Poker Returns to the White House

Obama's hidden talent: He's a top-notch poker player. Thank goodness—he’ll need it.

Barack Obama's hidden talent: He's a top-notch poker player. Thank goodness—he’ll need it.

Among the countless blessings conferred by the election of Barack Obama is the energizing fact until now little-known that poker will be back in the White House for the first time in 35 years. Not since Richard Nixon has the United States had a dedicated player of its historic national game in the Oval Office.

Throughout the campaign, Obama’s media minders have been far from keen for you to know this. Asked early on by the Press Association to name a "hidden talent," Obama rashly revealed that he considers himself "a pretty good poker-player." Subsequent investigations were hampered by a blanket shutdown on the subject from said minders. But it was already on the record that, after a cool reception from fellow legislators in 1997, when he first took his seat in the Illinois state senate, Obama won over colleagues of all parties with his charm and expertise at the green baize.

Expertise at poker used to be an unwritten job requirement for all would-be U.S. presidents.

In a short New Yorker piece last February, Obama’s friend James McManus, Chicago-based author of the poker classic Positively Fifth Street and the forthcoming The Story of Poker, reported that the rookie senator had co-hosted a regular game for which there was soon a waiting-list including Republicans as well as fellow-Democrats. "When it turned out that I could sit down and have a beer and go out for a round of golf or get a poker game going," Obama once told the Chicago Tribune, "I probably confounded some of their expectations." Poker, concluded McManus, was the secret of Obama’s transformation among "the Chicago machine pols and downstate soybean farmers" from "overeducated bleeding-heart and greenhorn" to regular kinda guy.

It was not a big game on a bad night, a player could lose 200 bucks but Obama declined to discuss it as his hopes of the Democratic nomination rose. "American Puritanism," as my gagged friend McManus complained to me last spring, "has turned playing poker for tiny stakes into radioactive information."

In May, when Obama had the candidacy sewn up, I took all this a step further in the Observer of London, concluding: "From what I'm told by intimates, Obama's poker skills bode well for a potential leader of the free world. He is versatile, but shuns unnecessary risks; he wants to be holding premium cards before he even thinks of getting involved; the only gambles he takes are very closely calculated. America would be mad to pass up a potential leader of such acumen. In a world so fraught with danger, a leader of such visionary powers will surely restore his country's tarnished reputation."

This moved Time magazine to reveal two months later that John McCain is, by contrast, a manic craps player. I was in Las Vegas at the time, for the 2008 World Series of Poker; reached by London’s Sunday Telegraph for comment, I ventured: "We poker players don't call poker gambling. It’s a game of skill. Craps is an absurd game of luck...only madmen play craps."

As this comment bobbed all over cyberspace, I stuck doggedly to my theme: Which would you rather have as president? A skilful, calculating poker-player taking highly calibrated risks, or a craps obsessive content to let the dice fall where they may (viz. the Palin pick)? Well, quite. I rest my case.

Expertise at poker used to be an unwritten job requirement for all would-be U.S. presidents. Proficient White House poker-players have ranged from Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Warren Harding to FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson and Nixon. As I noted in my 1990 book Big Deal, Truman played the game with the White House press corps while pondering whether to drop the first atomic bomb on Japan; Nixon financed his first political race in California on his wartime poker winnings in the Navy; Johnson used his poker know-how to forge early political alliances in Texas.

In recent years, however, this great American tradition seems to have fallen out of fashion: Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr, Clinton, Bush Jr not a cardsharp among them (beyond, of course, W.’s party days at Yale). Or is it just that America’s "new puritanism" has all candidates of whatever party zipping their lips about their enthusiasm for anything remotely to do with gambling?

Obama may just have higher priorities than exempting poker from Bush Jr.’s Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, the opportunist legislation tacked on to the 2006 Safe Port Act, which has crippled the online game in the U.S. by making it illegal to transfer funds to a gaming site from a bank, credit card or any other financial institution. But he seems more likely to grant an audience to former New York senator Alfonse D’Amato who, as chairman of the Poker Players Alliance, has been lobbying for the cause.

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What does seem certain is that regular poker nights will soon return to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the first time in a generation. So let’s hear it for one early sign of Obamanian "change": White House poker games played, like Harry Truman’s, with chips embossed with the presidential seal.

Anthony Holden is the author of the poker classics Big Deal (1990) and Bigger Deal (2007). His strategy manual, Holden on Hold’em , is published this week by Little, Brown.