The other day I stumbled across a Time magazine piece published back in July 2008, soon after John McCain and Barack Obama had emerged as their parties’ nominees. The premise of the piece was that both men liked to gamble, and that “games of chance have been not just a hobby but also a fundamental feature of their development as people and politicians.”
McCain, for example, loves to play craps, which the piece describes as “a game for showmen, Hollywood stars and basketball legends with girls on their arms.” Dice in hand, money on the table, a crowd gathered along the rails to cheer him on, a craps player basks in attention and adrenalin.
“For McCain, jaunts to the craps table helped burnish his image as a political hot dog who relishes the thrill of a good fight,” the Time piece notes, “even if the risk of failure was high.”
I’m usually wary of pieces that attempt to psycho-analyze candidates, especially when viewed through a single lens such as their choice of gambling outlets. But in hindsight, McCain’s subsequent behavior validated the Time thesis. A few weeks after the piece appeared, he rolled the dice in a high-stakes gamble on Sarah Palin, and did so again when he announced that he was suspending his campaign to rush back to Washington to save the American economy. Neither gamble paid off, but they were consistent with his personality.
Obama, on the other hand, is a poker player by nature. As an Illinois state senator, he was a regular in a weekly late-night poker game among lobbyists and fellow legislators. Interviewing other regulars in those games, the Time reporters found that Obama had a reputation as a conservative player. He’d fold losing hands quickly, but if he chose to stay in the game, it usually meant he had calculated the odds and was in it to win. Rather than force things, he patiently let the game come to him:
“The stakes were low enough — $1 ante and $3 top raise — to afford a long shot. Not Obama. He studied the cards as closely as an 11th-hour amendment to a bill. The odds were religion to him. Only rarely did he bluff….”
Obama’s play-to-win approach drove other players crazy. Former state Sen. Larry Walsh, a conservative corn farmer from Joliet, once got ready to pull in a pot with a four-of-a-kind hand. But Obama had four of a kind too, of higher rank. Walsh slammed down his cards. “Doggone it, Barack, if you were more liberal in your card-playing and more conservative in your politics, you and I would get along much better,” he said.
In hindsight, that also seems to have been prescient. As president, Obama has tended to abandon losing hands quickly, often to the frustration of liberal supporters who want to see him fight it out. However, when he draws a strong hand, the last few years have proved that he plays it well and reaps maximum advantage from it.
– Jay Bookman