Ice Cube Isn’t Winning at Chess — He’s Losing at Poker
Photo: David Becker/Stringer/Getty Images

Ice Cube Isn’t Winning at Chess — He’s Losing at Poker

Mortgaging 30 years of reputation for an…

For all of the armchair grandmasters out there who think Ice Cube is playing political chess with Trump by cutting a deal on the rapper’s Contract With Black America (CWBA), the only thing I’m sure of is that most of his fans don’t actually know how to play chess.

Chess is a perfect game, but here it’s imperfectly applied. The game’s allure as a representation of complex deals and big money moves is understandable: Chess involves long-range strategies, frequently requiring players to predict their opponents’ moves. It is both infinitely graceful and stunning in its brutality. But the more you unpack the game as a metaphor for a deal like this, the more you realize that not only is Ice Cube no Bobby Fischer, he’s not playing chess at all. He’s playing poker, and poorly.

If you take him at his word, Ice Cube is attempting to do something very noble: He wants concrete political change for Black people in real time, in exchange for Black support at the polls in (checks watch) two weeks. According to him, he offered his plan to both parties, but only the Republicans took the bait — and then rebranded it as Trump’s “Platinum Plan.” Now he supposedly has them on the hook for $500 billion toward what’s basically a reparations platform with some respectability politics sprinkled on top.

And yet criticism of the contract is unnecessary because the real problem is the deal. This is where all my chess heads are about to discover a little game called poker.

In a report released in September, Citigroup researchers determined that systemic racism has cost this country $800 billion since 2000. Wait, sorry, that’s $800 billion per year. In other words, not only does this imaginary check come up short, but it’s a one-shot deal. Cube is promising votes he can’t deliver for money he’s unlikely to get for change it can’t cover. In poker, that means someone called your bluff.

You have to give Cube credit: He went all in. He cashed in 30 years of cultural relevance for a stack of chips and sat at a table with a low buy-in: a fraction of the Black male vote. That’s about three chips. And what does he do? Splash the pot with three chips, trying to make his hand look better than it is.

Cube wanting Black people to withhold their votes was an okay idea two years ago. Two weeks before an election in which unprecedented early voting may have already influenced the outcome? The stakes here aren’t even very high, and Cube is still playing to lose.

Except Cube doesn’t really have any chips either. He’s not an elected representative, he hasn’t organized a voting bloc, he’s duplicating efforts across the board, and it’s unclear if he’s brought anything to the table besides name recognition. In fact, if you read the 21-page version of the CWBA and then watch any interview in which he talks about it, you’ll quickly realize he’s as much a prop for the CWBA as Trump is for traditional conservative values. So the real question is, who else was on Cube’s side of the table actually cutting the deal? Because Cube has no political poker face.

The biggest difference between the two games is what’s missing. Namely, stakes. In chess, you play to win; in poker, you play to win money. If Trump loses, Black people have nothing. If Trump wins, we still have nothing because Trump doesn’t ever pay for anything (including his personal debts). Not to mention that any deal like this still has to be ratified through Congress — and if you want a Congress willing to do that, it still has to happen the old-fashioned way: by voting in people who subscribe to your agenda. Cube wanting Black people to withhold their votes as some kind of bargaining chip was an okay idea two years ago when we were filling slots where actual power resides; two weeks before a presidential election, it’s less so. Two weeks before an election in which unprecedented early voting may have already significantly influenced the outcome? The stakes here aren’t even very high, and Cube is still playing to lose.

The Congress we’ve had for the last 12 years refuses to pass anything that might actually benefit Black people specifically (and arguably longer, depending on the policy). Cube’s bully pulpit will never see the light of day in a Republican-owned Congress, no matter what the pathological liar in chief says. In poker, you would be able to fold and walk away without having lost much. Unfortunately, you still have to stake something to sit at the table, and the “something” here is Black well-being. In an election with perhaps the highest levels of voter suppression since the pre-civil rights era, that’s a check Cube’s ass can’t cover.

In poker, you can try to affect the outcome of a given hand, but you can’t physically change the cards on the table. At some point everyone has to show their hand and the true measure of the player is revealed, and you’re either dealing with a gleefully racist administration or you’re not. With the Trump administration, that psychological aspect of that game falls away — you know what they’re going to do because they play with their cards facing up.

And consider the administration’s hand: Trump’s idea of a campaign slogan is “Stand Back and Stand By.” He is practically launching a race war for votes. His campaign is using Ice Cube’s name like a gang truce that is never going to happen. Trump’s base won’t stand for an inch given in the interest of a deal like this, and his administration may not even have jobs in the next three months.

There are a hundred ways to Black liberation, and Black people will need at least 50 of them to gain an inch of freedom. None of the right ways involve cutting deals with people who are actively pursuing your death as a matter of course. Some people you don’t deal with. Some deals you don’t make. You got to know when to fold ’em — and sometimes that’s because the ends don’t justify the means.