Trump and Othello


You see the title “Trump and Othello” and you immediately think, Ah yes, an analogy to the self-serving antagonist Iago, from Shakespeare’s “Othello,” who makes speeches appealing to racism and sexism as scapegoats for his insecurities. Iago, who surrounds himself with dupes who praise him for being “profane” because he “speaks his mind.”

Othello and Iago
Not to put too fine a point on it: Obama (l) and Trump (r)
Image: ItsLassieTime (PD-US)

And you’re thinking, Yes, Iago, who is obsessed with, and plots the downfall of Othello, the lofty, aloof, dark-skinned protagonist who is suspected of being a closet Muslim born in Africa. That’s obviously where Ted is going with this.

Well, congratulations: You’re an English major. But that’s not where I’m going with this.

Othello 1988

My obsession with Othello

A few months back I bought an Othello board game (Reversi, technically). To learn the game I found a couple of free online versions (here and here) and started playing—a lot.

I got pretty good too. I developed a few reliable strategies, and I could win most of the time without trying too hard. I thought I was hot shit (as they say) and wanted more validation.

So I bought an Othello app for my tablet so I could play even when I’m offline. I bought a version that supposedly uses an Artificial Intelligence (AI) engine.

For my first game against this app, I was feeling cocky. I set it at the most difficult level: 10.

And I won.

In subsequent games, the moves the AI made seemed freakishly smart. My strategies and instincts failed me.

I could not win again at this level. There would be games where I had a substantial numeric advantage which would be suddenly and dramatically overturned in the final two or three moves. There would be times when the game seemed to bait me to seize my favorite strategic squares—bait I would always take—only to learn that the game had set me up to be steamrolled.

But I persisted in playing by my instincts—even after it became clear that what I needed at this level was a change in strategy, and probably better smarts.

Now maybe you see where I’m going with this:

I play Othello the way Trump would play Othello

Rather: I play Othello the way Trump plays the presidency; instinctively, poorly, impulsively. I play while I’m distracted by the news, failing to think deeply about the consequences of each move, with my smartphone in my hand, and often on the toilet.

I ascended to level-10 Artificial-Intelligence Othello the same way Trump ascended to the presidency; with hubris, luck, and bolstered by dozens of non-American computer coders.

Once I started losing so relentlessly, I missed winning. I missed believing that I was super smart; a natural.

I’m sure Trump misses getting away with garden-variety rich-man crime: bank fraud, insurance fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, buying politicians, etc.

I imagine that after being on the buying side of influence peddling for so long (“When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do“), he thought he could make the jump to the selling side of pay-to-play politics. And he thought that he’d be great at it.

A minute to learn, but a lifetime to master™️

But Trump sucks at it. He sucks at concealing it, I should say.

Playing any strategy game against a computer at the highest level is subjecting yourself to the full power of the game’s algorithm.

Likewise: Playing at any level less than the most difficult is asking the game’s algorithm to make stupid mistakes in your favor—on purpose (a.k.a. rigging the game). The lower the level, the more flawed you are asking the game to play.

I experimented with different levels until I found a rigged game that I liked (level 8). At this level I still lose more often than I win, but at least I have a chance of winning without straining my brain much.

Reversi, just before I won.
On the brink of sweet, sweet victory. (Pay no attention to the CPU’s handicap.)

Trump wants to play President at a level less than 10. He doesn’t want to contend with the full power of the algorithm: oversight, checks on Executive power, and the spotlight of a free press. He doesn’t want investigations into the aforementioned garden-variety rich-man crime that escaped scrutiny back when he was merely a garden-variety rich man.

He can’t just change the game settings (the way I did), instead he tries to change the game in his favor by obstructing justice, lying incessantly, and rage tweeting about “fake news,” “losers,” conspiracies against him, and obsessing still, after all this time, about Othello, er, Obama.

Image Credit: ItsLassieTime (PD-US)


  1. Paul Hildebrand Reply
    March 4, 2019 at 5:47 am

    Well done brother!

  2. Scot Campbell Reply
    March 4, 2019 at 9:03 pm

    Ah. I have an Othello board from the 80’s. I got reasonably good at it back then. Later, in university, I saw one of my professors playing a computer version. This would likely have been about 1991, so not likely an on-line game. He said he had never won at the expert level. Out of curiosity, I tried it at the expert level and won.

    And not too long ago, a friend of mine was talking about the game, and I mentioned I had it, so he challenged me. It was close, but by luck I managed to pull off a win.

    In each case, after winning once, I walked away. Both my friend and my professor seemed quite impressed that I had won. If I had continued to play either time, eventually I would surely have lost. You learn a lot by losing, but I prefer not to do so with an audience. This way I could “retire”, so to speak, undefeated.

    Imagine how nice it would have been if Trump did the same. If he had won the presidency, then the next day decided to call a new election and retire from politics. The US would be better off (granted, that’s just my opinion), and he could retire a winner!

    Ah, the things that might have been.

  3. Steve Reply
    March 4, 2019 at 9:22 pm

    Interesting take. There’s a long justify of presidents conceding in their first two years that is much harder than they thought. I recall JKF making a comment about the difficulty of keeping fiscal policy separate from monetary policy. Not sure Trump has said as much.

    Funny thing is not many of us can even begin to identify with the hubris required to consider running in the first place. Trump’s thin skin, which you allude to, is a rare trait (or perhaps not rare but revealed by Twitter could with low discipline).

    Not to get all what-about on you, but congress has been happily yielding their power to the executive for decades, and Obama attacked the press in different, I think more egregious, ways.

  4. Mark Reply
    March 4, 2019 at 11:46 pm

    Ted, congratulations on a well thought out piece.

    • Ted Reply
      March 11, 2019 at 8:55 pm

      Don’t sound so surprised! 🙂

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