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I had the odd experience of playing craps for several hours with John McCain, during the run-up to his 2008 presidential campaign. The qualities I saw—thousands of dollars in chips manically thrown onto the felt in hope that lady luck would bless them—did not portend presidential greatness. Barack Obama’s gambling preference, poker, has far stronger provenance, with decisive presidents like Jackson and Truman and Teddy Roosevelt lauding its strategic virtues.
That makes the unilateral and one-sided concessions Obama has increasingly been making—most notably this week’s tax deal, but also last month’s unilateral federal wage freeze and a half-dozen earlier unreciprocated health-care and fiscal concessions—all the more baffling. As any serious player can explain, poker has nothing to do with cards (a three-year-old can memorize the rote full house-beats-flush-beats-straight rules) and everything to do with reading people and displaying strength in order to compel a desired outcome.
So how did our poker-playing president, who once self-rated his skills as “pretty good,” so quickly gain a reputation as a pushover, notably among members of his own party? Perhaps it’s better to examine that question in reverse: Could Obama’s poker habits have predicted his negotiating style?
“A very cautious player,” says Illinois state Senator Terry Link, who between 1997 and 2004 hosted a weekly game with Obama and other lawmakers at his house on Seventh Street in Springfield. “Very cautious in the sense that he didn’t just throw his money away. He played the odds. He didn’t play for the inside straight.”
“Barack was a very good, very conservative poker player,” adds Larry Walsh, now the executive of Will County, outside Chicago. “He held his cards close to his vest. Very rarely did you find Barack Obama being caught by surprise.”
Their Wednesday game had a codename, “the committee meeting” (“people would come up and say, ‘Is there a committee meeting tonight?’,” remembers Walsh ), and it became so popular among Democrats, Republicans and lobbyists alike that two tables were sometimes required. The game started at a local country club, moved to Link’s living room, and then finally to his basement, which Link transformed into a full-blown poker den, complete with vents to accommodate all the cigarette and cigar smoking. (“I refuse to answer that question,” he chuckles, when asking about Obama’s puffing habits, “because I know Michelle too well.”)