FDR, Truman, Ike and Nixon all knew when to hold ’em or fold ’em.
A year before Barack Obama launched his campaign for the presidency, a reporter asked him if he had a hidden talent. “I’m a pretty good poker player,” he said. That talent, nurtured in a regular weekly game with Illinois pols when Obama was a greenhorn member of the state senate, is one he shares with a host of previous presidents. Ever since an Americanized version of French poque made its way north from New Orleans on Mississippi steamboats—becoming the card game of choice by the 1850s among savvy risk-takers in nearly every state and territory—politicians have gravitated to it as a way to relax, hobnob, practice bluffing and occasionally strike it rich. Ulysses S. Grant “played poker and Boston [a form of whist] all through his Presidential career for money,” William Tecumseh Sherman told the president of Harvard four years after Grant’s death.
Grant kept his passion for poker private, knowing that the game’s reputation as a backroom cheating fest helped make it a political minus. The habit of sweeping presidential poker under a carpet of virtue continued in the 20th century, when Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon all publicly downplayed or even denied their affection for the game. But the hidden talent all four men showed for poker’s shrewd calculations—and wily posturing— reveals more about their approach to politics than most of their virtuous public pronouncements. As Albert Upton, Nixon’s literature professor at Whittier College, observed, “A man who couldn’t hold a hand in a first-class poker game isn’t fit to be President of the United States.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his famous fireside chats during the Great Depression and World War II from his second-floor White House study, the same room where he hosted nickel-ante stud games several times a week. On occasion, as he sought to soothe an anxious citizenry, he fingered his poker chips the way others might use worry beads or a rosary, and a faint clicking sound could be heard beneath the static emanating from boxy wooden radios across the land.
Few Americans gathered around those radios could have guessed the origin of that clicking sound. Poker was a private pastime for Roosevelt, even though he chose a gambling term to describe his federal programs designed to help the “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid”: the New Deal. The expression not only epitomized Roosevelt’s social philosophy, but also his approach to poker. The goal was to give each person in the game a fair chance to play their hand well rather than to walk away with inordinate stacks of loot.
Poker often followed a nightly cocktail hour for top advisers in Roosevelt’s study. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt always excused herself because she refused to participate in any form of gambling, let alone one whose object was to mislead opponents and take their money. Regulars included the president’s personal physician, Admiral Ross McIntire, who insisted that the games end by 11 p.m. so his patient could sleep. But the commander in chief sometimes cajoled him into letting the game last an extra 45 minutes or so. When the deal rotated to him, Roosevelt usually chose either seven-card stud with one-eyed jacks wild or Woolworth’s, in which fives and 10s were wild. The limits were so low that Attorney General Robert Jackson lost only $2.30 during a weeklong fishing trip in Florida, even though he, the president and four others played every night. Roosevelt was that week’s big winner, netting a grand total of $18.
Roosevelt overruled any requests to raise the stakes. The underlying purpose of the games was to help him cope with the daily stress of his job, and that became increasingly important in his third and fourth terms as he faced the most devastating war the world has ever known. Even as “matters in Europe became constantly blacker” in August 1939, Jackson observed that Roosevelt “seemed to relax under the stimulus of the game and for the moment we forgot the war.”
Harry Truman used poker as both a personal and political means of expression. His motto, “The buck stops here,” refers to the dealer’s placeholder, because during the 19th century, hunting knives with buckhorn handles often served that function. It was the president’s folksy way of letting Americans know he was responsible for what happened on his watch.
Truman honed his draw and stud skills as an artillery officer in France during World War I. Captain Roger Sermon, who served with him in the mud near Verdun, said, “To keep from going crazy we had an almost continuous poker game.” As a judge back home in Independence, Mo., Truman kept up with his army pals in poker sessions that took place in a third-floor room across the street from his courthouse. The 18 regulars dubbed themselves the Harpie Club, after the harmonicas they played at memorial ceremonies, with Truman serving as its unofficial president until he moved to Washington as a U.S. senator in 1935.
When backroom pols convinced FDR to choose Truman as his running mate in 1944, the president compared him to his first choice, William O. Douglas, and grumbled, “I hardly know Truman. Douglas is a poker partner.” But Truman’s passion for poker became legendary after Roosevelt’s death. Following the Potsdam summit in August 1945, the new commander in chief hosted a weeklong stud game with journalists aboard the battleship Augusta while awaiting news of the bomb he had ordered to be detonated above Hiroshima. Later, he often invited members of his Cabinet and journalists for weekend poker cruises aboard the presidential yacht Williamsburg. The stakes—$500 in chips to start—were much higher than in FDR’s games. And “Give ’Em Hell” Harry’s games were far from tame. “He knew some of the wildest games I’ve ever heard of,” said war correspondent Robert G. Nixon. Even so, losers were invited to replenish their stacks from the large pot. “He never wanted anyone to get hurt in a poker game.”
