The Debt Limit Negotiation Is a Poker Game We Can All Lose

"Don't call my bluff," he says, begging the question: Is he bluffing?

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The cliché When President Barack Obama walked out of the debt ceiling negotiations yesterday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor quoted him saying, "'Eric, don’t call my bluff... I’m going to the American people on this." And with that, Obama set off a flurry of partial quote headlines like this one. Or this one. Or this one. Indeed, the ubiquity of the president's poker language threatened to make the use of gambling metaphors for this "high stakes" debt debate a bit of, well, a cliché.

Where it's from "To call someone's bluff" is of course a poker term that means "to expose someone for betting big with a bad hand." The word "bluff," which may derive from the Dutch (some say German) word bluffen meaning "to boast," was an early name for the game of poker itself. In the 1960s, "Call My Bluff" became a successful British television show (and an unsuccessful American one). It worked a bit like the popular board game Balderdash in that one team offered up three different definitions of an obscure word and the other team had to guess which two were bluffs and which was the correct definition.

Why it has caught on It's easy to see why the media seized on the quote. For one, Obama reportedly delivered it while "very agitated." Moreover, his comparison between the negotiations and a poker game is an easy one. A bunch of guys (and Nancy Pelosi) are sitting around a table. There's a lot of money on the line. There are winners and losers. You get the picture.

Why else? Jay Nordliger posted an interesting question on National Review's web site sent by a reader:

What kind of threat is "Don’t call my bluff"? In saying that, Obama is admitting he’s bluffing. A sensible threat might be, "Don’t assume I’m bluffing!" But no: Obama warns my congressman not to call his bluff. That’s not a threat — that’s a plea for mercy.

Maybe that's what has us all so captivated with Obama's quote. When Obama says "Don't call my bluff," is he revealing that he might be ready to blink? Probably not. After all the GOP, like the British game show contestants, could call a bluff, get it wrong, and lose a lot of money.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.