Be unpredictable. Start with a paradox: poker is a contest of reason, but a perfectly rational opponent is relatively easy to exploit. Card sharks vary their play to keep opponents guessing. For obvious reasons, Trump presents a similar problem for his political rivals. On the surface, Trump’s campaign seems guided more by emotion than reason, though clearly there’s a method to the madness. His erratic behavior makes it difficult for opponents to formulate a plan of attack.
Be aggressive. There are two ways to win a pot in poker: hold the best hand at showdown, or force your opponent to fold. You can’t control the cards you’re dealt, so poker wizards apply relentless pressure on their opponents. Trump is the most aggressive candidate in the field, a schoolyard bully who drops his gloves at the slightest perceived threat and never lets the matter drop. He likes to invoke the ghosts of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and other vanquished foes to remind rivals what happened to the last guys who took him. As a result, most of his opponents have decided that it’s safer to fold than to risk it all—and the timid approach left Trump in the catbird seat.
Play the man, not the cards. This axiom is a corollary to the principle of aggression. You don’t need a strong hand to take a big pot; you just have to sense weakness in your opponent and concoct a strategy to exploit it. Trump is a master of finding an opponent’s soft spot and attacking it relentlessly. Did anyone else think the “low energy” tag would dog Jeb Bush for months? Or that raising the question of Ted Cruz’s citizenship would trigger Cruz’s late struggles? It doesn’t matter that Trump has a weak hand on the citizenship issue; it still knocked Cruz off balance.