Although the true origins of the first poker game will most likely remain shrouded in history, we can safely assume that the game itself is an amalgamation of rule sets and game variants from all around the world. The classical image of the poker player, at least for me, is a cowboy. A drifter looking to get rich off his own cunning, with maybe a little help from a six-shooter. Somewhere between John Wayne and Han Solo but living in Deadwood. Poker is a people game. Doyle Brunson said that a computer would never beat the finest poker players at the felt, because regardless of how quick a computer can do the necessary calculations, the human factor is missing. You have to study and get the measure of a man before formulating a plan of attack or defense. You need to watch his tells, no matter how subtle. You have to calculate risk and reward based off your assumptions, but over time these assumptions become more refined and true to real life. It’s a game of humans outwitting each other, each with their own unique plan for getting to the final table. Sometimes the people involved are poor, grinding their way out of poverty. Sometimes they are rich, looking to constantly acquire and generate revenue. And then other times they are the President of the United States. In this week’s Poker in the Past, we check out some Poker Playing Presidents.
What activities are on the list for a day in the life of the most powerful man in the world? Ratify a treaty with China, lift a trade embargo on Honduras, conference call with Balkan dignitaries and of course, poker in the Oval Office. Even among those elevated to such lofty positions, leisure time is a must-have. If laughter is the language of the soul, poker is the Olympic-weightlifting of the brain. Outwitting your opponents through a mix of strong offensive and defensive tactics, knowledge of statistics, gut instinct and clever bluffs are the calling cards of a skilled player, and it’s unsurprising that we find those who put themselves in a position where, almost daily, they must play a game of diplomatic poker on a world stage, find themselves fans of the game.
President Harry Truman, an iron-willed president who steered America through periods of great strife during the Second World War and the dark days that followed the war’s end, where the long shadow of the atomic bomb near blacked out the sun, was one such poker fan. Truman was notoriously secretive about his poker games and did not allow photography until long after he retired from his presidency. Truman played a regular game in his Kansas City haunt the 822 Club.
Despite the secrecy surrounding his regular game, Truman was the US President who identified most publicly with poker. In fact, he was such a fan of the game that he and his friends used custom poker chips embossed with the symbol of the US Presidency. In my mind, there’s only one story in which two international icons take part in a high stakes poker game aboard a moving train and that’s Spanish Train by Chris De Burgh but this takes a close second in the admittedly niche category of ‘poker on rails.’ In March 1946, as the world still licked the lacerations World War II left behind, Winston Churchill and Truman were on a cross-state train journey together. Churchill was renowned for being an excellent poker player. Truman informed all of his staff that how they performed at cards in the coming days was of vital importance and that ‘the reputation of American poker’ was at stake, further adding that he expected ‘every man to do his duty.’ Truman’s aide Gen. Harry Vaughan responded in a typically American fashion stating “If you want us to give it our best, we’ll have his underwear!” Remember, they are AmeriCANS not AmeriCAN’Ts. At this juncture, Truman and Churchill were both such iconic figureheads of their countries of origin, the game truly was an excellent opportunity for some peaceful allied competition!
So as the train rolled down the tracks, these two titans of the era went head to head. The game went on late into the night and when Churchill finally retired to his room at 2.30 that morning he had $250 less in his wallet. The physical language of poker – the hidden cards, the ace up the sleeve, the bluffing and the brave gamble – soon began to mix with reality and became the physical language of American politics.
Warren G Harding
Warren Harding, outside of the United States, is one of their lesser-known presidents. Harding is quite a striking character to look at, a strong chin and pronounced brow, deep set eyes and thin, unmoving lips gave him quite an intimidating countenance. History has not been kind to Warren, often voted the most hated US president outside of the Bush Era, despite winning the presidency with an unprecedented 60% of the vote on his promise that he would return the US to some sense of ‘normalcy.’ Warren Harding was known to invite friends to the White House twice a week in defiance of prohibition. He and his guests would gather around the drinks cabinet, drinking deep drams of bootleg whiskey and cigars. There is even a rumor that Harding gambled away some of the White House’s own fine China that had been displayed since the presidency of Benjamin Harrison in 1893! The fact that Warren was a fan of poker is well-documented but some historical sources say the loss of the fine china was not in a game of poker but in a ‘Cold Hand.’ Each player seated at the table draws a card and the person with highest card wins – no risk, no reward. The general thinking behind the President being able to master the game of poker reflects the fact that poker teaches several important ‘Presidential Qualities’ like correctly reading people and being able to bluff them accordingly and being able to plan several moves ahead.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt used poker variants as a litmus test of sorts, encouraging newly appointed officials and members of congress to join him at the felt so he could gauge their cunning and ability to make snap decisions on the fly. FDR felt that a man’s behavior at the poker table was a reflection of his true personality, free from the confines and traps of societal expectations. There are various primary sources describing what FDR was like at the felt, including one from the book ‘Working with Roosevelt’ by Samuel Rosenman, ‘The President thought he was a good poker player. That opinion, however, was not shared by all those who played with him – and some of them should know. He lost more often than he won. All of us took particular pride and joy in winning from him, and nothing pleased him more than to win from us.’
Another writer, Walter Trohan, wrote in his book ‘Political Animals’ that ‘Roosevelt was a great bluffer and a driver in command of the game, calling on his person to ante up, bet or fold up. Nothing delighted him more than a successful bluff, although he never seemed to suspect there was some hesitancy to win on the part of most of his opponents, including his staffers.’
