Carl Icahn’s baccarat system may explain a lot about how Trump thinks

Carl Icahn
Carl Icahn

Trump pal and Bill Ackman foe, Carl Icahn has a system. And according to a former Atlantic City table games dealer there’s a lesson to be learned from from it that goes beyond gambling.

Icahn — who recently resigned from his position as special advisor on regulation to President Donald Trump ahead of a New Yorker article detailing his potentially illegal conflicts of interest — once sat across the table from casino card dealer and writer J.C. Hallman.

In a recent essay in the Baffler, Hallman explains that Icahn played baccarat using a technique that explains a lot about how he and his billionaire compadres think.

“You probably know the basic milieu from older James Bond movies featuring the pomp and drama of chemin de fer, a close cousin of baccarat,” Hallman writes. “The modern game has all the same aristocratic snootinalia, and what one sees when large groups of people play together is a kind of superstitious little-train-that-could effort to will long winning streaks into being. Truth to tell, Icahn didn’t go in for any of that. He preferred speed over drama, played dispassionately, and wore a pair of ratty shorts and t-shirt for the occasion.”

Okay, nothing too surprising there. These guys are famous for shrugging at dress codes and Trump’s White House isn’t exactly known for its snappy dressers. Sorry, Rodger Stone. 

But what is interesting is how Icahn bet. Hallman says he used a strategy called the “martingale system.” Here’s how it works.

“Start with a small wager: $5. If you lose, double your bet. If you lose $10, double that to $20. Etc. When you win, at any point in the sequence, you will have won $5,” Hallman writes. “Obviously, if you win the first hand, you have won $5. Keep your bet the same. But every time you lose, double it. And every time you win, return to $5.”

Icahn is probably unfamiliar with an Abe Lincoln, so he started with bets of $1,000.

“He played with a kind of insouciance, and he wore a malign little grin as though the whole exercise was about seeing whether this martingale thing really worked,” Hallam tells the Baffler. “That’s strange, because he could have just done the math. Several times he lost a number of hands in a row, and at least once he ran a cold streak up to the table maximum of $150,000. I don’t recall whether he won, but if he’d lost it all—which is what you lose when you lose with the martingale—I think I would remember it.”

The point is that Hallman argues that the martingale strategy bares a striking resemblance to how President Trump and his coterie play politics:

“Our former casino proprietor of a president has transformed himself into a classic martingale bettor: he is unable to turn his head from his path, and he is naïve in the extreme. He’s doubling his wager after every political loss, and we’re all watching his stack of chips diminish exponentially. Carl Icahn was once willing to sit and play with Trump, but now he’s gone—and his realization was perhaps two-fold: a string of losses was inevitable, and a good gambler knows when to cut and run.”

Le jeu est fait.

[Baffler]