Happy Presidents Day
Politics and gambling, poker especially, have a lot in common. Before making a decision, you need to think carefully and choose: take a risk or bluff. This post includes Peculiar Tales of Presidents Playing Poker. For many American presidents, poker was their time of respite from the rigors of the Presidency. So first, let’s look at the names that come up the most.
I cannot tell a lie – the game wasn’t necessarily poker, but America’s first president did enjoy gambling and cards. George Washington, the first president of the United States, was a fan of gambling and card games.
The Father of our Country also enjoyed cockfighting, horse racing, and bingo gambling.
According to Total Poker, by David Spanier, his game of choice was a game called “post and pair,” a three-card bluffing game that had some affinities with poker, closer to 17th-century games such as “Commerce” and “Bragg.” He also enjoyed whist.
Many suggest that gambling skills helped him plan the War of Independence operations. He meticulously recorded his chancing exploits, noting the location, date, and amount of money spent. However, Washington’s success was mixed, gaining as often as losing.
He took courageous but calculated risks and was perhaps the first TAG (tight-aggressive) player to play the game. After all, only that breed of a gambler at the time could hope to remain a gentleman.
In the 1800s, poker games were widespread on riverboats. At 22, Abraham Lincoln was introduced to the familiar floating poker games when hired to sail a flatboat on the Mississippi River. His first acquaintance with poker took place there and continued for a lifetime.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), rebel and federal soldiers played poker during large stretches of downtime. Years later, as our 16th president, Lincoln referred to poker when addressing a question of diplomacy during the Civil War. He preferred to play for the lowest stakes – “penny-ante” games. Lincoln had his own “ritual” – every bet he began with a 1-cent coin. After his death, some industries released cards with his image.
Abraham Lincoln started to love gambling in his childhood when he was a referee in cockfighting.
Ulysses S. Grant
Previously, we noted that politics and gambling had common skills for success. For example, Roosevelt and Eisenhower were influential 20th-century presidents known to be excellent poker players, which supports that theory. However, with Ulysses S. Grant, the correlation went in the other direction.
Following Lincoln, and after leading the Union to victory in the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant became our 18th president and enjoyed playing poker while in office. But, Grant kept his passion for poker private, knowing that the game’s reputation as a backroom cheating fest could render it a political minus.
Grant was probably as bad at poker as investing and being president. Supposedly, Grant lost a lot of money being terrible at poker!
One of the more exciting Tales of Presidents Playing Poker concerns our 37th commander-in-chief. Despite being raised a Quaker, Richard Nixon took up poker as a young Naval officer. Citing David Spanier again, “Nixon took the game very seriously from the time he first began to study it, even if it was a ‘friendly’ game.”
Many Americans believe that poker brought him to the peak of political fame. His fantastic $3000 winning in this game he invested in his election campaign. Richard Nixon loved to host poker tournaments in his office at the White House, although it’s said he abandoned the game as he advanced up the political ladder. Nixon loved to play the most aggressive and dynamic form of poker – Stud. However, he tended toward conservative play, generally only betting with strong starting hands (in draw poker). He would bluff if the situation warranted doing so, with his most prominent bluff being Watergate.
Richard Nixon loved to host poker tournaments in his office at the White House.
More Tales of Presidents Playing Poker
William Howard Taft, our 27th president, often enjoyed playing against wealthy industrial leaders.
Rutherford B. Hayes, our 19th president, built a “man cave” on the South Lawn, where he played a Friday night game when Congress was in session.
Warren G. Harding, our 29th president, had a great passion for poker. He liked playing twice and hosted regular poker games with members of his administration, earning the group the nickname the “Poker Cabinet.” When asked by newsmen how he pulled off the 1920 election victory, he replied, “We drew to a pair of deuces and filled.”
Harding’s most significant loss? – As president, he managed to lose the expensive Chinese porcelain service that was a decoration of the White House on a poker bet.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our 32nd president, hosted low-stakes games (cash games, of course, not low-stakes tournaments) several times a week, often nickel-ante stud. Poker provided him with a means to cope with the daily stress of his job. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin According to presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, the 32nd president, he often sought respite from the stress of the Second World War in games of poker with his cabinet officers. Goodwin reported that Roosevelt would routinely hold “marathon poker games.”
Another related trivia: while the bomb was dropped from the Enola Gay, the mission also involved two other aircraft in weather reconnaissance, both of which had poker-themed names: Straight Flush and Full House.
Tales of Presidents Playing Poker World War II and Beyond
Harry Truman – Our 33rd president. In another oft-repeated story, FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, has been said to have been interrupted from a game of poker to be told that Roosevelt had died and had become president. A devoted player, Truman called poker his “safety valve.”
Truman’s motto, “The buck stops here,” was a poker expression; in the 19th century, hunting knives with buckhorn handles were used as the dealer button.
Dwight D. Eisenhower – President Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of the actual poker sharks among the presidents who have played, using his winnings to buy his first new military uniform and buy gifts to court his wife. However, as he climbed the ranks, his duty toward his subordinates eventually conflicted with taking all their money.
Eisenhower won large sums in barracks poker games, sending so many soldiers broke that he had to stop playing with the enlisted men. However, it didn’t affect his incredible popularity.
Barack Obama – Barack Obama is a casual and avid poker player. He learned the game as a kid in high school and played with his grandfather and classmates. He plays many variations such as stud, draw, Holdem, or exotic forms.
Barack Obama’s playing style has been described as “tight and cautious,” not much into betting and spending money, and a strong poker face.
In 1997, Obama started to become a regular player at a local game in Illinois hosted at the home of Senator Terry Links. There, Republicans, Democrats, and lobbyists gathered for a casual weekly low stake game with no political discussion – just relaxation and jokes.
I’m sure this is a partial list, especially considering the entire cast of world leaders. Card games have always been something to pass the time – or something of great intensity.
As Washington crossed the Delaware River, I can hear it now; George probably said, “I win; I have a full boat!”