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Excerpt: 'Cowboys Full: The Story Of Poker'

Cowboys Full book cover


The game is the same, it's just up on another level.
--Bob Dylan, "Po' Boy"

Poker skill didn't vault Barack Obama into the presidency. No cool-eyed read of a Hillary Clinton tell made it obvious he should reraise her claims to be an agent of change. Nor did he shrewdly calculate the pot odds necessary to call John McCain on his commitment to the Bush economic policies or extending the war in Iraq. At least not literally, he didn't. But when Senator Obama was asked by the Associated Press in 2007 to list a hidden talent, he said, "I'm a pretty good poker player." He seemed to be talking about the tabletop card game, but the evidence also suggests he was right in the much larger sense.

As a writer, law professor, and community organizer, Obama was greeted coolly by some of his fellow legislators when, in 1998, he arrived in Springfield to take a seat in the Illinois Senate. Springfield had long been the province of cynical, corrupt backroom operators, hidebound Republicans and Democrats addicted to partisan gridlock. So how was this ink-stained, highly educated greenhorn supposed to get along with Chicago ward heelers and conservative downstate farmers? By playing poker with them, of course.

"When it turned out that I could sit down at [a bar] and have a beer and watch a game or go out for a round of golf or get a poker game going," Obama recalled, "I probably confounded some of their expectations." He was referring to the regular Wednesday night game that he and his fellow freshman senator, Terry Link, a Democrat from suburban Lake County, got going in the basement of Link's Springfield house. Called the Committee Meeting, its initial core was four players, but it quickly grew to eight regulars, including Republicans and lobbyists, and developed a waiting list. But whatever your affiliation, Link says, "You hung up your guns at the door. Nobody talked about their jobs or politics, and certainly no 'influence' was bartered or even discussed. It was boys' night out--a release from our legislative responsibilities." The banking lobbyist David Manning recalls, "We all became buddies in the card games, but there never were any favors granted." Another regular was a lobbyist for the Illinois Manufacturers' Association, and the game eventually moved to the association's office — which didn't keep Senator Obama from voting to raise taxes and fees for manufacturers. He says the games were simply "a fun way for people to relax and share stories and give each other a hard time over friendly competition," adding that they provided "an easy way to get to know other senators--including Republicans."

Most Committee Meetings began at seven o'clock and ran until two in the morning, with the players sustained by pizza, chips, beer, cigars, and good fellowship. Obama wore workout clothes and a baseball cap, but his approach to the cards wasn't casual. He wanted to win. His analytical background--president of the Harvard Law Review, University

of Chicago law professor — helped him hold his own at stud and hold'em, though it did him less good in the sillier, luck-based variants other players chose, such as baseball and 7-33.

Link, who probably played more hands with Obama than anyone else in Springfield, observed that his lanky table-mate played "calculated" poker, avoiding long-shot draws in favor of patiently waiting for strong starting hands. "Barack wasn't one of those foolish gamblers who just thought all of a sudden that card in the middle [of the deck] was going to show up mysteriously." He relied on his brain, in other words, instead of his gut or the seat of his pants. "When Barack stayed in, you pretty much figured he's got a good hand," recalls Larry Walsh, a conservative corn farmer representing Joliet, who neglected to note that such a rock-solid image made it easier for Obama to bluff. "He had the stone face," Link recalled.

Yet even as one of the boys — bluffing, drinking, bumming smokes, laughing at off-color yarns — there were lines he wouldn't cross. When a married lobbyist arrived at a Springfield office game with someone described as "an inebriated woman companion who did not acquit herself in a particularly wholesome fashion," Obama made it clear he wasn't pleased, though he managed to do it without offending his poker buddies. Link says they all were displeased, and that the lobbyist and his girlfriend were "quickly whisked out of the place."

Obama also made sure he never played for stakes he couldn't easily afford. Only on a very bad night could one drop a hundred bucks in these games, typical wins and losses being closer to twenty-five. Among the regulars, the consensus was that "Obama usually left a winner." The bottom line politically was that poker helped Obama break the ice with people he needed to work with in the legislature.

"Barry," as he was called before college, had learned the game from his maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham, a World War II army veteran whose black friends played poker as well. Barry also played with classmates at Punahou High School in Honolulu. His best game, however, was basketball. He wore a Dr. J 'fro, and his teammates respectfully called him "Barry O'Bomber." They won the state championship in 1979, and Obama later told HBO's Bryant Gumbel that, despite the O'Bomber nickname, "My actual talent was in my first step. I could get to the rim on anybody." His problem as an in-shape, thirty-six-year-old legislator was that very few pols who'd been around long enough to run things in Springfield could still make it up and down a hard court. His solution was the game in Link's basement. To connect with those who didn't play basketball or poker, he also took up golf, a game at which Link says "he wasn't a natural." But he counted every stroke. "When he'd shoot an 11 on a hole, I'd say, 'Boss, what did you shoot?' and he'd say, 'I had an 11.' And that's what he'd write on his scorecard. I always respected that." Determined to write down fewer 11s, Obama took enough lessons to be able to shoot in the low nineties, and he eventually beat Link a few times.

