Probably the two best poker players to occupy the Oval Office in the 20th century were Harry S. Truman and Richard Nixon. However, before I can discuss them in poker terms I need to point out that I hold to the theory that poker players fall into four basic categories.
1. Players who don’t know what they are doing. These of course are the best ones to play against.
2. Players who try to judge the others players around the table. Amateur psychologists who play the person as much or more than the cards. They try to figure out who raises when they have nothing and who raises when they are loaded and play accordingly. They will stay in to the end with shit cards if they think the other guy is bluffing.
3. Players who play the odds. They know the probabilities and do not stay in a hand unless the odds are in their favor. An extreme example of this type of player is the guy who will only stay in a 7-stud game if his hole cards are a pair or Ace/King. (If you just played the odds you are almost guaranteed to win but poker wouldn't be much fun.)
4. This guy is a combination of the player who can player the other players around the table as well as know the probabilities involved with the cards exposed at the table. This is the most dangerous type of player to play against. Basically, anyone who has ever made it to the final table at the World Series of Poker would fall into this category. (By the way - just like everyone thinks they have a sense of humor - everyone who plays poker sees themselves as a category 4 player.)
Harry S. Truman fell into this forth category. Truman was a regular at Vice President John Nance Garner'’s poker game when Truman was a Senator. (Interestingly – Truman would later replace Garner as VP. Garner is also the man who described the job of VP not being worth a warm jug of spit.) At these games Truman became friends with Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and members of the House from both parties. Truman’s reputation as honest, smart and humorous came in large part from participating in these poker games.
Truman would often play poker a few nights a week. The games could be with friends from back home in Missouri, newspapermen when he was traveling or other Senators back in Washington. Poker is something Truman did for fun and relaxation. It is a habit he kept throughout his time in Washington including all his time as President. (I should note that although poker may have been a habit with Truman – losing was not. Truman was an excellent poker player.)
Richard Nixon was a very different person from Truman and they also differed greatly when it came to poker.
Nixon was raised a Quaker but that did not stop him from either joining the Navy or from making a tidy sum playing poker in the service.
Nixon was poor (as was Truman) but didn’t have Truman’'s ease with people. Nixon, however, had a great analytical mind. At his height, Nixon was a category four player but in his heart he was really a category three player. Nixon knew the odds and liked to take advantage of them when they were in his favor.
Nixon was such a good poker player that he was able to finance his first run for Congress with $10,000 he won playing poker in the service (that was quite a bit of money back then). The higher Nixon rose, however, the less poker he played. By the time he became Vice President – Nixon had stopped playing altogether,
I have to think that if Nixon had kept his wit and person reading/interaction skills sharp by playing poker that his Presidency would have had a much different ending.