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Men Of Action -- Harry S. Truman

The Presidential Poker Player

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President Harry S. Truman

Welcome to Card Player’s new series, Men of Action, which will explore the lives of some of history’s greatest gamblers and sportsmen.

If any United States President should be in the Poker Hall of Fame, it’s Harry Truman. This was a man who loved to sit in a circle with friends and colleagues and play poker for hours on end. He truly loved to play poker and anticipated the games with childlike glee, writing: “You know, I’m almost like a kid – I can hardly wait to start!”

When he first started wooing his wife, Bess, in 1911, he made sure to tell her about “playing cards and dancing,” two vices he did for fun that religious people may not have approved of, but, as he wrote, “I don’t feel badly about.”

And why should he?

Golf, and more recently, jogging and basketball, are ways Presidents relax, but not Truman. The stocky, be-speckled Mid-Westerner did like to go on long walks, but he preferred a spot at the card table for marathon sessions of dealer’s choice over anything else. This was a man with poker on his mind. He called poker “his favorite form of paper work.”

His motto, “the buck stops here,” is actually an old poker phrase corrupted for modern uses. Writer James McManus, in his book Cowboy’s Full, claims that the phrase was one of Truman’s ways “of letting Americans know he was responsible for what happened on his watch.”

The “buck” in “the buck stops here,” referred to the buck knives that were sometimes used as the dealer’s button in games history forgot.

Truman spent countless hours playing poker in his life, often with men he knew as a young soldier in WWI, and always for the fun of the game and camaraderie it offered.

“To keep from going crazy, he had an almost continuous poker game,” said old Army buddy Captain Roger Sermon, in David McCullough’s fantastic biography, Truman. Poker is mentioned 30 times in this book.

He played in the field during WWI and the years after in the reserves, during his time in the White House, on ships and trains, surrounded by some of the most influential people in the world, but also by old friends he considered good card players and sports.

Truman at the Poker TableThe Harpie Club

Truman returned to Missouri after serving in the Army in WWI and became commissioner of Jackson County. There, he had a regular game made up of WWI veterans and county employees. Truman also served as county judge, and the games were held in a building across the street from the court house in Independence at 101 North Main Street. They became a club around 1924, named the Harpie Club, and Truman was the unofficial head.

According to Truman Presidential library researcher Raymond Geselbracht, the once-a-week games had a 10-cent limit with a max of three raises per turn. Truman played in this weekly game until he was elected to Senate in 1935.

Truman was not a cut throat player. Winning was not the sole reason he played cards. Particularly during the turbulent and extremely stressful months after Roosevelt died, he often used the games to relax and turn off the outside world. It was his mental health workout and he went to this “gym” often.

Bruce Lambert, a Harpie Club member and a regular in the Independence game, said Truman played a bit like a “chump.” He apparently was a major calling station who couldn’t stand to fold.

“He wanted to see what your hole card was, and knew anyone got a kick out of winning from him and he accommodated,” Lambert said in an oral history interview for the Truman Library in 1981. “But if he could whip you he got a big kick out of it.”

He never addressed it, but Truman most likely felt like a normal man playing a normal game when immersed in a poker session. It was something he always did, and he looked forward to his weekend games aboard the presidential yacht Williamsburg immensely. He was referring to that game when he wrote to his wife, Bess, about how it makes him feel like a kid.

Truman Plays Poker with Staff Aboard the WilliamsburgIn fact, during his presidency, he had carpenters contracted by the Navy build a custom poker table for these games on the Williamsburg and in his vacation home in Florida. Beautiful round table with room for seven players, it has slots carved in front of each player for their chips, and a metal cup holder for their drinks. The middle is covered with a perfectly round cut of green felt.

He also had chips made with the Presidential seal, and at least once, an aide was replaced for another because they admitted they didn’t drink or play cards. One table is now at Truman’s Little White House in Key West, Fla. The other is missing. The chips are at Truman’s Library.

He at least once returned to the Harpie Club as President. According to Gegelbracht, the game was held at a member’s house and no one would sit down until Truman did. Truman did well in this game, but had to make a quit exit after a Secret service agent whispered in his ear.

“The President jumped up hastily and said ‘good-bye boys’,” said Harpie Club member and poker player A.J. Stephens in an oral history interview in 1966. “(He) shot out of the door, leaving all those chips, which were cash-able for money. I wonder to this day who got his money.”

By most accounts, Truman’s games were not ultra-competitive. Truman wanted to win, but it was more important for him to make sure the people around him were having a good time and didn’t feel like they were getting slammed.

While President, his regular weekend games usually had a $500 buy-in, with an option to buy $500 more if the first is lost. The pots also were raked 10-percent, which went into “poverty bowl” to fund players who already lost both their buy-ins. Truman also reportedly encouraged shenanigans like taking chips from other player’s stacks and peaking at other people’s cards.

The games were serious in one huge way, though, particularly right at the end of WWII. The men playing in these games would have a major say in how the modern world would develop, even if they didn’t really understand the stakes at hand.

The Presidential Poker ChipsAfter Potsdam on a Boat and Churchill on a Train

Out of all the time Truman spent playing poker, there are two poker sessions Truman his crew undertook during his Presidency that are more historical than others.

The Potsdam Conference took place in Germany from July 17 to Aug. 2. It was a meeting with leaders of the Allies on how to handle post-war Germany. They also made the Potsdam Declaration, which outlined the surrender of Japan, which Japan rejected.

Truman told his allies about his ace-in-the-hole weapon, the atomic bomb. Joseph Stalin, with spies in the Manhattan Project, actually knew about the top-secret weapon before Truman did. But after Japan rejected surrendering, Truman authorized the use of the bomb any time after Aug. 3.

He boarded the USS Augusta knowing that any day the power of the atomic bomb would be unleashed on a city full of civilians. This was a decision that he made with a heavy heart, but he fully believed it was the only way to avoid mass American and Japanese casualties.

So what did Truman do to whittle away the hours zig-zagging across the Atlantic? He organized a week-long poker game that started every day at 8:30 a.m., lasting well after midnight. On August 6, he took time from his game to tell the world what just had happened to Hiroshima.

It was also during the game that Truman spilled the beans about the atomic program to members of the media who often played in his game. He trusted these people. It was a different time. They were all in it together, even as they were trying to take each other’s money. The war soon would be over and Truman kept his eyes on his cards.

Seven months later, Truman and Winston Churchill would board FDR’s old train, the Ferdinand Magellan, to deliver a speech in Missouri. Of course, Truman roped Churchill into a long card game after the former Prime Minister downed five scotches, according to McCullough. More from his Truman:

“Mr. President,” Churchill said. “I think when we are playing poker I shall call you Harry.”

“All right, Winston,” Truman said.

During the game when it was obvious Churchill would be the big loser, Truman encouraged the players go easy on the Englishman, despite making a promise earlier that they wouldn’t. Some of the players actually protested. Churchill, down about $250, quit the game at around 2:30 a.m. to get ready for his speech.

The train steamed to a college where Churchill would give what he called his most important speech. It would be known as the “iron curtain” speech. Churchill hated the Soviets, and this is when he outlined some of the main reasons the United States must stand against communism. Truman approved, and the course of the nation was again changed.

Truman never stopped playing and could be counted on to fill a seat long after he retired, with the same people he played with in the 1920s and beyond. It was his own personal pastime.

Check out some other editions of Men of Action below.

Art “The Chief” Rooney
Nick “The Greek” Dandolos
Arnold “The Big Bankroll” Rothstein
Bugsy Siegel and Billy Wilkerson
James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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