In the 2016 election, politics and policy have taken a back seat to emotion. In this way, it's like the highest level of poker: You play the mood of the table and the temperament of your opponent as much as you play the cards.

So, we asked a poker champion to watch the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump at Hofstra University and grade it for us. Phil Hellmuth is one of the most accomplished poker players of all time. He has won 14 World Series of Poker bracelets and countless other high-stakes tournaments. And he has followed the U.S. election closely, even writing about it for TheStreet.

Here's how the candidates did:

Hillary Clinton: A

"Hillary looked very presidential," Hellmuth told me in a phone interview right after the debate ended. "I think she did a great job -- attacking was smart for her. I think she highlighted Trump's lack of experience and the temperament stuff was effective. She did a really good job of attacking those two things."

At one point in the debate, sensing Trump chiding her for preparing, Clinton delivered one of the most memorable lines of the night: "I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And, yes, I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I've prepared to be president, and I think that's a good thing."

Trump later claimed that he had a better temperament than Clinton for the job of president. Her reaction turned the attack on him:

For Hellmuth, the biggest surprise of the debate was how much and how well Clinton attacked Trump.

"She was hardcore after him," he said. "She did not miss an attack on him. I was kind of surprised by that."

Perhaps most importantly for her, she made the case for a President Clinton.

"I think she did a pretty good job of letting us know that she could be a really good president," Hellmuth said.

TST Recommends

Donald Trump: A

Despite election prediction markets and several other measures giving Clinton the debate win, Hellmuth thought Trump did equally well -- both in his performance and in the apparent result.

"Trump won in the sense in that he looked presidential and he didn't have to," Hellmuth said, adding, "and he didn't blow himself out of the water and he could have."

Before the debate, there was some speculation that Trump could lose control of his message and say something polarizing. He didn't do that.

He also, "played the outsider card really well," according to Hellmuth. "He kept highlighting the fact that we made a lot of deals that cost us a lot of money. People are sensitive to money issues. It's like their cousin who screwed them in a deal or their friend or the cable company."

But Trump could have done more to win the debate outright.

"I was surprised that he didn't use his best move that got him there and that's calling her 'Crooked Hillary,'" he said. According to Hellmuth, it was this kind of "playground tactic" that got him to where he is, branding Republican rival Marco Rubio "little Marco" and Ted Cruz "Lyen' Ted."


In a technical sense, you can't really "win" a presidential debate. Whether Trump or Clinton prevails in November, we may look back on this debate as a turning point, or one of its moments as important. But there is no winner of this one event, just what happens on Election Day.

We'll check back with Hellmuth in a few weeks, when the next debate rolls around, to see what the candidates should do and how well they did it.

What will happen? Hellmuth's guess: "I believe that Trump is going to attack her much more heavily in the next debate."