POKER Presidential poker

‘I like to play cards and dance’

–          Harry S. Truman

Is poker a prerequisite to being a US president? It is not specifically known if the likes of George Washington and John Adams ever gathered their friends in a secluded gallery and play Seven Card Stud by the light of a lantern (“One pair if by land, two pair if by sea…?”). However, it is known that Dwight D. Eisenhower played the game, and we already have discussed the influence poker had on a certain Richard M. Nixon before and his amazing poker prowess. Today it’s ‘Truman’s Turn’…

Of the long and illustrious political career of Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president, more than enough has been said; many books and publications have already been written.  However, like Nixon, Truman was fond of the game of poker long before entering the oval office.

Truman had learned to play cards from his Aunt Ida and Uncle Harry on their Missouri farm back in the 1890s – an era still nominally associated with the old west. In 1911, writing to a young lady named he was courting at the time, Bess Wallace, the 26-year-old suitor said, “I like to play cards and dance . . . and go to shows and do all the things [religious people] say I shouldn’t, but I don’t feel badly about it.”

When he was sworn in as President of the United States, his poker buddies feared he might stop playing now that he had been “promoted.” However, the new Chief Executive not only pledged to continue playing, he even requisitioned a set of chips embossed with the presidential seal for use in the White House, though he tried to avoid being photographed gambling on its premises. The American conservative public may have been tolerant in those days, but not that tolerant…

The first clear record of his poker playing is of games played in the early 1920s. Truman served as a judge in Independence, Mo., where he kept an active poker table, sharing it with his army buddies. Many games took place across the street from his courthouse in a third-floor room at 101 North Main Street. The regular players called themselves the Harpie Club, after the harmonicas they played at memorial ceremonies, with Truman serving as their unofficial president. He hardly missed a poker session until he moved to Washington as a senator.

In France, Lieutenant Truman split his time between artillery training and poker. He learned to master Stud as well as the capabilities of a new French 75mm cannon called the “Devil Gun” by the Germans.

Following the declaration of ceasefire in November 1945, while waiting to return home, Truman and his friends passed much of the time in poker games that went on for decades after they were demobilized. The collection of army gear preserved at the Truman Library includes three dog-eared poker decks.

In 1945 Truman was returning from Potsdam, Germany, by sea, and while awaiting news concerning the nuclear device he had ordered launched on Hiroshima, the Commander-in-Chief tried to relax in a week-long stud game with journalists aboard the heavy cruiser Augusta.

Following the surrender of Japan, Truman and his poker cabinet often cruised the Potomac river on weekends aboard the presidential yacht Williamsburg. During the leisurely meals, discussions were set around history or politics. However, once a poker game began, the stakes were high: Truman’s crew started with $500 in chips, with a one-time option to rebuy.

Truman vs. Churchill: Heads-Up of the Heavyweights…

On March 4, 1946, when Winston Churchill joined Truman’s game aboard FDR’s old armored railroad car, the Ferdinand Magellan, for a trip to Fulton, Mo., where Churchill was to deliver his famous “Iron Curtain” speech regarding  Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe.

Churchill had downed five glasses of fine scotch before the action began, and now he pretended that he hadn’t the foggiest idea how to play. That night Churchill lost steadily—so much, in fact, that when the great Brit left the table for a moment, Truman told his companions to let up a bit. “But, Boss, this guy’s a pigeon,” said General 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.”

Truman was concerned about the honor of American poker players, and he and his companions felt they would have to play their best. As the game progressed, however, Churchill lost steadily, and his stack of chips dwindled. After about an hour of this disastrous play, Churchill left the room for a moment. Truman told his companions that they would have to let up some. “But, Boss, this guy’s a pigeon” one of the players, Harry Vaughan, burst out. “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.” The players did let up on Churchill some, but not enough to let him go back home claiming he had beaten the Yanks. At 2:30 a.m. Churchill retired from the game, down $250.  After all, he needed some sleep before giving his speech.

Truman loved poker for similar reasons that he loved politics: There was a dimension in the game that let him share in the lives of people he liked and see them as they really were, underneath whatever formalities they usually had to adopt when they dealt with a judge, senator, President, or former President. Poker also gave him a chance to make his friends happy in some small ways, which was very important to him. “I’ve tried all my life,” he wrote to Bess in 1937, “to be thoughtful and to make every person I come in contact with happier for having seen me.”

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