A recent Fox News poll found that voters think Vladimir Putin would beat President Barack Obama at a game of chess. So, we wondered, if chess represents strategic thinking and the ability to anticipate your opponent's moves, what could other classic games tell us about how skirmishes between the two leaders will play out? We took the idea to its logical conclusion (yes, this is the logical conclusion -- quiet) and asked Americans to weigh in on a new HuffPost/YouGov poll.
Represents: Patience, brains, ability to plan multiple steps ahead.
Advantage: Putin calls checkmate, 49 percent to 27 percent in the HuffPost/YouGov poll -- nearly identical to the 49 percent to 31 percent margin found by Fox News. Pundits really, really, really, really like comparing U.S.-Russian relations to chess. Its reputation as the ultimate test of strategic thinking -- and its relative simplicity compared with actual foreign relations -- makes it perfect for tortured analogies. For instance, from The Boston Globe : "Russia has produced innumerable chess grandmasters, and its president for life, Vladimir Putin, is no exception. Picture him brooding silently over the geopolitical chessboard as he planned his latest move -- the weekend's swift, stunning, and unprovoked invasion of Crimea. His boldness took America and Europe by surprise and gave Putin a decided advantage at the match's start. How can President Obama and his European allies counter Putin's opening gambit?" That's right. Just picture the silent brooding. It's enough to make an economic sanction crumble.
Represents: Actual world domination, obviously.
Advantage: By a 47 percent to 22 percent margin, Americans think Putin would come out on top. Like chess, Risk is a strategic game, but we think there's something else going on here: Only one contestant seems to actually want to play this game. Putin has clearly demonstrated a desire to expand the territory controlled by Russia, having snatched Crimea and made noise about "defending" Russian speakers in other neighboring countries. Obama, on the other hand, has been reluctant to take any new international military action, has withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq, and is in the process of making a final withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On the other hand, this could be all part of Obama's long-term strategy. By withdrawing troops from overseas and concentrating them at home, Obama increases his ability to eventually nab Canada and Mexico, consolidating power in North America. As we all know, controlling continents is key in Risk. Bold move, Obama.
Represents: Strategy, luck, ability to bluff/fool your opponent
Advantage: Putin gets the edge, 48 percent to 25 percent. We know he's capable of keeping a poker face when dealing with world leaders -- remember when former President George W. Bush looked in his eyes and got "a sense of his soul"?
Chess champion Garry Kasparov also thinks Putin would be a natural poker player. “He’s very good at raising the stakes all the time,” Kasparov said at a news conference, according to The Miami Herald. “I believe he has a very weak hand, but he’s very good at bluffing.”
Then again, Obama is no stranger to poker. As a member of the Illinois Senate, Obama was known to organize "legendary" poker games, according to poker writer James McManus. McManus describes the future president as a "cautious player." Obama, of course, is also known for a cautious foreign policy. But like some cautious poker players, Obama could just be laying in wait until everyone else busts out. Then he will strike. Or slowly bleed chips until he goes out with a whimper. We're not really sure.
Represents: Physical prowess, political flexibility, tolerance for public awkwardness.
Advantage: Americans give this one to Obama, 48 percent to 22 percent -- by far his strongest showing in our poll. Both presidents have cultivated sporty images: Obama, of course, enjoys regular games of basketball and golf, while Putin is fond of horseback riding, fishing, swimming, rescuing baby animals and basically anything that gives him a chance to take his shirt off. But in Twister, the ultimate measurement of physical, uh, something, Obama clearly comes out the winner.
Obama's advantage comes largely from his superior height. At 6-foot-1, towering over the 5-foot-7 Putin, Obama could easily reach dots that would be impossible for the Russian president. Putin might also be hampered by a stubborn insistence on using only the red dots, or by insisting on playing shirtless and on horseback.
And, well, Obama did promise Putin he'd have more "flexibility" after being reelected.
Represents: Ability to take advantage of scarce resources, willingness to use economic leverage, CAPITALISM.
Advantage: Even draw -- Obama 37 percent, Putin 35 percent. One might think that an American would receive an automatic advantage over a Russian in a game representing capitalism at its finest. On the other hand, many Americans believe Obama is a dirty socialist anyway. While Democrats give Obama the advantage, 53 percent to 16 percent, Republicans say Putin would come out on top, 53 percent to 29 percent.
Americans should, perhaps, keep in mind that hotel ownership is a major advantage in Monopoly, and that Russia botched its recent moment to show the world how great it is at that: Hotels at Sochi were notoriously awful.
And in a recent exchange of sanctions aimed at high-level officials in each government, the U.S. looked more like it held Park Place over Russia's Baltic Avenue. On the other hand, Americans don't think economic leverage will do much for Obama in a battle of wills over the fate of Russia's neighbors. Americans tend to favor economic sanctions against Russia, but they also believe they won't do a lot of good.
Hungry Hungry Hippos
Represents: Hunger to win, naked aggression, possession of one's marbles.
Advantage: Obama wins, by a narrow 34 to 28 margin. Thirty-eight percent of Americans were too stunned to respond, apparently.
To be honest, we're not sure why Americans give Obama the advantage here. Putin has already gobbled up one marble. AND THAT MARBLE IS CRIMEA. Get it? See, Putin is like a hungry hippo, and Crimea is like one of the marbles in the game, so... You see where we're going with this?
On the other hand, Hungry Hungry Hippos is a game designed especially for children -- soft, weak, American children. In Soviet Russia, hippo eats you, or something.
Represents: Jumping ability? Kingmaking? We're not really sure.
Advantage: Even match, 36 percent to 36 percent.
"Putin is playing chess while the Americans are playing checkers," a guy on Fox News once said. If so, Americans give Obama even odds on winning, showing a magnanimous ability to at least grant Obama credit for very simple strategic thinking.
To recap, that's two wins for Obama, three for Putin, and two ties, reflecting a profound geopolitical stalemate between the U.S. and Russia. Perhaps Obama and Putin will need to play more games to figure out this Ukraine situation. Yahtzee? Go Fish? Words with Friends? Just don't call it Sudden Death.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted March 27-30 among 1,000 U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.
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