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The Pokertician

by James McManus |  Published: Jan 09, 2009


Barack Obama plays pokerPoker skill didn't vault Barack Obama into the presidency. No cold-eyed read of a Hillary Clinton tell made it obvious he should reraise her claims to be an agent of change. Nor did he shrewdly calculate the pot odds necessary to call John McCain on his commitment to the Bush tax cuts or extending the war in Iraq. At least not literally, he didn't. But when Sen. Obama was asked by the Associated Press in 2007 to list a hidden talent, he said, "I'm a pretty good poker player," and the evidence suggests he was right. This puts him in the company of Chester Arthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon. But by limiting his play to small, friendly games, Mr. Obama is more like Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He also seems to have played the national card game, as Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson once did, at least in part because of the entrée it gave him to political circles he would not have had otherwise.The young writer, law professor, and civil rights attorney was greeted coolly by some of his fellow legislators when, in 1997, he arrived in Springfield to take a seat in the Illinois Senate. Springfield had long been the province of cynical backroom operators, hidebound Republicans and Democrats addicted to partisan gridlock. So how was this ink-stained, highly educated greenhorn supposed to get along with Chicago ward heelers and conservative downstate farmers? By playing poker with them, of course.

"When it turned out that I could sit down at [a bar] and have a beer and watch a game or go out for a round of golf or get a poker game going," Obama recalled, "I probably confounded some of their expectations." He was referring to the regular Wednesday night game that he and his fellow freshman senator, Terry LinkTerry Link, a Democrat from suburban Lake County, got going in the basement of Link's Springfield house. Called "the Committee Meeting," its initial core was four players but quickly grew to eight regulars, including Republicans and lobbyists, and developed a waiting list. But whatever your affiliation, Link says, "You hung up your guns at the door. Nobody talked about their jobs or politics, and certainly no 'influence' was bartered or even discussed. It was boys' night out – a release from our legislative responsibilities." Banking lobbyist David Manning recalls, "We all became buddies in the card games, but there never were any favors granted." Another regular was a lobbyist for the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, and the game eventually moved to the association's office – which didn't keep Sen. Obama from voting to raise taxes and fees for manufacturers. He says the games were simply "a fun way for people to relax and share stories and give each other a hard time over friendly competition," adding that they provided "an easy way to get to know other senators – including Republicans."

Most "meetings" began at 7 o'clock and ran until 2 in the morning, with the players sustained by pizza, chips, beer, cigars, and good fellowship. Obama wore workout clothes and a baseball cap, but his approach to the cards wasn't casual. He wanted to win. His analytical background – Harvard Law Review, lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School – helped him hold his own at stud and hold'em, though it did him less good in the sillier, luck-based variants other players inevitably chose, such as "baseball" and "7-33."

Larry WalshLink, who probably played more hands with Obama than anyone in Springfield, observed that his lanky table-mate played "calculated" poker, avoiding long-shot draws in favor of patiently waiting for strong starting hands. "Barack wasn't one of those foolish gamblers who just thought all of a sudden that card in the middle [of the deck] was going to show up mysteriously." He relied on his brain, in other words, instead of his gut or the seat of his pants. "When Barack stayed in, you pretty much figured he's got a good hand," recalls Larry Walsh, a conservative corn farmer representing Joliet, who neglected to note that such a rock-solid image made it easier for Obama to bluff. "He had the stone face," Link recalled.

Yet even as one of the boys – bluffing, drinking, bumming smokes, laughing at the off-color yarns – there were lines he wouldn't cross. When a married lobbyist arrived at a Springfield office game with someone described as "an inebriated woman companion who did not acquit herself in a particularly wholesome fashion," Obama made it clear he wasn't pleased, though he managed to do it without offending his poker buddies.

Obama also made sure he never played for stakes he couldn't easily afford. Only on a very bad night could one drop a hundred bucks in these games, typical wins and losses being closer to $25. Among the regulars, the consensus was that "Obama usually left a winner." The bottom line politically was that poker provided the occasion on Wednesday nights for getting to know people he needed to work with in the legislature.

"Barry," as he was called before college, had learned the game from his maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham, a World War II Army veteran whose black friends played poker, as well. Barry also played with classmates at Punahou High School in Honolulu. His best game, however, was basketball. He wore a Dr. J 'fro, and his teammates respectfully called him "Barry O'Bomber." They won the state championship in 1979, and Obama later told HBO's Bryant Gumbel that, despite the "O'Bomber" nickname, "My actual talent was in my first step. I could get to the rim on anybody." His problem as an in-shape, 36-year-old legislator was that very few pols who'd been around long enough to run things in Springfield could still make it up and down a hard court. Hence, the game in Link's basement. To connect with those who didn't play basketball or poker, he also took up golf, a game at which Link says "he wasn't a natural."

