Playing Poker With ‘The Boys on the Bus’

January 15, 2020inPoker

If you’re interested in news or journalism, or curious at all about the everyday life of a news reporter, I highly recommend Timothy Crouse‘s book The Boys on the Bus.

Especially if you also have an interest in politics and presidential campaigns — as many people do during an election year like the one that has just started — you’ll learn a great deal from Crouse’s book about the complicated “game” politicians and reporters play with each other over the course of a campaign. And how that game directly affects how politicians’ messages get delivered and votes are influenced.

I think the book might also particularly appeal to poker players, and for a few different reasons. The tournament “circuit” with its roving cast of characters — players, staff, media, and so on — certainly resembles a long political campaign, which means a lot of the insights in the book actually resonate for those traveling together along the long and winding tourney journey.

Let me share just a few moments from the book to explain what I mean.

One Mistake and You’re Out of the Game

Published in 1973, The Boys on the Bus focuses primarily on the 1972 presidential campaign in which Republican candidate Richard Nixon won a second term in office, defeating the Democrats’ George McGovern by a landslide. The book begins back during the primaries and carries through to election day, and is focused mainly on showing what goes on behind the scenes as reporters follow the candidates around — often on buses.

Crouse wrote for Rolling Stone magazine and thus was a colleague and friend of Hunter S. Thompson of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fame. Crouse shares some of Thompson’s sensibilities, although The Boys on the Bus isn’t nearly as eccentric or outrageous as Thompson’s reporting was. Crouse “behaves,” so to speak, although he doesn’t pull any punches when evaluating either politicians or other reporters.

“The Boys on the Bus” by Timothy Crouse

Crouse commends some reporters’ instincts and perseverance while censuring others who compromise themselves too greatly. That said, he frequently acknowledges the constraints under which the reporters work and how editors and newspaper owners overseeing their output often prevent them from being able to report as independently as many of them would like to do.

He also acknowledges the intense pressure the reporters face. “To file a story late, or to make one glaring factual error, was to chance losing everything — one’s job, one’s expense account, one’s drinking buddies, one’s mad-dash existence,” Crouse writes.

As a result, the default mode adopted by most reporters is extreme discretion and avoidance of risk. Here Crouse draws an interesting contrast between that approach and the one the reporters exhibit when participating in a favorite pastime.

“Reporters channeled their gambling instincts into late-night poker games and private bets on the outcome of the elections,” he explains. By contrast, “when it came to writing a story, they were as cautious as diamond-cutters.”

Crouse circles back to those poker games occasionally throughout the book — not too often, but frequently enough to give the impression of a game always going on in the background among a few of the reporters at the back of the press bus.

Perhaps because of this — and the fact that as a “poker person” I’m always being reminded of poker in non-poker contexts — there are other places where Crouse addresses the reporters’ craft that sound as though he could also be discussing poker strategy.

Too Many Options Can Be Frightening

Poker players are constantly seeking to make “plus-EV” decisions — in their game and seat selection, in their bankroll management, and at every stage of individual hands. Arriving at the best choice often means ruling out all the bad ones, something successful players are especially good at doing.

It’s often preferable, then, to have at least some restrictions that help us know right away what not to do. Those reporting on a political campaign for a significant and critical audience often desire some sort of guidance to help them know what is allowed and what is not. Thus, in a way, a lack of such guidance can be frightening.

“In the world of straight, ‘objective’ journalism, the more freedom you gave a reporter, the more he censored himself,” writes Crouse. “‘Freedom’ scared a reporter out of his mind, because it wasn’t really freedom at all. ‘Freedom’ simply meant that nobody had clearly marked all the pitfalls and booby traps, so the reporter became cautious as a blind man on a battlefield.”

You’ve been there I’m sure — too many options! And all seem okay! But somehow, that’s not okay at all.

Avoid Formulas… Follow Your Instincts, Follow Your Training

At one point Crouse quotes James Doyle, then a reporter for the Washington Star whom Crouse often compliments as one able to break away from “pack journalism” and report independently. Doyle tells Crouse how one common fault on the campaign trail is the way reporters tend too often to “play” things “by the book” (so to speak).

Pressure! (PokerPhotoArchive)

“It’s tough deciding what story to pick, because you don’t want to waste your time,” Doyle explains. “But once you go in there, I say that the formulas ought to go right out the window. What you ought to do is follow your instincts, follow your training, and then sit down and write as if you were writing a letter… a letter saying ‘This is why I came here, this is what I found out.'”

Translating that into poker terms, the advice is to steer away from preconceived ideas about how you “ought” to play a hand (“the formulas”) and instead use your knowledge of fundamentals to help you respond to the situation right in front of you.

Be able to adapt to changing circumstances. Don’t let uninspired, clichéd thinking cause you to miss what might be different about this particular opponent or situation, and thereby miss the real “story” of the hand.

Fighting Fatigue

Near the end of the book, Crouse notes how tired the reporters were during the last few days before the election. He remarks on the irony of the situation in which many of the reporters were in the worst mental and physical shape they had been the entire way at the very moment when the “stakes” were highest and their reporting meant the most.

“They had arrived at the last two weeks, when the public finally wanted to read about the campaign — front page play every day! — and they were so tired that it nearly killed them to pound out a decent piece,” Crouse observes. “They were coming down to the wire — they had to save a few volts of energy to grind out pre- and post-election articles. Yet all they could feel was numbness.”

That discussion obviously recalls what happens at the end of long, multi-day tournaments when players at the final table have to summon whatever they can from depleted reservoirs of strength to continue right when the prizes for which they are playing are the most significant.

Camaraderie, Hardship, and Luxury

There’s more to talk about, including how the politicians’ strategies also resembled what happens in poker. For example, the generally “close to the vest” style of the Nixon campaign that mostly shut out reporters proved much more effective in the end than McGovern’s more accessible approach. (It also mostly helped keep Watergate out of a lot of the reporters’ stories, something that wouldn’t remain possible after the election.)

As someone who both plays poker and writes about it, I can’t help but also share how The Boys on the Bus also repeatedly brings to mind what it is like to be the one standing there with pad, pencil, and recorder reporting on poker tournaments, too. It’s hardly the same as reporting on a presidential campaign, but there’s a lot of overlap.

Staying sane on the tournament floor

Again drawing from the very end of the book, Crouse writes about how the reporters were writing two stories on election day — one about Nixon winning, and another about McGovern winning. The latter stories became “strange ghostly pieces describing McGovern’s victory” that would never be read, but had to be written so “the newspapers would not be completely unprepared if McGovern should do the impossible.”

I know anyone reading this who has reported on a final table well knows this very same phenomenon — the writing of multiple “recaps” about different winners so as to have one ready the moment the final pot is won. We’ve all written those “ghostly pieces” before, reporting on an alternate reality that never came to fruition.

The final pages of the book documenting the weirdly emotional, even maudlin goodbyes marking the end of the campaign also recall similar feelings that can arise at the end of a poker tournament when players often experience a kind of strange bond with their opponents, or also when reporters who have been “in the trenches” together for an extended period of time at last arrive at the end of a long assignment.

“It would be a good while before any of them again would discover the same irresistible combination of camaraderie, hardship, and luxury,” writes Crouse of those “boys on the bus.”

Camaraderie, hardship, and luxury — sounds almost like a slogan describing poker, doesn’t it?

Lead photo: “GM 1970s bus 1/3” (adapted), Jef Poskanzer, CC BY 2.0.


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