So as you can see there, two vastly different portraits of what FDR was like as a player. As is usually the case with two extremely different stories, the real truth likely lies somewhere in between.
The most famous anecdote regarding FDR’s penchant for poker tells of his marathon games with the cabinet to relax during the war years. This was a great way for the President to distract himself from the more pressing issues of the day. FDR could hyper-focus on one thing and one thing alone; beating the guys across the table. Each year on the night that congress adjourned, a large poker game was held. The game would stretch on until the speaker called up to say congress was adjourned. This particular year, the speaker called on the telephone at a time when Roosevelt was playing disastrously. Roosevelt took the phone and started talking as if someone else was on the line; “Not right now sorry, we’re in the middle of a big poker game.” The other players, unaware of any Machiavellian chicanery, played a few more hands. It was around midnight, with FDR having pulled ahead, that he called an aide over to bring the phone. He spoke into the phone, “Oh, Mr. Speaker, you’re adjourning. How fine!” before turning to his friends, “Well, boys, I guess I win!”
Richard Nixon is an altogether strange character. At one point in his life, he was viewed as a studious and charming man full of political promise, perhaps ambitious and clever enough to run for congress someday. This is in stark contrast to the almost-cartoonish supervillain we see depicted in modern character studies. But before all of this, before Watergate, before the infamous “I’m not a crook” address, before even the dream of becoming president, Nixon was in the Navy during the Second World War discovering poker for the first time.
After discovering the game, Nixon spent a few weeks sitting table-side, studying how people played and how their personalities changed while in the heat of the game. Nixon reached the conclusion that with the right strategy, the game could be solved and beaten, so he turned to fellow naval officer James Stewart for some expert advice. Stewart set Nixon on the right path with some sound advice; always play tightly, only bluff a sure thing and fold when you’re beat.
Controversially, Nixon was listed as a lifelong Quaker, a Catholic denomination that banned gambling in every form. Nixon was only ever as religious as the job required, and was likely not the type to silently reflect in the rectory. In fact, it’s more likely that you would find Nixon in a darkened room watching the latest motion pictures. Of all the presidents, Nixon watched the most movies – hundreds of classic films as well as the box office monsters of the era.
It’s very easy to get swept up into the Hollywoodification of wartime. Suit up for a daring rescue first thing in the morning, down three spitfires by lunch and then straight to Berlin for teatime but this is not so. Long days, even weeks are spent sitting on aircraft carriers out in the middle of the roaring ocean, or sitting in a tent somewhere in the Philippines waiting for orders from Uncle Sam. Besides letter writing and competitive athletic endeavors, what else was left for these idle soldiers but gambling. A quote from the man himself sums up the monotony of daily life during wartime, “The pressure of wartime, and even the more oppressive monotony, made it an irresistible diversion. I found playing poker instructive as well as entertaining and profitable.”
Nixon, for all of his faults, was an extremely clever and adaptable man. Poker came to him as naturally as everything else seemed to. He was a conservative player, but knew when he smelled weakness and was not afraid to bully someone at the table if they let him. He also had a fantastic memory and a mathematical mind.
One of Nixon’s high school teachers remarked, “he was one of those rare individuals. He never had to work for knowledge at all. He was told something and he never forgot.”
Nixon was making some nice pocket money from playing poker day-in-day-out, enough to be sending home a healthy care package once a week. Imagine though, all these officers and admiralty bored out of their tree, cash and time rich. For a man of such considerable intelligence, it must have been like shooting fish in a barrel, with a rocket launcher.
Nixon’s overall poker game wasn’t just about retiring for the night with every chip on the table spilling out of every pocket and sock that could be used as a pocket. No, he played a smart game. He never came first but he also never lost. Just a little bit ahead, constantly chipping away and adding to his fortune penny by penny and dime by dime. Despite his clear gift and fondness for the game, Nixon always worried when his wife would start asking questions about the amount of money he was sending home. On one occasion, he even went so far as to persuade one of his Navy buddies to ring his wife before he spoke to her, just to break the ice and make sure he wasn’t in too much trouble.
What is poker but politics with cards. Nixon learned many of the skills that served him in office – whether they served him well or not is another question – from his time playing poker. Invaluable lessons like how to get the measure of a man from just minor observations, knowing when to strike and when to stay defensive and of course, when to bluff. Bluffing is one of the most important aspects of the game. Using bluffing and bluffing alone, the weakest player at the table can conquer the strongest player holding the best hand.
Nixon used $5,000 of his poker winnings for his first (and successful) congressional run in 1946.
Frank Gannon, a journalist who famously conducted hours of candid interviews with President Nixon published the following excerpt from one of their conversations:
“Do you subscribe to the theory that a great President must be a great poker player?”
“It helps,” Nixon said, “The Russians of course, are chess players. I never understood chess, it’s much more complicated, much more complex. But many of the things you do in poker are very useful in politics, and are very useful in foreign affairs. One of them problems you see in foreign affairs, particularly, especially dealing with great leaders abroad – particularly those who are adversaries – is the almost insatiable tendency of American politicians to put everything on the table, their inability to know when to bluff, when to call, and, above everything else, to be unpredictable.”
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