Tricky Dicky

America's the most powerful entity in the world, but without poker things might have been very different

A man who can’t hold a hand in a first-class poker game is not fit to be president

Officially, former US president Richard M. Nixon gave up playing serious poker in 1946, soon after he was elected to serve in the United States Congress. Back then the attorney from Whittier, California, insisted that it looked a little unsavoury for a man of his position to be gambling. It’s a pity, as the White House, where Nixon spent the better part of eight years, would have been the ultimate pad for a poker game: big, well-lit rooms; food and drink at the ready; secret service agents who can double as dealers; and no shortage of tables or chairs. It’s particularly unfortunate for Nixon, when you consider the Watergate scandal essentially amounted to overplaying a bluff and misreading opponents, that rustiness in such matters perhaps contributed, at least a little, to his undoing.

Training ground

If his success in Washington was rooted in the moves and deceptions crafted at the card table (Nixon’s pretty much acknowledged this to be true), then it stands to reason that his political strategies first took root while stationed in the South Pacific, with the US Navy, in 1942. Suffering from the boredom of life at sea, 29-year-old lieutenant commander Nixon decided to pursue something more mentally challenging (and financially rewarding) than writing letters to his wife Pat and devouring issues of Life magazine. He turned to poker, checking out the games that fellow enlisted men played around the clock. Nixon observed the players’ strategies and absorbed the game’s rudiments. When you consider the intriguing nature of poker, it’s hardly surprising that by the time he and his comrades had docked on the island of New Caledonia, Nixon was sufficiently bit by the card-playing bug – despite being raised as a Quaker and taught that gambling was taboo.

Like almost everyone who’s freshly smitten with the game, he found it more interesting than anything else around him. He’d sit on his own, silently contemplating hands, figuring out what to do if he’s on an open-ended straight draw after an opponent appears to have been dealt trips on the flop.

According to retired lieutenant James Stewart, as quoted in The Real Nixon, by Bela Kornitzer, ‘One day I noticed Nick [the name that guys in the Navy called Nixon] lost in his thoughts. Finally he asked: “Is there any sure way to win at poker?’” Stewart, already savvy at the game, offered the kind of logical, pre-Sklansky, pre-Super System advice that would have been useful back in the loosey-goosey 1940s: only stay in if you are sure you hold the best cards. ‘Nick liked what I said. I gave him his first lessons We played two-handed poker without money for four or five days until he learned the various plays. Soon his playing became tops. He never raised unless he was convenced he had the best hand.’

Lessons in life

Nixon, for the most part, played tight but aggressive and viewed poker as a metaphor, learning life lessons wherever he could. As he wrote in his memoir: ‘I found playing poker instructive as well as entertaining and profitable, I learned that the people who have the cards are usually the ones who talk the least and softest; those who are bluffing tend to talk loudly and give themselves away.’

Life everyone who rakes in the bucks at poker and finds it to be mentally stimulating, Nixon made the game the centrepiece of his life. So much so that when famed airman Charles Lingbergh passed through the South pacific, flight-testing fighter planes, Nixon essentially blew him out as there was more pressing business at hand: a poker game. Nixon would later write that it ‘seems incredible that I passed up the opportunity to have dinner with Charles Lindbergh because of a card game. But our poker game was more than an idle pastime, and the etiquette surrounding it taken very seriously’.

Most importantly, Nixon was on a rush. According to varying accounts, he pulled down anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 during his two-year stint in the Navy. Or else, beyond the allconsuming rush factor, maybe he was just following the advice of a drama coach at Whittier College, in southern California, who insisted: ‘A man who can’t hold a hand in a first-class poker game is not fit to be president.’

The hustler

Besides, lessons learned at the table surely served him better than a dinner with Lindbergh ever would. Years later, when it came to foreign policy – and its attendant negotiations – President Nixon operated with all the cunning of a card hustler During potentially tense times, in the midst of his arduous dealings with the Russians and Chinese, he handled foreign leaders as if they were flinty-eyed high rollers at the Horseshoe casino. Poker, Nixon has acknowledged, taught him to control all the tells that come with a big hand and a big pot (or the risk of setting off a nuclear war). In dealing with foreign leaders, he instinctively knew how to modulate his breathing, keep his stomach muscles from visibly tightening and sublimate any physical tics that would telegraph information.

And regardless of what people think of Nixon’s years in office, or his handling of the Vietnam war, he passed his poker requirements with flying colours – and massive stacks of chips. But they were built slowly and steadily without major swings one way or the other. Officers who played with Nixon recall that he routinely finished a night at the tables with a profit of $30 to $60. He was always very controlled, eager to take advantage of competitors who had a little too much to drink. According to lieutenant James Udall, quoted in Nixon: The Education of a Politician, by Stephen Ambrose, ‘[Nixon] played a quiet game but he was not afraid of taking chances He wasn’t afraid of running a bluff. I once saw him bluff a lieutenant commander out of $1,500 with a pair of deuces.’

On his return to the States, Nixon focused on his legal career before being tipped as a candidate for COngress on the Republican ticket in 1946. Nixon used a chunk of his poker winnings to finance his route into politics and, like all great poker players, the burgeoning public servant was always full of ambition, always eyeing bigger, more rewarding games. For Nixon, of course, the biggest game of all was the US presidency.

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