When we think of historical figures, such as US presidents, we rarely think of their private lives and pastimes. Which is why some may find their gambling habits surprising. Indeed, a startling number of US presidents had a love for poker. So if you’re a fan of gambling and presidential trivia, you will probably find this top ten list intriguing!
Throughout the early 19th century, a captivating new card game began spreading across the United States. Young men across the country became increasingly enthralled by the rising phenomenon of poker. And Abraham Lincoln, then worlds away from becoming the 16th Commander-in-Chief, was among these young men who dabbled in this increasingly popular card game.
Soon after his 22nd birthday, farmers hired Lincoln and some of his peers to deliver
Shipments of produce from Illinois to New Orleans. They’ve built a boat and sailed it down the Mississippi making these deliveries. In this era, poker games on steamboats became a staple of life on the Mississippi, so it stands to reason that Abraham Lincoln picked up his poker habit there.
Ulysses S. Grant
One of the first post-Civil War US presidents, Ulysses S. Grant, was also a regular at poker tables. And as it often happens in high society, the habits and pastimes of influential figures set new trends. With that in mind, the fact that poker became one of the favorite games in the US political circles is not surprising.
Because of this, high-stakes poker tables of the late 19th century became places where political careers were made and unmade. Many younger politicians used poker to climb the social ladders of US politics, such as the future president Theodore Roosevelt.
Among this younger generation of US politicians who have entered higher social circles as poker players, many would become prestigious individuals. And in time, one extraordinary man would rise to the ultimate prominence of presidency: Theodore Roosevelt.
His ascent to the Oval Office followed McKinley’s assassination. Thus, Roosevelt was in dire need of an image separate from the previous president. And Teddy Roosevelt sought this through a string of speeches on domestic reforms, which had many poker references in them. This group of policies even had a poker-related name: the ‘Square Deal,’ alluding to the phrase of playing card games ‘on the square’ — without cheating.
Warren G. Harding
While this list is testament enough to the fact that many US presidents enjoyed an occasional game of poker, no occupant of the Oval Office showed as much devotion to this game as Warren G. Harding. His presidency is definitely on the short side, having lasted only two and a half years before his untimely demise.
But during much of this time, Harding was a host of regular poker games in the White House, as often as twice a week. His cabinet spent enough time playing the game that they’ve earned the nickname the ‘Poker Cabinet.’ Ironically, although the 29th President was a great lover of poker, rumors say that his skills were lacking.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
In 1933, president Herbert Hoover was succeeded by one of the most famous presidents in American history — Franklin Delano Roosevelt. According to presidential historians, Roosevelt often liked to relax over a game of poker, usually with members of his staff. He even held a special game every year on the night on which the Congress would adjourn.
That particular game had a special rule, stating that the player who was ahead at the precise moment that Congress adjourned would be declared the winner. In one particularly entertaining instance, Roosevelt was losing badly; so when the call about the Congress’ adjournment came in, the president famously pretended it was someone else on the line. The game went on for another two hours until Roosevelt was ahead.
The man who took over the office from the FDR was himself a great admirer of poker — Harry Truman. In fact, many stories report that the news of Roosevelt’s death and his imminent presidency interrupted one of Truman’s poker games. Incidentally, Truman picked up poker as a young man during the Great War and kept playing on well into his senior years. In fact, the phrase he popularized — The Buck Stops Here — actually came from poker. In the game, the ‘buck’ was a common expression for the marker which indicated the dealer.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
The man who would eventually be succeeded by the legendary John F. Kennedy was also known as an avid poker player — Dwight D. Eisenhower. Before becoming a distinguished WWII general, Eisenhower learned poker in his home state of Kansas. He even went as far as to call it his ‘favorite indoor sport.’ Unlike Harding though, Eisenhower was actually an extremely skillful player. Reportedly, he even once bought a uniform from his winnings, in the days while he was still climbing the command chain of the US Army.
As an officer in the US Navy, Richard Nixon took up playing poker as WWII was raging around him. By the admission of his fellow players, Gerald Ford’s predecessor was quite a formidable poker player. By the looks of it, Nixon took the game more seriously than a hobby. Generally, the 37th president played conservatively. But unlike his successor Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon was still a passionate gambler. By all accounts, he did bluff rarely, but convincingly. His relationship with poker extends beyond a simple pastime; reportedly, Nixon even financed his presidential campaign using some of his poker winnings.
While the man who succeeded George HW Bush’s son in the Oval Office was not famous as a gambler, Barack Obama still named poker as one of his casual hobbies. Much like the aforementioned Theodore Roosevelt, poker would also turn out to be a key driver of Obama’s early political career. Prior to his ascent to the national political arena, he took part in a weekly poker game with other Illinois state senators. This was just one of the ways the young Obama crafted his political connections.
The current presidential incumbent takes a special spot on our list — not as a famous poker player, but rather as a facilitator of the game. Indeed, for years before becoming president, Donald Trump was the owner of a chain of hotel-casinos. However, a series of bankruptcies hit his gaming company a few years before his presidency.