poker, America's favourite pastime, used to be an unwritten job requirement for
all would-be Presidents. Proficient White House poker players have ranged from
Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Warren Harding to FDR,
Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ and Nixon.
As a lifelong poker fanatic, I
approve. Were I American, the poker-playing candidate would always get my vote.
As I noted in my 1990 book, Big Deal, chronicling my year as an aspirant poker
pro, 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 on his wartime poker winnings in the navy; Johnson used his
poker know-how to forge political alliances in Texas.
In recent years, this great tradition
seems to have fallen out of fashion: Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr, Clinton,
Bush Jr - not a player among them. Or is it just that the 'new puritanism' has
all candidates zipping their lips about anything remotely to do with gambling?
This seems to be why the world is not yet aware of the poker skills of Senator
Barack Obama, who now seems certain to be this autumn's Democratic candidate
against John McCain.
Asked by the Press Association to name a 'hidden
talent', Obama revealed early in the campaign that he considers himself 'a
pretty good poker player'. Subsequent investigations were hampered by a
shutdown on the subject from his media minders. But it is already on the record
that, after a cool reception from fellow legislators in 1997, when he first
took his seat in the Illinois senate, Obama won over colleagues of all parties
with his charm and expertise at the poker table.
With another freshman
senator, Terry Link, Obama co-hosted a regular game for which there was soon a
waiting list, including Republicans as well as 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 told the Chicago Tribune, 'I probably confounded some
of their expectations.'
His was not a big game - on a bad night, a
player could lose 200 bucks - but Obama has declined to discuss it as his hopes
of the nomination have risen. 'American puritanism,' says Illinois-based writer
James McManus, bestselling author of Positively Fifth Street and the
forthcoming The Story of Poker, 'has turned playing poker for tiny stakes into
In a recent New Yorker piece, McManus
suggested that poker was the secret of rookie Obama's transformation among 'the
Chicago machine pols and downstate soybean farmers' from 'overeducated
bleeding-heart and greenhorn' to regular kinda guy. Link said: 'You hung up
your guns at the door... it was just a boys' night out - a release from our
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
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. So let's hear it
for one potential sign of Obamanian 'change': White House poker games played,
like Harry Truman's, with chips embossed with the presidential seal.