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May 15, 2008

Presidents at the poker table

Given the high-stakes gamble of being president, it's no surprise that several of our 20th century presidents have played the game of poker:

The first president who we are sure played poker was Grover Cleveland. He was an especially hard-working president and took time off on many a Sunday afternoon to play the game. "My father used to say that it was wicked to go fishing on Sunday," he once explained, "but he never said anything about draw-poker."

Warren G. Harding's advisers were known as the Poker Cabinet because they frequently played poker together. Harding played at least twice a week and gambled away a priceless set of White House china dating back to the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes.

Because of paraplegia brought on by his polio, Franklin D. Roosevelt was unable to relax by taking long walks or playing golf or tennis. But he often had dinner with his poker-playing pals and then adjourned to a marathon session of cards. His favorite game was seven-card stud. Among the regulars were the Vice President, Speaker of the House, Attorney General, Secretary of Commerce, and at least one Supreme Court Justice. The President's secretary, "Missy" LeHand served cocktails and often played in the game. One of the rules was that nobody could discuss anything serious at the evening poker sessions. The only thought was how to outfox the other players.

Roosevelt selected as his last vice president another poker player. Harry S. Truman was playing poker when he found out that he had become president. Truman was known as an excellent poker player, and "The buck stops here" became the famous slogan of his administration. (The "buck" actually refers to a betting marker in poker.)

In office for just a few months, Truman had to decide whether or not to drop the atomic bomb on Japanese cities in order to bring World War II to a close. To help him focus during the decision-making process, Truman engaged in an almost continuous game of pot-limit poker aboard the presidential yacht, the Williamsburg. Often all three branches of government were represented at the poker table. The group would board the ship Friday afternoon and sail the Potomac until Sunday afternoon.

Born a Quaker, Richard Nixon remained unfamiliar with any form of gambling until his mid-20s. But during his World War II years in the Navy, Nixon won $6,000, which helped to fund his initial -- and successful -- run for Congress.

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