The game of Presidents

Obama, Bush and Nixon as poker players.

The Sunday Telegraph (I only take this blimpish paper for the listings) recently carried a piece by its poker correspondent on American politicians – sorry no link. Barack Obama plays a regular low-stakes game with other Senators: his style is, it seems, the conservative, odds-based one recommended by Herbert Yardley’s 1957 classic The Education of a Poker Player. This won’t make anybody rich, but it won’t make them poor either.

The article claims plausibly that the best player among recent American statesmen was Richard Nixon, who financed his first run for Congress in 1946 with wartime poker winnings. As this non-player understands it, to win against competent players who have absorbed Yardley’s rules requires skill both in reading and manipulating the personalities of one’s opponents and in concealing one’s own. These may be handy attributes in a politician, but are hardly virtues. I am relieved that in this field Obama is no more than competent.

The oddity here is George W. Bush, a regular player while a student at Yale and Harvard; and not a bad one in that cohort. But as President, he has shown himself a reckless gambler, with no sign of the good card player’s prudent calculation. So did he learn no sophrosyne from his poker games? Or was he simply surrounded by other callow and reckless young men who would have been easy marks had they run into serious predators like Nixon? Was he in fact an intelligent young man but lost it later through drugs and booze? Or did he just learn the wrong lessons: that life is a zero-sum game and losers deserve their fate?

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web