In 2007, while on the campaign trail, a journalist from the Associated Press asked Barack Obama if he had any hidden talents. “I am a pretty good poker player,” he responded with a smile. The reply was sincere. As a young senator of Illinois, the future American president regularly played stud and draw poker with elected officials, regardless of whether they were Republican or Democrat. Only a few hundred dollars were exchanged during these low-stakes games. However, after he was elected President, the little ritual ended and Barack Obama never again spoke publicly about his taste for poker.
President Obama was not the first resident of the White House to have a passion for poker. Indeed, was the last in a long line of poker-loving Presidents. Inspired by the book Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker by James McManus, the New York Times discussed Presidents and poker, including several of Obama's predecessors such as Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Harry Truman. Most of them, such as Lyndon Johnson or the Roosevelts, played poker purely recreationally. Some took the game more seriously and took greater risks, as was the case for Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower. And in a few instances, poker has had an influence, both direct or indirect, on their political careers and the fate of the United States.
Since 1933 at the start of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first term, the number of U.S. Presidents who declared poker as a hobby could be counted on one hand. The instigator of the New Deal regularly played Stud for small sums, and FDR's relatives acknowledged he was a decent player. Roosevelt, however, saw poker mainly as an effective way to relieve the stress that was inherent to the nature of his work.
Anecdotes about Roosevelt's particular hobby are not lacking. Some are dubious, such as the sound of chips that could be heard in the background of some of his greatest radio speeches. Others, however, are quite serious, as shown by a poker game that he organized every year for the night of Congress' last session. The designation of the night's winner was somewhat peculiar: one had to possess a maximum of chips at the time of adjournment of the session, which was a rule that Roosevelt occasionally took advantage of. Legend has it that Roosevelt received a phone call informing him about the end of the session, but contrary to custom, he concealed the information from his opponents in order to extend the evening since was low on chips. Only a few hours later, when the tables had turned and FDR built up his stack, he pretended to have just received the phone call, securing a victory without his opponents' knowledge. They inevitably discovered his trickery the next day, but it was too late.
In 1944 with America still in the middle of World War II, FDR was elected for a fourth time despite a declining state of health. None of his predecessors were ever elected more than two terms, and a current law prohibits Presidents from serving more than two terms. FDR did not see out his fourth term. A couple months after his inauguration, in the early afternoon of March 29, 1945, the President suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage that he did not recover from.
Vice President Harry Truman had been in office for only 82 days when FDR passed away. On March 29, he left the Senate and was preparing to join the Speaker of the House and other colleagues for drinks and poker. The festivities were ultimately postponed after an urgent message told him to go to the White House. Once there, Mrs. Roosevelt informed him of the death of her husband. “Terrible pleonasm!” Truman said to himself before realizing it was an inopportune moment to say that in the presence of the First Lady.
“Poker exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have
made our country so great.” -Walter Matthau (1920-2000)
Shortly after, the former senator from Missouri was sworn in and became the new poker enthusiast of the White House. Some historians suggested Truman learned the basics of poker during his service in World War I, while playing with fellow soldiers. This experience clearly marked him because Truman never stopped playing and even continued his weekly game during his tenure as President. Similarly to Roosevelt, the anecdotes are not lacking. Truman once played aboard the U.S.S. Augusta towards the end of World War II, while in the presence of journalists. This poker game took place at the beginning of August 1945, in the days preceding the launches of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some commentators saw the game as a display of carelessness at the dawn of one of the most tragic days in modern history. Others, such as New York Times journalist David Spanier, vigorously refuted this hypothesis by likening these games to a means of relieving pressure, rather than “proof of Truman's lightness in the face of this terrible event.”
This same argument of the anti-stress valve was also retained by the biographers of another great poker and gaming enthusiast: Winston Churchill. A great admirer of FDR, with whom he had maintained a regular correspondence for several years, the Bulldog was considerably depressed at the death of his alter ego in 1945, and also very worried about its consequences for the end of WWII and overall U.S.-Great Britain relations. Churchill was quickly reassured by the good intentions displayed by Truman, who was obviously committed to continuing his predecessor's work. The two men came to know each other and, over the next few months, they created close enough ties to the point of occasionally meeting around a poker table. In March 1946, Sir Winston went to Missouri to deliver an address to a crowd of 40,000 people. It was one of Churchill's most famous post-war speeches and he shared the same train as Truman on the journey from Washington to Missouri. And what do the two most powerful leaders of their time do to overcome boredom during the journey? They played poker!