But the freshman legislator seems to have understood that, as a networking tool, poker is the most efficient pastime of all. Its tables often serve as less genteel clubs for students, workers, businessmen, and politicians of every rank and persuasion. Instead of walking down fairways 40 yards apart from each other, throwing elbows in the paint, or quietly hunting pheasant or muskie, poker buddies are elbow to elbow all night, competing and drinking and talking. The experience can tell them a lot about the other fellows' ability to make sound decisions, whether parliamentary or electoral, tactical or strategic. As Abner Mikva, one of the deans of Chicago's legal and political worlds and a longtime Obama advisor, put it simply, "He understands how you network."

The post-partisan networking paid off when, against all expectations, Obama hammered out a compromise bill called "the first significant campaign reform law in Illinois in 25 years" and other bills mandating tax credits for the working poor, the videotaping of police interrogations, and reform of the state's antiquated campaign-finance system.

When Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, it helped that his charismatic, well-funded opponent, Jack Ryan, was torpedoed by a sex scandal, and that Ryan's replacement, Alan Keyes, was a perennially losing candidate of the extreme right who had never lived in Illinois. To no one's surprise, especially after Obama's keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in July made him an even brighter political star, he easily won election to the Senate in November.

John KerryJohn Kerry's loss at the top of the ticket, however, prompted David Mamet to write an unconventional postmortem for the Los Angeles Times. "The Republicans, like the perpetual raiser at the poker table, became increasingly bold as the Democrats signaled their absolute reluctance to seize the initiative," he said, arguing that Kerry had lost in part because of his timid response to the distortion of his service in Vietnam. "A decorated war hero muddled himself in merely 'calling' the attacks of a man with, curiously, a vanishing record of military attendance." Mamet went on to say, "Control of the initiative is control of the battle. In the alley, at the poker table, or in politics, one must raise. … How, the undecided electorate rightly wondered, could one believe that Kerry would stand up for America when he could not stand up to Bush?" Mamet made his poker parallel even more specific by suggesting that a better "response to the Swift boat veterans would have been, 'I served. John McCainHe didn't. I didn't bring up the subject, but, if all George Bush has to show for his time in the Guard is a scrap of paper with some doodling on it, I say the man was a deserter.' This would have been a raise. Here the initiative has been seized, and the opponent must now fume and bluster and scream unfair. In combat, in politics, in poker, there is no certainty; there is only likelihood, and the likelihood is that aggression will prevail. … One may sit at the poker table all night and never bet and still go home broke, having anted away one's stake." Anticipating future elections, Mamet chided the Democrats for "anteing away their time at the table. They may be bold and risk defeat, or be passive and ensure it."

Adm. John S. McCain Jr.Mamet's point is oddly in sync with advice Adm. John S. McCain Jr. (1911-1981) once gave his children. "Life is run by poker players, not the systems analysts," he told them, referring to poker players' cunning and toughness, and their tendency to have a bold strategic vision, not fussy myopia. His son John III, while certainly cunning and tough, turned out to prefer craps, a loud, mindless game in which the player never has a strategic advantage and must make impulsive decisions, then rely on blind luck. His selection of Sarah Palin for the vice-presidential slot and unsteady response to the economic crisis were two of the more egregious examples of the dice-rolling mindset.

The advance preparation of a separate Web site, including a 15-minute documentary video about McCain's role in the savings and loan scandal of 1989, is but one piece of evidence that the Obama campaign understood Mamet's point about raising. As the candidate himself put it, "We don't throw the first punch, but we'll throw the last." In other words, if the McCain campaign or its surrogates wanted to raise the specter of Bill Ayers or Jeremiah Wright, Obama was going to reraise. He had also told his fledgling staff back in January 2007, "Let's put our chips in the middle of the table and see how we do."

It remains to be seen where President Obama will come down on the UIGEA question. My sense is that he finds the bill deplorable, but understands fixing it will have to wait until vastly more important issues – the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, health care – are successfully addressed. In the meantime, it's surely a good thing to have a cool, analytical, poker-loving chief executive in the White House, and someone who will know how to deploy the game's tactics and psychology in his role as commander in chief. I doubt he'll have chips embossed with the presidential seal, as Harry Truman did for his stud games, but it's easy to imagine a hold'em game or two breaking out in the Blue Room between now and 2016.


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