The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For U.S. presidents, poker is a main event

John Cynn won the 2018 World Series of Poker’s main event. (John Locher/AP)

We are in the midst of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, with the world championship $10,000 buy-in Main Event beginning July 3, and in its 50th year this annual festival dwarfs the World Series of Baseball in one very unmistakable manner:

The World Series of Poker is a true world series.

Baseball’s alleged World Series is the championship of the United States and Toronto. The WSOP Main Event is the championship of the world — last year, 83 nations were represented, with 2,116 of the 7,874 entrants from outside the U.S.

Frankly, I would argue — and I am arguing — that in addition to having a great international presence, poker is more of an American game than baseball.

You need look no further than the White House.

Many, many presidents played poker as adults before, during and after their administrations. Of course, no presidents have played adult baseball — though George W. Bush was part-owner of the Texas Rangers for a while — and the only MLB presidential activity is the occasional “throwing out the first pitch” at a game after sometimes getting booed.

Let’s kick-start this column by listing four presidential poker facts — well, three facts and one falsehood. You have to pick the imposter!

(a) Richard Nixon loved playing in the Navy, winning enough to help finance his first congressional campaign.

(b) Rutherford B. Hayes built a “man cave” of sorts on the South Lawn, where he played a Friday night game when Congress was in session.

(c) Dwight Eisenhower loved playing in the Army, winning enough to pay for an engagement ring for Mamie.

(d) Warren Harding liked playing twice a week in office and reputedly once lost an entire set of White House china on a poker bet.

The falsehood? It is (b) — Hayes didn’t even own a deck of cards; well, his wife did.

(Usual disclosure: I have been the “color commentator” for ESPN’s World Series of Poker telecasts since 2003 despite knowing very little about poker or broadcasting, joined by my partner Lon McEachern, who also knows very little about cards or TV. We are proof you can fail upward in America, or get elected.)

Among the other presidents who played poker were Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Barack Obama.

Harding’s advisers played so often with the boss, they were known as the “Poker Cabinet.”

FDR played a regular nickel-ante game in the White House study. His favorite stud games were one-eyed jacks wild and “Woolworth’s,” in which fives and tens were wild.

(Note to readers — or to my reader — under the age of 30: Woolworth’s was a “five-and-dime” department store in the 20th century.)

Truman’s motto, “The buck stops here,” was actually a poker expression; in the 19th century, hunting knives with buckhorn handles were used as the dealer button.

On March 4, 1946, Truman and Winston Churchill played poker on the presidential train en route to Fulton, Mo. Churchill had five Scotches before the game even began, lost $250 and gave up at 2:30 a.m. — he needed to sober up for his famous Iron Curtain speech the next day and needed to sober up for the Cold War.

Which reminds me — in 1271, Kublai Khan’s chief of staff check-raised the emperor at a home game, and the poor sap was working port authority at the Black Sea within a week.*

(*This is probably a falsehood.)

Our current POTUS, Donald Trump, does not play poker. But he created the U.S. Poker Championship for his Trump Taj Mahal casino in 1998, another one of his myriad business failures, held annually until 2010.

As part of ESPN’s coverage of the event in 2006, Trump offered “Trump’s Power Tips” coming out of commercial breaks.

Here was one of them:

“When somebody challenges you, fight back. Don’t let them push you around. Don’t be a sucker. Fight back 10 times harder than they ever thought. Guess what? They’ll never play games with you again.”

I guess he wasn’t bluffing.

Ask The Slouch

Q. With an ever-increasing amount of time being devoted to reporting NBA, NFL and MLB offseason activities combined with their never-ending playoffs, could pro sports eventually phase out all regular-season games? (Mike Soper; Washington, D.C.)

A. I nominate you for worldwide sports commissioner. First duty: Phase out FIFA.

Q. On a scale from 1 to 10, how happy were you when the Boston Bruins lost Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals on their home ice? (Don Pollins; Hyattsville, Md.)

A. I don’t know about 1 to 10, but I moved to St. Louis during the second intermission to be there to shake all the Blues’ hands when they flew home.

Q. I’m a tax attorney and the $1.25 your questioners win is fully taxable, contrary to last week’s answer. I’ll certainly report it on my tax return (rounded down to $1) if you print this question. (Gil Rothenberg; Fairfax Station, Va.)

A. You just bought yourself an audit, pal.

Q. Do you see the irony behind writing about LeBron James asking people to stop talking about him? (Kim Hemphill; South Riding, Va.)

A. No.