “purpose of French policy, to limit the population of Germany and weaken her economic system, is clothed, for the President’s sake, in the august language of freedom and international equality… the President finally capitulated before a masterpiece of the sophist’s art…10

“Winners Emphasize Power.” Poker is a completely power-oriented game. Only one hand wins, and the most critical skill is determining how strong your hand is, then playing it appropriately, attacking when it’s strong, folding or bluffing when it’s weak.

Wilson had nearly all the power, but never used it. Had he done so, he would have gotten virtually everything he wanted. Keynes made that point quite forcefully:

“he might have sought by firmness and .. the use of the financial power of the United States to secure as much as he could of the substance, even at the sacrifice of the letter…. but he was too conscientious.11

Instead of using the irresistible power of America’s economy, he relied on moralistic appeals and sermons.

“the Fourteen Points… became a document for gloss and interpretation and for all the intellectual apparatus of self-deception by which, I daresay, the President’s forefathers had persuaded themselves that the course they thought it necessary to take was consistent with every syllable of the Pentateuch.”12

His sermons fell on deaf ears. In fact, it was foolish to rely on sermons with such cynics. They were utterly committed to the idea that:

“The politics of power are inevitable…. Prudence required some measure of lip service to the ‘ideals’ of foolish Americans and hypocritical Englishmen; but it would be stupid to believe that there is much room in the world, as it really is, for such affairs as the League of Nations.”13

“Winners Accept The Game As It Is.” Until the day he died Wilson complained that Lloyd George, Clemanceau, the US Senate, and especially Senator Lodge had treated him and the world unfairly. He could have learned from a later president: When one of his advisors told President Kennedy that one of his actions was unfair, he bluntly replied, “Life is unfair.”

So is poker. If you desperately need to win, if you will lose your home, your business, and your family if you don’t win this pot, while the other player hardly cares whether he wins, but he has three aces, and you have three kings – you’re gone, brother.

“Winners Are Skeptical.” Poker is based on deceit and deception. If players knew the others’ hands, they wouldn’t call with losing hands or be bluffed out when they have the winner. Winners expect the others to try to deceive them, while losers are like Charlie Brown. He knows that Lucy has pulled that football away many times, but this time he thinks she will keep her word. People like Charlie get fooled again and again and again.

Wilson had as much evidence of their duplicity as Charlie Brown had of Lucy’s, but he trusted Clemanceau and Lloyd George. No matter what they did, no matter who warned him, he flatly refused to believe that his adversaries were committed to the old system, despised his principles, and were intent on crippling Germany. He believed their lies even when one of them tried to admit that they had tricked him.

Toward the end of the conference Lloyd George realized that they had tricked Wilson too completely, that the treaty was fatally flawed. He tried to get Wilson to help him to moderate the treaty.

“To his horror, Mr. Lloyd George … discovered that he could not in five days persuade the President of error in what it had taken him five months to prove to him to be just and right. After all it was harder to de-bamboozle this old Presbyterian than it had been to bamboozle him.”14

“Winners Are Deceptive.” David Sklansky, poker’s forement theorist, said it best: “Being devious and deceitful is precisely what one wants to be in a poker game.” Without deception, poker falls apart. If we knew each other’s cards, nobody would ever be bluffed out or call when they were beaten. Since deception is essential, winners bluff, sandbag, slow play, and do everything else they can to confuse their opponents and gain an advantage, and they feel no guilt at all. It’s just part of the game.

Some losers regard these tactics as unethical and refuse to use them. These scruples are fine if everyone is playing that way. If the other people are playing deceptively, such scruples are suicidal.

Wilson was told again and again that his adversaries were being deceptive and fighting dirty, but he couldn’t bring himself to reciprocate. “He would do nothing that was not… just and right; he would do nothing that was contrary to his great profession of faith.15

Refusing to fight dirty when the other side is doing so is foolish, but understandable. Wilson went much further. He did something that the most naive novice knows better than to do: He showed his hand to everybody!

He made speech after speech describing exactly what he wanted, but made absolutely no plans for getting it. He made the extraordinary mistake of thinking that his cause would triumph just because of its moral superiority.

“He had no plan, no scheme, no constructive ideas whatever for clothing with the flesh of life the commandments which he had thundered from the White House. He could have preached a sermon on them or have addressed a stately prayer to the Almighty for their fulfillment; but he could not frame their concrete application to the actual state of Europe.”16

Once he showed his cards, he was certain to lose. An obvious truism is that you can’t beat something with nothing, and he had nothing, but his moral principles which were laid out on the table for everyone to see. His adversaries realized that all they had to do was make him feel good about his principles, and he would give them everything they wanted.

