Two High-Stakes Pokerticians by Jim McManus

A year before Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign, a reporter asked him if he had a hidden talent. “I’m a pretty good poker player,” he said. That talent, nurtured by his maternal grandfather and then in a low-stakes weekly game with Illinois politicians, is one Obama shares with a host of previous presidents. Yet, only two of them played for serious money, and both were remarkably successful.

Dwight Eisenhower played Stud and Draw for sizable stakes as a young army officer 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 tablemates broke.

Eisenhower had learned to play as an eight-year-old in Abilene, Kansas during hunting trips with a guide named Bob Davis, who made him memorize the odds of completing various draws. “He dinned percentages into my head night after night around a campfire,” Ike recalled, “using 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.” As an upperclassman at West Point in 1915, he attended “cadet dances only now and then, preferring to devote my time to poker.” He used poker winnings to pay for his dress uniform as well as gifts for Mamie Dowd, a wealthy Denver debutante. Those gifts included her engagement ring, which she accepted on Valentine’s Day, 1916.

Eisenhower was not only a strong player, he was dedicated to keeping the game honest. While stationed at Camp Colt in Pennsylvania, he learned that a well-connected junior officer had used a marked deck in a Stud game. Capt. Eisenhower told him to resign or face a court-martial. When the cheater’s father and Congressman requested 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 eventually greased the way for the transfer, Eisenhower never backed down.

While stationed at Fort Meade under Col. George Patton, Capt. Eisenhower continued to dominate the action among his fellow officers. Their highest-stakes game was reserved for bachelors and married men who could comfortably afford to lose. One player who ignored this rule wound up losing so much to Ike that he was forced to cash in his wife’s war bonds to make good on his I.O.U. Eisenhower reluctantly accepted payment, but he 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,” said Eisenhower. “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 Col. Patton to ban poker at the fort, if only to keep the same fellow from squandering any 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.”

Any kind of gambling was an anathema in East Whittier, the Quaker suburb of Los Angeles where Richard Nixon grew up. But it didn’t take long for Nixon to become a ruthless poker player when he joined the Navy in World War II. “I found playing poker instructive as well as entertaining and profitable,” he wrote in his autobiography. “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 in the Solomon Islands, Lt. Nixon was invited to a small dinner party for the celebrity pilot Charles Lindbergh, who was testing prototype planes for the Air Force. Instead, he attended a 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 wrote, “and the etiquette surrounding them was taken very seriously.”

Nixon liked to compare notes with other strong players, and persuaded one expert, Jim Stewart, to coach him on Five-Card Draw strategy. Nixon’s term for such preparations was “war-gaming.” He began to make serious money playing tight-aggressive poker. He was “as good a poker player as, if not better than, anyone we had ever seen,” said one fellow officer. “I once saw him bluff a Lieutenant Commander out of $1,500 with a pair of deuces.”

By the end of the war, Nixon had won $8,000, a genuinely whopping haul in the forties. Upon discharge, he used it 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 former actress was “pink right down to her underwear,” she retorted with a nickname that stuck: “Tricky Dick;” an unfortunate handle for a politician, of course, but one that any poker stud would be proud of.

James McManus