U.S. Presidents who played poker

"Poker is a great revealer of character, a truism that applies to Presidents as well as to lesser men."

So wrote the poker writer David Spanier, inspired in part by the fact that so many of those who have held the United States' highest office have in fact played the country's favorite card game.

First introduced in the south and west in the early 19th century (not long after the U.S. itself declared its independence), poker soon became a national pastime, with politicians gravitating toward it perhaps in higher numbers than most.

For those at the highest levels of power, strategic parallels between poker and politics are especially apparent. After all, both poker players and presidents are often equally occupied by efforts to establish credibility, to build images, to weigh risks and rewards, to read others for strength and/or weakness, and, of course, to bluff.

With the 2016 presidential campaign moving into its latter stages, it's a shame we can't pit the candidates in a poker game against one another, as doing so could well reveal more of their characters than is shown in debates and stump speeches.

Here's a look back at a few poker-playing presidents, some of whom at times seemed to play the game with as much energy and study as they did running the country.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN (1861-1865, Republican)

Before becoming the country's first president, George Washington gambled at cards, keeping close records of wins and losses on a page in a ledger book titled "Cards and Other Play." Whist was Washington's favored game, as was the case for other early presidents like James Madison who enjoyed playing "for half bits" after dinner.

Eventually the new game of poker wound across the country during the early 1800s. It was during this period a young Abraham Lincoln -- decades from becoming the country's 16th president -- is thought to have been first introduced to the game.

Soon after turning 22, Lincoln was hired with others to build and sail a flatboat from Illinois to New Orleans to deliver a produce shipment. The trip eventually carried them down the Mississippi where card sharps on steamboats had already begun fleecing unwitting travelers in their floating poker games.

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Arriving in New Orleans, Lincoln encountered much that was new, including slave traders' posts advertising prices for human lives. He also is said by some to have encountered poker, having traveled directly to the game's birthplace and site of numerous early gaming dens. Later as president, Lincoln referred to poker when addressing a question of diplomacy during the Civil War, revealing his familiarity with the game.

While little is known of the games Lincoln played, most agree he likely played for the lowest stakes. That is, "penny-ante" games -- some three-quarters of a century before his own likeness would be added to one-cent copper coins.

THEODORE ROOSEVELT (1901-1909, Republican)

After leading the Union to victory in the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant became the country's 18th president and while in office enjoyed poker. So did numerous other politicians as the 19th century came to a close. Among that group was Theodore Roosevelt who used poker as a way to gain entry into social circles while moving up through the ranks to the vice presidency.

Following William McKinley's assassination in 1901, TR took office as the country's 26th president. Before his first term ended he began advancing a series of domestic policies presented as the "Square Deal."

Much as poker had been dominated by cheating -- particularly in the saloons and on the steamboats of the Old West -- more games were being played "on the square" as the new century began. Similarly TR's "Square Deal" sought to protect consumers against overly powerful businesses, creating a level playing field for all.

"All I ask is a square deal for every man," he wrote. "Give him a fair chance. Do not let him wrong any one, and do not let him be wronged."

Clarifying his position in a 1905 speech after being elected on his own, TR was even more explicit about the poker analogy.

"When I say I believe in a square deal I do not mean... [it's] possible to give every man the best hand," he said, revealing a keen understanding of poker's chance element. "All I mean is that there shall not be any crookedness in the dealing."

WARREN G. HARDING (1921-1923, Republican)

Theodore Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft, also played poker, occasionally joining games hosted by the industrialist Henry Frick. But no president had ever previously shown such dedication to poker as would the nation's 29th president -- Warren G. Harding.

Harding would only serve just two-and-a-half years before death cut short his tenure. Though Harding was popular, his administration was found to be corrupt in numerous ways, the Teapot Dome scandal the most notable. Nor did the revelation of Harding's extra-marital affairs help his posthumous reputation.

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During much of his presidency, Harding hosted poker games twice a week with members of his administration, earning them the nickname the "Poker Cabinet." Players smoked and drank whiskey (despite the Prohibition), with Harding insistent he not be treated any differently by others by virtue of his higher rank.

"Forget that I'm President of the United States," he is famously quoted as having said to his fellow players. "I'm Warren Harding, playing poker with friends, and I'm going to beat the hell out of them."

One (perhaps apocryphal) account of Harding's card playing doesn't exactly endorse his skills as a gambler. According to the story, the socialite Louise Cromwell Brooks (first wife of General Douglas MacArthur) was a guest, and Harding played a game of "cold hand" with her -- just a game of high-card -- saying that whoever won could name the stakes. When Brooks won she chose the White House china as her prize, and Harding had it delivered to her the next day.

FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT (1933-1945, Democrat)

While Harding's successor Calvin Coolidge enjoyed poker, next-in-line Herbert Hoover was less of a fan. Hoover had been part of Harding's cabinet (as Secretary of Commerce), but declined games with the president, later writing that while he didn't mind poker, "it irked me to see it in the White House."

Franklin Delano Roosevelt followed Hoover as the nation's 32nd president, bringing back the poker-playing tradition with low-stakes games several times a week, often nickel-ante stud. Some claim even to have heard FDR riffling chips during his famous radio "Fireside Chats."

Following the footsteps of his fifth cousin Theodore, FDR likewise employed a poker metaphor to describe his "New Deal" series of programs aimed at fostering recovery from the Depression.

