Regarding poker, presidents have often kept their cards hidden

November 14, 2019inPoker

The next presidential election in the United States is nearly a year away, but the campaign for 2020 has been in full swing for a long time already.

Current president Donald Trump announced his intention to run for a second term way back in February 2017, barely a month into his presidency. Also among the earliest to announce plans to challenge Trump in 2020 was tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, one of several from outside of government who have joined the race.

Yang announced in November 2017 he was a candidate to receive the Democratic Party’s nomination for president to oppose the Republican Trump. With more candidates still declaring, there are currently 18 Democrats and a couple of Republicans running for the office, along with Trump.

Yang has been polling well behind the frontrunners among the Democrats, though he did capture the attention of poker players a couple of weeks ago with a tweet acknowledging the current status of online poker legislation in the U.S. and his position on the issue.

As Yang points out, in the U.S. online poker, like other forms of online gambling, is currently legalized on a state-by-state basis. In fact, in addition to the four states where online poker is now legal — Delaware, Nevada, New Jersey, and most recently Pennsylvania where PokerStars just launched earlier this month — West Virginia also passed an online gambling bill earlier this year, although it will be next year at the earliest before online poker launches there.

Yang’s tweet distinguishes him from other candidates who haven’t weighed in on the issue of online poker in the U.S. Indeed, if past campaigns are any indication, most probably won’t say much about the subject. That said, sports betting may get some attention thanks to the rapid rise of states passing sports betting laws over the last year-and-a-half since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the federal ban with a May 2018 ruling.

Even if current presidential candidates aren’t saying too much about poker, Yang’s interest puts him in line with a long tradition of U.S. presidents showing an interest in poker — as players, anyway.

Presidents have played poker, haven’t played it up

A writer in the 1890s named John F. B. Lillard claimed that all U.S. presidents except one dating back to Martin Van Buren (the eighth president) “have been known to take a hand.” Actually Van Buren’s predecessor Andrew Jackson also reportedly played poker, among many other gambling games.

Going forward, most 20th-century presidents were poker players, too, with some such as Warren Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon among the ones known to have been avid players. Truman even had a special chip set made with which to play, with each chip sporting the presidential seal.

Harry Truman’s chip set with the presidential seal (National Archives and Records Administration, Harry S. Truman library)

More recently, Barack Obama was also a regular player prior to his taking office. Meanwhile Trump — despite his background as a casino owner — seems not to have ever been particularly interested in the game.

Even so, while many presidents have played and enjoyed poker, they’ve never been all that eager to express their enthusiasm for the game in public, never mind get behind any sort of federal legislation designed to increase the game’s availability.

Ulysses S. Grant, for instance, was a dedicated poker player, though didn’t publicize his playing and in his long autobiography only barely references the game. Other presidents such as Harding and Truman occasionally suffered political backlash for their card playing.

Going back in history, the earliest reference to a president playing poker came in the form a criticism. In 1832, Andrew Jackson was running for reelection against Henry Clay, and in September some of Clay’s supporters took out an advertisement that questioned the incumbent’s “moral character.”

Among the objections raised about Jackson was his temper and proclivity for violence, including how he’d challenged others to duels and even shot at some of his enemies. Also included as a mark against Jackson was his “skill and dexterity” at various card games, including poker.

Not mentioned in the ad is how Clay was also a poker player. Truth be told, Clay was so well known for his poker playing some early poker references erroneously claim he even invented the game!

In any event, while poker might have occasionally served some presidents well as a way to help Americans identify with their leaders, more often than not those who have served in the nation’s highest office haven’t been too keen about “showing their hand” when it comes to sharing their feelings about poker.

Opinions about online poker

Yang’s comment references online poker in particular, something that also hasn’t really captured a lot of notice either by presidential candidates or presidents over the last couple of decades.

The internet’s arrival in the 1990s was accompanied by skepticism from some quarters regarding its potential impact on business and commerce, with some observers refusing to believe that even if seemingly secure ways of sending money online were established, consumers would be willing to take the risk.

Andrew Yang (Wikimedia Commons)

Such skeptics were proven wrong, and quickly, as sites like Amazon and eBay (both of which launched in 1995) became hugely popular online marketplaces. Soon online banking and third-party payment services became mainstream, and by the dawn of the new century the idea of sending money electronically was already second nature to many.

Unsurprisingly, online gambling sites first appeared during the internet’s initial growth and expansion, starting with just a few sites and already running into the hundreds by the end of the 1990s. The earliest online poker sites appeared during this time as well, with Planet Poker the first to deal real money games on January 1, 1998. PokerStars would debut not long after in 2001.

Some legislators responded to this development by attempting to pass laws restricting or prohibiting gambling over the internet. Such efforts were unsuccessful for over a decade, though ultimately did result in the passage of a related bill, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 that prohibited third-party “communication facilities” from handling transactions between bettors and the sites.

However, when then President George W. Bush signed the UIGEA into law in October 2006, online poker wasn’t something about which he himself appeared to have much of an opinion. In his comments at the signing, Bush only addressed the unrelated SAFE Port Act to which the UIGEA had been appended, saying nothing at all about online gambling or online poker.

Over the next several years other lawmakers responded to the UIGEA by proposing various federal laws to license and regulate online gambling such as the one Yang is alluding to in his tweet, though none of those attempts ever got very far.

It will be lawmakers — that is, the members of the House and Senate who make up the legislative branch of government — who ultimately will or will not introduce federal legislation regarding online poker. But presidents do have an enormous influence on the agenda followed by Congress, which means a president with a sincere interest in online poker legislation on a federal level could well make it a priority for lawmakers.

If that president were willing to make that interest public, that is, and not like others choose to play “close to the vest” with poker-related opinions.


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