On March 4, 1946, Winston Churchill joined one of Truman’s games aboard FDR’s old armored railroad car, the Ferdinand Magellan, en route to Fulton, Mo., where the British prime minister was to deliver his era-defining “Iron Curtain” speech. Churchill had downed five scotches before the action began and pretended he hadn’t the foggiest idea how to play. “Harry,” he said at one point, “I think I’ll risk a couple of shillings on a pair of knaves.” As the Magellan blasted through America’s heartland, Churchill lost steadily—so much, in fact, that when he left the table for a moment, Truman told his companions to let up a bit. “But boss, this guy’s a pigeon,” said General Harry Vaughan. “If you want us to play our best poker for the nation’s honor, we’ll have this guy’s pants before the evening is over.” Churchill was down $250 when he quit at 2:30 a.m. He needed to get some sleep before giving his speech.
Dwight Eisenhower was a natural who played high-stakes poker as a young serviceman because he needed the money. But he got so good that by the time he reached the higher echelons of the military, he decided to give up the game because he was leaving so many of his table mates broke.
Eisenhower learned to play poker as an 8-year-old in Abilene, Kan., on hunting trips with a guide named Bob Davis, who made him memorize the odds of drawing various hands. “He dinned percentages into my head night after night around a campfire,” Ike wrote decades later, “using for the lessons a greasy pack of nicked cards that must have been a dozen years old. We played for matches and whenever my box of matches was exhausted, I’d have to roll in my blankets and go to sleep.” At West Point, he attended “cadet dances only now and then, preferring to devote my time to poker.” During World War I, he used poker winnings to pay for his dress uniform as well as gifts for Mamie Dowd, a Denver debutante. That included her engagement ring, which she accepted from him on Valentine’s Day 1916.
Eisenhower was not only skillful at poker, he was also dedicated to keeping the game honest. While stationed at Camp Colt in Pennsylvania in 1917, he learned that a well-connected junior officer had used a marked deck in a stud game. Captain Eisenhower told him to resign or face a courtmartial. When the man’s father and congressman asked that he be allowed to transfer to another unit, Eisenhower firmly explained that no officer could be effective in the field without personal integrity. Even though a more senior officer greased the way for the transfer, Eisenhower never backed down.
While stationed at Fort Meade a couple of years later under Colonel George Patton, Captain Eisenhower continued to dominate the action among his fellow officers. Their highest-stakes game was reserved for bachelors and married men who could afford to lose. One player who flaunted this rule wound up losing so much that he was forced to cash in his wife’s war bonds to make good on his IOU. Eisenhower reluctantly accepted payment but felt so guilty afterward that he conspired with others in the game to lose the money back to the man. “This was not achieved easily,” Eisenhower recalled decades later. “One of the hardest things known to man is to make a fellow win in poker who plays as if bent on losing every nickel.” He then persuaded Colonel Patton to ban poker on base, if only to keep the same fellow from squandering more money. The sour experience was enough to convince Eisenhower that, as an officer, “I had to quit playing. 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.”
So, long before he became president, Ike walked away from the poker table and never looked back.
Any kind of gambling was anathema in East Whittier, a Quaker community near Los Angeles where Richard Nixon grew up. But it did not take long for Nixon to become a ruthless poker player when he joined the navy in World War II and needed a diversion from his job preparing flight plans for C-47 transport planes in the Pacific. “I found playing poker instructive as well as entertaining and profitable,” he later wrote. “I learned that people who have the cards are usually the ones who talk the least and the softest; those who are bluffing tend to talk loudly and give themselves away.”
While serving on a base in the Solomon Islands, Lieutenant Nixon was invited to a small dinner party for the celebrity pilot Charles Lindbergh, who was testing prototypes for the air force. But as much as Nixon may have wanted to meet Lindbergh, he opted for the poker game he had previously agreed to host. “In the intense loneliness and boredom of the South Pacific our poker games were more than idle pastimes,” he later explained, “and the etiquette surrounding them was taken very seriously.”
Nixon frequently compared notes with other obsessive players, and persuaded one expert to spend a few days coaching him on five-card-draw strategy. Nixon’s term for such preparations was “war-gaming.” He reveled in risk-averse tactics and began to make serious money playing tight, rocky poker. He also got lucky, as any winning player must do. Once, while holding the ace of diamonds, he drew four cards to make a royal flush—a 250,000-to-1 shot. “I was naturally excited,” he later wrote. “But I played it with a true poker face, and won a substantial pot.” His navy buddies marveled at his skills. He was “as good a poker player as, if not better than, anyone we had ever seen,” one said. “I once saw him bluff a lieutenant commander out of $1,500 with a pair of deuces.” By the end of the war, his winnings totaled $8,000—a whopping haul in the 1940s.
Upon discharge, Nixon used his impressive profits to bankroll his first congressional campaign. In November 1946, he defeated the popular Democratic incumbent Jerry Voorhis, in part by accusing him of being a draft-dodging communist. Four years later, he defeated Helen Gahagan Douglas, a three-term congresswoman, in a mudslinging race for the U.S. Senate. After Nixon claimed the attractive New Dealer was “pink right down to her underwear,” she retorted with a nickname that stuck: “Tricky Dick.”
By the time Eisenhower chose him as his running mate in 1952, Nixon had given up poker, fearing voters would think it unsavory.
James McManus is the author of Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker and Positively Fifth Street, an account of the 2000 World Series of Poker.
Originally published in the April 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.