POTUS Meets Poker: 5 Poker-Playing American Presidents
Poker has a rich history – and there’s a lot of debate surrounding its origin. Some say it was founded by a Chinese emperor in the 10th century. Others say it originated in Persia in the 16th century. In the 17th century, a card game called Poque was so popular that it immigrated to New Orleans where it took off in the 1800s.
Eventually, the card decks grew from 20 to 52 cards. Five-card poker grew into a draw game with multiple rounds of betting. Sounding a little more like the poker you know today, isn’t it?
As settlers moved across North America, poker became a classic in the Wild West. Poker was attracting all kinds of players, including criminals and hustlers and card sharks. Because the game was still lawless, you weren’t seeing many legit players back then. That’s why competitors armed themselves with guns and knives – for protection against their opponents.
Poker was played throughout the Civil War during lulls in the fighting. Soldiers brought the game back home with them, spreading poker’s reach to the Midwest and the Northeast.
It soon became clear that poker strategies were kinda like political strategies. If you wanted to be successful at either, you needed to be a great bluffer and have a stone-cold poker face. Like politicians, good poker players never let their competitors see them sweat.
Sure, some politicians boast about their chess-playing skills, but in reality, it’s poker players who come out on top. Poker players can tackle any challenge and take down any opponent with a wide range of strategies. They can say nothing at all, while still finding clever ways of distracting their competitors. No matter what they did, there was no denying that a win was imminent.
It’s no shock that heaps of U.S. presidents played poker, including Grant, Lyndon Johnson, Truman, and both Roosevelts. As a matter of fact, Harry Truman’s famous quote, “The buck stops here,” is a poker expression from the 19th century. At this time, hunting knives with buckhorn handles acted as the dealer button in poker rounds.
Back in 1946, Truman and Winston Churchill even played poker on the presidential train. Churchill skulled five scotches before the game had even begun, lost $250 and called it quits at 2 in the morning. Why? Because he needed to rest (and sober) up before his infamous Cold War speech the next morning!
In office from 1861-1865, the 16th POTUS learned to play poker when he was the captain of a Mississippi riverboat. Lincoln’s playstyle was fierce yet frugal, making him an incredible micro stakes gambler. He killed it at penny-ante games, which was ironic considering the fact that he would later become the face of the American penny.
Lincoln gave poker up in 1847 when he became a congressman. He may have walked away from the game, but he maintained his cool logic, smart strategy, and unreadable poker face while in office.
His poker skills came into play in a particularly controversial move during the Civil War. It was then that he warned the Confederate states to surrender by January 1, 1863. If not, he would free their slaves in order to ruin the South’s economy. Sure, it may have started as a bluff. But it led to the Emancipation Proclamation and freedom for 4 million enslaved African Americans.
Warren G. Harding
Warren G. Harding was America’s 29th President, in office from 1921-1923. Even today, he’s remembered as one of the worst U.S. presidents to ever live. Not exactly a title we’re jealous of, to be honest.
Harding’s presidency had heaps of corruption scandals, including the Teapot Dome incident and his extreme drinking during Prohibition. Clearly, hypocrisy in politics dates back as far as politics itself. Another thing he’s remembered for, though, is playing poker. A lot of poker.
In terms of passion for the game of poker, no other president matched Harding. He even brought it into the White House, hosting heaps of poker tournaments with his administration. They were later dubbed the “poker cabinet.”
Like his policies, some of Harding’s poker strategies were just plain crappy. It’s rumoured that even lost a whole set of pricey White House china during one horrible round of poker.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Known as “Ike,” Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th POTUS, serving from 1953 to 1961. He originally made a name for himself as a five-star general and as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War.
He was an avid poker player, calling it his “favourite indoor sport.” He regularly crushed his West Point opponents and once used his winnings to buy a new uniform.
When he was serving at Camp Meade, he dominated the poker table, wiping the floor with his fellow officers. But don’t get us wrong – he wasn’t a sore loser. On the contrary, he was actually a pretty solid guy. Once, Ike heard that one of his opponents had to cash in his family’s war bonds just to pay him a debt. Upon hearing this, Ike worked together with other officers to lose on purpose. This was all so the soldier could recover his losses and get back on his feet.
This incident dampened the president’s enthusiasm for the game.
“I decided I had to quit playing,” he once said. “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.”
One of the most notorious and corrupt U.S. presidents, Richard Nixon served from 1969 to 1974. If we’re calling a spade a spade, the 37th President of the United States was a shady criminal (which, of course, he’d never admit). But he was also a stellar poker player.
Nixon didn’t play poker in the White House, but his skill at the game did help him get him there. He became incredibly proficient in and passionate about stud poker during his days in the Navy. He once said that the “stress of war and the oppressive monotony of my daily life made poker an irresistible entertainment.”
He also shared that he “found it as instructive as it was entertaining and profitable.”
Profitable. No kidding. Legend has it that Nixon never lost a single poker game.
“He was a good poker player, maybe the best,” said one of his fellow officers. “He played cautiously but didn’t hesitate to take some risks when it was necessary.”
The officer even recalled seeing Nixon bluff for $1,500 with nothing more than a pair of twos.
Over the course of two years in the Navy, Nixon sent his winnings back home to California. Eventually, his winnings totalled $10,000 (which would be roughly $140,000 today). He used this money to fund his first congressional campaign and, as they say, the rest is history.
One of America’s most beloved presidents is also a mighty fine poker player. Barack Obama, the 44th POTUS, who served from 2009 to 2017, played for both professional and political purposes. When he was an Illinois senator, Obama played poker with other senators as a networking move.
At the time, he was a rookie Illinois senator who regularly co-hosted low-stakes games. The friendly competitions attracted both Democrats and Republicans. While he never played for big stakes, Obama downplayed his participation when he eventually ran for president.
Obama has called himself a reasonably good player, while his competitors have dubbed him “cautious” and “shrewd.” According to his opponents, his bluffs only come when he has a decent hand. He’s pretty reticent to bluff and only does so when he’s holding some sweet cards.
“When Barack stayed in, you pretty much figured he’s got a good hand,” said one of his former colleagues.
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