As whimsical at the table as he was in real life, Harry Truman was fond of “poker shots.” Truman utilized a style that we would describe today as “loose aggressive,” which was a profile perfectly suited to his status as a recreational player. He favored entertainment and the social aspect of the game rather than the financial gains. Another illustration of his sincere passion was that he carefully preserved a collection of personalized poker chips that bore the Presidential seal. Better still, at the front of his desk was a plaque engraved with the phrase “The Buck Stops Here”, which had been offered to him by a prison warden who was himself a poker lover. Truman had helped to popularize the phrase “Pass the buck!” by slipping it into his speeches — similar to Obama's famous “Yes we can!” of 2008. The catch phrase has poker origins. During that time, a buck knife was often used as a substitute for a dealer button. After each hand, the previous dealer had to pass the knife (“pass the buck”) to his neighbor.
In 1953, Harry Truman stepped aside to a former apprentice-turned-enemy: Dwight Eisenhower, who was originally expected to run as a Democrat in 1951, but ultimately decided to represent the Republican party. Despite differences of opinion with his predecessor on important issues such as the Korean War and the rise of communism, the former designer of Operation Overlord continued to strengthen the role of poker in the White House. Familiar with the game from an early age, Ike regularly made use of the experience that he gained during his military career. Over time, Ike became a connoisseur of technical subtleties and advanced concepts. During World War II, Eisenhower faced another famous high-ranking officer at the poker table: General Patton.
After two terms in the White House, Ike's Vice President became the Republican nominee in 1960. After a lackluster campaign, Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy by a 120,000 vote margin, or roughly 0.2% of the popular vote. Nixon's run for the White House would be put on hold for eight years. After LBJ stepped aside while the country was torn apart by the Vietnam War, Nixon won a landslide and finally took the White House in 1968. Nixon brilliantly orchestrated the conditions of his return to the foreground. Without underestimating the importance of some fortuitous twists and turns (the withdrawal of the race of President Johnson, following a disastrous primary in New Hampshire, and especially the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, the Democratic front runner), the end result proved him right. On January 20, 1969, the most passionate poker player among the US Presidents was sworn in.
Nixon held an unrivaled passion for poker. Which played an important role in his career, both directly and indirectly. If he had not played poker during his military career, the Quaker Californian probably would have never played the game. And had he not developed poker skills, his approach to certain events or power struggle would probably have been different. Nixon himself admitted as much in 1983, during his famous series of interviews with the journalist Frank Gannon.
The story begins with Pearl Harbor, or more exactly eight months after the surprise attack by the Japanese. A graduate of Duke University, Nixon joined the Navy as Lieutenant-Commander. Serving on a supply ship in the Pacific Ocean, just off the Solomon Islands. To pass the time, Nixon played poker with his fellow sailors. Years later, he told reporters that “the stress of war and the oppressive monotony of my daily life made poker an irresistible entertainment, and I found it as instructive as it was entertaining and profitable.”
It was his friend, officer James Stewart, who first told him about 5-Card Stud. “He asked me: do you think there is a way to win every time? I answered with a piece of advice, telling him that if he did not think he had the best hand, it was best not to play it at all, and then I added that if he did that, he would probably fold three or four out of five hands and would be bored, and that I did not have the patience to do that.” But unlike Stewart, Nixon was a studious and persevering young man. “He was one of those people who never had to work hard to learn,” one of his former teachers later said, adding that “we told him something and he never forgot.” Immediately intrigued by the devilish aspect of the game, Nixon's zealously followed Stewart's every instruction: “To my great surprise, he did everything I told him, and he won much more than he himself could have ever imagined.”
A disciplined player, Nixon created a tight and “small ball” style which awed his companions. And when the cards themselves were less favorable, he showed a hint of opportunism and took advantage of the alcohol consumption of his associates. Night after night, he ended games with small profits. Sometimes $30, sometimes $60. It was never a huge win, but Nixon almost always booked a small gain. According to old friend Lester Wroble, “Dick never lost, and without being always the winner, he often ended up among the winners A few tens of dollars did not look like much, but he was winning that much day after day.” It must be said that unlike others at the table, he was motivated more from profit than pleasure. “He ended up sending a good bit of money to California,” said Stewart. “I do not know exactly how much, but something like $6,000 or $ 7,000”. Other sources point to gains of $3,000 to $10,000 over a two-year period in the Navy. These sums can seem relatively insignificant, but for the time they were substantial. With inflation, Nixon's winnings today would total anywhere from $40,000 to $143,000.
