Tuesday, February 05, 2008
Well hell, I found this Jim McManus column on Obama and poker.
by James McManus
Before his recent loss in the Nevada caucus, Barack Obama took heat (from the Clinton camp and from casino executives) for his history of opposing the expansion of legal gambling. His campaign people never pointed out, in his defense, that their man considers himself to be “a pretty good poker player.” (That’s what he told an Associated Press reporter who asked him to name a hidden talent.) This puts him in the company of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Warren Harding, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon. And, like Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, Senator Obama seems to have played the game at least partly because it enabled him to form political alliances that he might not otherwise have formed.
Obama was greeted coolly by some of his fellow-legislators when, in 1997, he arrived in Springfield to take a seat in the Illinois senate. Perhaps realizing that both the Chicago machine pols and the downstate soybean farmers viewed him as an overeducated bleeding heart and a greenhorn, he decided to woo them with poker.
Along with another freshman senator, Terry Link, Obama started up a regular game in Link’s Springfield living room. It began with five players but quickly grew to eight and developed a long waiting list, which included not only Democrats but Republicans and lobbyists. “When it turned out that I could sit down . . . and have a beer and watch a game or go out for a round of golf or get a poker game going,” Obama told the Chicago Tribune last year, “I probably confounded some of their expectations.” But it was no Deadwood. Link, discussing the game over the phone the other day, said, “You hung up your guns at the door. Nobody talked about their jobs or politics, and certainly no ‘influence’ was bartered or even discussed. It was boys’ night out—a release from our legislative responsibilities.”
Obama’s analytical mind helped him excel at draw, stud, and hold ’em, and also at the sillier, more luck-based variants of the game that other players chose, such as baseball. Yet, even with the beer drinking and cigarette smoking, there were unspoken rules of conduct. When a married lobbyist arrived at a Springfield game with a person described as “an inebriated woman companion who did not acquit herself in a particularly wholesome fashion,” Obama made a face indicating that he wasn’t pleased. Link says that the lobbyist and his date were “quickly whisked out of the place.”
Obama never played for high stakes. Only on a very bad night could a player drop two hundred dollars in these games, typical wins and losses being closer to twenty-five bucks. Link describes Obama as a “calculating” cardplayer, avoiding long-shot draws and patiently waiting for strong starting hands. “When Barack stayed in, you pretty much figured he’s got a good hand,” former Senator Larry Walsh once told a reporter, neglecting to note that maintaining that sort of rock-solid image made it easier for Obama to bluff.
Many Presidents have been known to use poker lingo when they talk policy. Lincoln used a poker analogy to explain his decision not to apologize to Queen Victoria during the Trent Affair. Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal sprang from a poker sensibility. “When I say I believe in a square deal, I do not mean . . . to give every man the best hand,” Roosevelt explained. “If the cards do not come to any man, or if they do come, and he has not got the power to play them, that is his affair. All I mean is that there shall not be any crookedness in the dealing.”
F.D.R. played nickel-ante stud games—“an exchange of much conversation but little money,” according to Justice Robert H. Jackson, who played in them regularly—to unwind after his gruelling days managing the Depression and then the war. Truman had played as a doughboy during the First World War and kept up with war buddies at poker games, including during his years in the White House, where he played with chips embossed with the Presidential seal.
On the campaign trail, Obama has been known to play Uno with his daughters, but no card games involving chips. It may be that his advisers are being cautious. In some forms, poker, after all, remains illegal in much of the country. ♦
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