FDR hosted games on the final night of each Congressional session, and whoever led when the session adjourned was declared the winner. Once FDR was down when the call came, but didn't let on to the others the session was over. Hours later he was ahead, then had a phone brought to him and reported the session had ended, making him the winner.

John Nance Garner, FDR's first VP, was a reputed stud expert, although didn't receive invites to the president's games, especially after disagreements during FDR's second term cooled their relationship. In 1940 Garner ran for president himself, but Roosevelt chose to run for a third term and was reelected by a wide margin.

In stud terms, Garner had expected a fold, but FDR chose to stay in the hand.

HARRY TRUMAN (1945-1953, Democrat)

Apart from Warren G. Harding, 33rd president Harry Truman played the most poker while in office. In fact, the evening Truman learned of FDR's passing he was due to play a poker game, but necessarily canceled his appearance.

Truman brought with him friends to fill positions under him, a group dubbed "The Missouri Gang" with whom he often played. He even went so far as to have a special chip set made featuring the presidential seal.

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On Truman's desk appeared a sign reading "The Buck Stops Here," a personal slogan with a poker-related origin, referring to the buck-knife once used in place of a button. Like both Roosevelts, his "Fair Deal" proposals again evoked poker when naming a domestic agenda.

A dedicated player, though not overly serious about results, Truman preferred stud games with wild cards, with stakes reaching hundreds of dollars. Truman appointed Fred Vinson -- one of many regulars in the games -- Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1946. That same year Truman famously played poker with Winston Churchill aboard a train on the way to Westminster College where the statesman would deliver his iconic "Iron Curtain" speech.

Truman also was playing stud with a group of reporters aboard the U.S.S. Augusta at the moment the atomic bomb was dropped over Hiroshima. There's another bit of poker-related trivia associated with the WWII-ending attack -- two planes used for weather reconnaissance in advance of the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were named Straight Flush and Full House.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (1953-1961, Republican)

The 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower, rose to prominence not through politics but as a five-star general and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during WWII.

Eisenhower learned poker growing up in Texas, calling it his "favorite indoor sport." At West Point he routinely beat all-comers, eventually stopping for a while when his opponents became unable to pay him. After graduation he continued to play while working his way up the Army chain of command, once buying a uniform with his winnings.

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One story from this time finds Eisenhower outing a cheat attempting to mark cards in a game of stud. In another later one he was serving under General George Patton at Camp Meade, again dominating games among fellow officers. Once he discovered an opponent having to cash his family's war bonds in order to pay Eisenhower what he owed, after which Ike conspired with others to lose purposefully to the soldier in order to help him recoup his losses.

"This was not achieved easily," Eisenhower would later write. "One of the hardest things known to man is to make a fellow win at poker who plays as if bent on losing every nickel."

The experience made Eisenhower less enthusiastic about the game. "I decided I had to quit playing," he wrote. "It was not because I didn't enjoy the excitement of the game -- I really love to play. But it had become clear that it was no game to play in the Army."

RICHARD NIXON (1969-1974, Republican)

While Eisenhower's successor John F. Kennedy preferred bridge, Lyndon B. Johnson played poker and, according to one highly dubious tale, won a sports car from Ronald Reagan in a high-stakes game. But Eisenhower's VP (and LBJ's successor) was perhaps the most studious poker-playing president of all -- 37th president Richard Nixon.

A professor of Nixon's once remarked that a man who couldn't hold a hand in a first-class poker game isn't fit to be president. His most famous pupil became proficient at poker while serving in the Navy during WWII, earning perhaps as much as $10,000 which he used to help fund his first Congressional campaign. So taken with poker, Nixon even turned down dinner with famous flyer Charles Lindbergh as he was hosting a game that night.

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Nixon often told of once making a royal flush in five-card stud. A fellow officer later claimed he "once saw him bluff a lieutenant commander out of $1,500 with a pair of deuces."

He'd continue to play as a politician, although according to House member Tip O'Neill, Nixon wasn't as great as some claim. "He had a very fine grasp at politics but was just miserable at poker," wrote O'Neill, adding "he talked too much and didn't follow the cards."

One of Nixon's greatest political triumphs came early in his career when calling the bluff of suspected spy Alger Hiss. But later "Tricky Dick" failed to bluff his way out of Watergate, eventually "folding" as the only president to resign from office.

BARACK OBAMA (2008-present, Democrat)

Current White House resident and 44th president Barack Obama likewise lists poker among his hobbies, although more was made of his playing prior to being first elected in 2008 than has been the case since.

Much like had happened with Theodore Roosevelt, poker helped Obama network early in his political career. He played in a weekly game with fellow state senators in Illinois prior to his rise to the national stage. An escape from the legislative grind, the games involved participants from both sides of the aisle, enabling Obama and others to develop relationships over the poker table that proved beneficial when entering into negotiations in the senate.

The games were for low stakes, with wins and losses only rarely reaching a hundred dollars during a single evening. A colleague, Terry Link, explained to poker historian James McManus how Obama played a "calculated" game, showing patience and developing a tight enough image that "when Barack stayed in, you pretty much figured he's got a good hand." Such an image enabled Obama to run the occasional bluff, too, with his "stone face" often helping him earn folds to his bets.

There hasn't been much news of Obama playing poker during his two terms in office, although earlier this year he did reveal he carries a "lucky poker chip" given to him by a voter while campaigning back in 2007. Obama was quick to add he wasn't superstitious, but carries the chip (and other keepsakes) as a reminder of those he's met.


Martin Harris is Freelance Contributor to the PokerStars Blog.

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