But what was the real level of play of the future president? Several documents compiled by the Nixon Foundation give a beginning of an answer to this question, even if the opinions diverge. Some say that he was brilliant, others consider the praise greatly exaggerated. One of Nixon's friends at the time, Lieutenant James Udall, belonged to the former category: “(Nixon) was a good poker player, maybe the best we had seen at the time. He played cautiously but did not hesitate to take some risks when it was necessary; I remember seeing him bluffing another officer with a pair of twos for $ 1,500.”
An opinion that was later countered by Tip O'Neill, one of his opponents during games in the 1950s: “He saw himself as an excellent player, but he spoke too much and did not always play based on the cards he had. Above all, he knew how to use his higher rank (Editor's note: he was then vice-president) to his advantage at the table.”
However, Nixon was focused on ritual poker games during the war. In April 1944, Charles Lindbergh visited troops to boost the morale of the troops, but his mind was elsewhere. His thoughts did not stray, like those of his friends, to the beautiful nurse who accompanied America's most-famous pilot: “Nobody paid attention to him. We must say that we had not seen a woman for an eternity.” Instead of Lindbergh or the nurses, Nixon was focused on that evening's game. Some handpicked officers were offered to dine with Lindbergh, but Nixon politely declined the invitation: “It may seem incredible after the fact to refuse an opportunity to meet Lindbergh because of a card game. But our games were much more than a hobby, and in the long run we took them very seriously.”
After the war, Nixon played less often but still kept poker as a passion. What set him apart from other Presidents and their relationships with poker, was that Nixon used his poker winnings to finance his political career. “Poker gave Nixon the financial means to launch his career,” confirmed his biographer Stephen Ambrose. In fact, his first election campaign in California was largely funded by profits from gambling. And the investment payed off. In 1946, Nixon defeated Democrat Jerry Voorhis to win a seat in Congress. That was the first step in a long journey to the White House. At the time, Nixon also told anyone who was willing to listen that it was “essential to build the image of a winner” and that, for this purpose, he had to “beat someone.” The young wolf was already fiercely devoted to succeeding in the ultimate political competition.
Officially, Nixon did not play poker while President. Unofficially, his passion continued and occasionally gave rise to games with members of Congress. Most importantly, he regularly used his player experience in dealing with other leaders. “Poker gave him some lessons which, as a result, have proved invaluable and sometimes decisive in his career,” said his biographer. “He learned to take the measure of his opponents, to choose the right moment to hit, to simulate weaknesses in order to generate the right reaction, to throw in the towel at the right time.”
This analysis was shared by James McManus, who confirmed that his past as a player had “sometimes had a role in the political or diplomatic history” of the country.
Regardless, Nixon himself did not hide from poker's role in his view of politics. In some interviews, he explored the parallelism between poker and politics even further: “Poker helps. 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 the 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. Unpredictably is the greatest asset or weapon that a leader could have of a major country. Unless he's unpredictable, he's going to find, he loses a great deal of his power.”
These Frank Underwood-worthy sayings echo another Nixon phrase, seven years before he came to power. When the United States and the Soviets were vehemently opposed in one of their most disturbing diplomatic conflicts, the so-called “Cuban Missile Crisis,” Nixon expressed a deep admiration for the charismatic leader of the Soviets: “There is no doubt, Khrushchev would have made a fantastic poker player.” Savvy moviegoers are sure to draw a parallel between this admission and the film Doctor Strangelove, whose director, Stanley Kubrick, was partially inspired by poker and game theory.
But in front of the great leaders of the world, how exactly did Nixon express his experience as a poker player? By his own admission, during negotiations with Russian and Chinese leaders, the President put his poker skills to the test. He regulated his breathing and adopted a real poker face. “When a man has gone through a crisis, even minor, he learns not to worry when his muscles stiffen, when his breathing accelerates, when his stomach knots ... He identifies these symptoms as natural signs of his body's preparation for battle.” Nixon connected this idea with a past experience: “For example, I learned in poker that those who hold good cards generally speak less and less audibly, while those who bluff speak more and louder.”
Beyond these little tricks, Richard Nixon was known to be a fine negotiator. He usually approached his diplomatic discussions by studying his opponents. But when he finally began truly negotiating, the Californian often took complete control of the discussion; like some players who want to win all the pots, he refused to let any negotiation slip from his grasp. Some see his permanent thirst for victory was what led to his demise in 1974 during the Watergate scandal. History will forever see Nixon as someone who was knocked out of office by the Watergate, instead of viewing him as the Phil Ivey of the Oval Office.
This article originally appeared in French on Club Poker original site.