Any minimally competent poker player would know better, but Wilson lived by moralistic slogans, not winning principles. He showed his hand to everybody because he was committed to a silly slogan: “Open Covenants openly agreed to.” That sounds nice, but it is suicidal if the other side is following the usual rule of “keep your cards close to your chest.”

“Winners Quickly Admit Their Mistakes.” Any poker player who can’t quickly admit mistakes will certainly lose. Ten seconds ago you loved your hand, but a player who rarely bluffs just raised all in. If you can’t admit that you were wrong and fold, you’ll lose serious money.

Losers rarely make that admission. They call, even when they are almost certain they are beaten, because they can’t admit they made a mistake. A common and extremely foolish statements is: “I’ve gone this far. I’ve got to call.” Winners love to hear those words; they clearly identify a sucker.

Some of Wilson’s advisors told him he was mistaken, but he ignored them and resented their “negative attitudes.” They were doing their jobs, trying to prevent him from making a bigger fool of himself, but he believed they were disloyal. Even after the evidence of his mistakes was overwhelming, he refused to admit it. He wasn’t wrong; everybody else was!

“In spite of everything, I believe his temperament allowed him to leave Paris a really sincere man; it is probable to this day he is genuinely convinced that the Treaty contains practically nothing inconsistent with his former professions.”17

Unfortunately, Wilson’s naivite and mistakes have been shared by many other presidents. They did not accept the harsh realities about themselves and the people they confronted. Toward the end of World War II FDR was even stronger than Wilson had been at Versailles, but he never used his power effectively, ignored his advisors, and personally negotiated with Stalin.

On his best days he might have been a match for Stalin, but he was dying. A dying man should not personally negotiate (or play high stakes poker) with anyone, especially not someone as tough as Stalin. He ignored that fact and gave away Eastern Europe because he foolishly believed: “I can handle Uncle Joe.” Stalin was not the friendly uncle that FDR believed; he was a mass murderer who was utterly committed to dominating Europe!

Many other American leaders have made enormous mistakes in foreign and domestic policy because of the same naivite, overestimation of themselves, gullibility, inability to admit mistakes, reluctance to use power, etc. For example, Lyndon Johnson simply would not listen to anyone who told him that we were losing the war in Vietnam. He believed what he wanted to believe, and we are still paying the price for his blindness.

Jimmy Carter was the same sort of moralistic fool as Wilson. He naively trusted the Soviets, then admitted publicly that he was misguided when then invaded Afghanistan. He gave away a priceless strategic asset, the Panama Canal, because he expected the Panamanians and other Latinos to love us. He was too blind to realize that they will never love us.

What does all this have to do with you and your career and life in general? A lot more than you may think. Your life is a series of competitions, and the sort of thinking that caused those presidents to fail can make you a loser.

I’ve analyzed Wilson’s actions at Versailles from a poker player’s perspective because he had such great cards and played them so badly. My book Competitive Edge Strategies For Poker And Business Winners cites many examples of powerful, rich people because many people know who they are and what they did. If you don’t believe what I write, you can confirm anything at the library.

Exactly the same kind of analysis could be made about a small business trying to expand, or an executive striving for promotion, or a young professional wondering whether to take this job or that one. I repeatedly link poker principles to these and many other “games.”

Those principles are essentially the same whether you are sitting at a poker table, selecting a marketing strategy, developing a new product, or maneuvering for a promotion. The great value of poker is that it makes the principles easier to understand.

WHAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE?

Poker and my books, articles, podcasts, and blogs can help you to WIN no matter what game you’re playing.

 1 Keynes, John Maynard, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, p. 36
 2 Diplomacy was "a game of which he had no experience at all." ibid, p. 36. "There can seldom have been a statesman of the first rank more incompetent than the President in the
 agilities of the council chamber." p. 40.
 3 Vidal, Gore Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920s, NY, Ballantine
 Books, 1990, pp. 189f
 4 ibid, p. 190.
 5 Keynes, op. cit. p. 38.
 6 ibid, p.29.
 7 ibid. p 32.
 8 ibid, P. 38.
 9 ibid, p. 46
 10 ibid, p. 48f.
 11 ibid, p. 46
 12 ibid, p. 46
 13 ibid, p. 30
 14 ibid, p. 50.
 15 ibid, p. 46
 16 ibid, p. 39.
 17 ibid, p. 49