But the freshman legislator seems to have understood that, as a networking tool, poker is the most efficient pastime of all. Its tables often serve as less genteel clubs for students, workers, businessmen, and politicians of every rank and persuasion. Instead of walking down fairways forty yards apart from each other, throwing elbows in the aint,or quietly hunting pheasant or muskie, poker buddies are elbow to elbow all ight, competing and drinking and talking. The experience can tell them a lot about the other fellows' ability to make sound decisions, whether electoral or parliamentary, tactical or strategic. As Abner Mikva, one of the deans of Chicago's legal and political worlds and a longtime Obama adviser, put it simply, "He understands how you network." The networking paid off when, against all expectations, Obama hammered out a compromise bill called "the first significant campaign reform law in Illinois in 25 years" and other bills mandating tax credits for the working poor, the videotaping of police interrogations, and reform of the state's antiquated campaign-finance system.

After being "spanked" — his word for losing by 31 percent to the incumbent, Bobby Rush, in a run for Illinois's first congressional district in 2000 — Obama returned to Springfield and set to work even harder. He also began speaking publicly about national issues. After September 11, 2001, he said, "Even as I hope for some measure of peace and comfort to the bereaved families, I must also hope that we as a nation draw some measure of wisdom from this tragedy," and called for a better understanding of "the sources of such madness." After President Bush called for the invasion of Iraq, Obama chose an antiwar rally to say, "I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances." He cited his grandfather's service and praised the sacrifices made during the Civil War and World War II, before saying, "I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars."

After his keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in July 2004 made him an even brighter political star, Obama easily won election to the United States Senate in November. John Kerry's loss at the top of the ticket, however, prompted David Mamet to write an unconventional postmortem for the Los Angeles Times. "The Republicans, like the perpetual raiser at the poker table, became increasingly bold as the Democrats signaled their absolute reluctance to seize the initiative," he said, arguing that Kerry had lost in part because of his timid response to the distortion of his service in Vietnam. "A decorated war hero muddled himself in merely 'calling' the attacks of a man with, curiously, a vanishing record of military attendance." Mamet went on to say, "Control of the initiative is control of the battle. In the alley, at the poker table or in politics, one must raise ... How, the undecided electorate rightly wondered, could one believe that Kerry would stand up for America when he could not stand up to Bush?" Mamet made his poker parallel even more specific by suggesting that a better "response to the Swift boat veterans would have been, 'I served. He didn't. I didn't bring up the subject, but, if all George Bush has to show for his time in the Guard is a scrap of paper with some doodling on it, I say the man was a deserter.' This would have been a raise. Here the initiative has been seized, and the opponent must now fume and bluster and scream unfair. In combat, in politics, in poker, there is no certainty; there is only likelihood, and the likelihood is that aggression will prevail." Anticipating future elections, Mamet chided the Democrats for "anteing away their time at the table. They may be bold and risk defeat, or be passive and ensure it."

The playwright's point was uncannily in sync with advice Admiral John S. McCain Jr. once gave his children. "Life is run by poker players, not the systems analysts," he told them, referring to poker players' cunning and toughness, and their tendency to have a bold strategic vision, not fussy myopia. His son John III, while certainly cunning and tough, turned out to prefer craps, a loud, mindless game in which the player never has a strategic advantage and must make impulsive decisions and then rely on blind luck. His selection of Sarah Palin for the vice presidential slot and his unsteady response to the economic crisis were two of the better examples of a dice-rolling mind-set.

By contrast, the Obama campaign's preparation of a separate website featuring a fifteen-minute documentary video about McCain's role in the savings-and-loan scandal of 1989 was but one piece of evidence that the candidate understood Mamet's point about raising. "We don't throw the first punch," he said, "but we'll throw the last." In other words, if the McCain campaign or its surrogates wanted to raise the specter of Bill Ayers or Jeremiah Wright, Obama was going to reraise. As he'd told his fledgling staff back in January 2007, "Let's put our chips in the middle of the table and see how we do."

Mamet's and Obama's analogies appear more traditional when we learn that as early as 1875, a New York Times editorial declared that "the national game is not base-ball, but poker," noting that the newspapers of the day were already in the "daily" habit of using "the technical terms of poker to illustrate the manner in which political questions strike the Thoughtful Patriot." This book will offer cases in point from nearly every decade since.

Where Mamet made clear why a politician must raise, especially with a stronger hand, Andy Bloch, a poker pro with degrees from Harvard and MIT, explained how bluffs might be read in military and diplomatic arenas. "In poker you have to put yourself in the shoes of your opponents, get inside their heads and figure out what they're thinking, what their actions mean, what they would think your actions mean." Contrasting Obama with his predecessor, Bloch said, "One thing that got us into the Iraq War was that George Bush didn't realize that Saddam Hussein was basically bluffing, trying to look like a big man, when he really had no weapons of mass destruction."

Back in 2002, Obama read that bluff correctly. He also understood that the most pressing threats to American security were the bin Laden strongholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, John McCain, and seventy-six other senators misread (or allowed themselves to be misled about) Saddam's bluff. The Bush administration then proceeded to squander tall stacks of military and diplomatic chips it should have deployed against Al Qaeda.

In April 2003, the Iraqi Most Wanted poker deck, with Saddam as the ace of spades and fifty-one other Baathists beneath him in the hierarchy, was officially designated the "personality identification playing cards" by Brigadier General Vincent Brooks of the U.S. Central Command. The pattern on their backs was the desert camouflage worn by our troops. Cards with a similar purpose had been deployed by both sides during the Civil War and in every important American military campaign since. So it seemed rather telling that no deck depicting members of Al Qaeda was requisitioned by President Bush.

Although he was more likely to be seen on the campaign trail playing Uno with his daughters, or a pickup game of basketball, than poker, Obama has already extended the long tradition of presidents who have used the card game to relax with friends, extend their network of colleagues, or even deploy its tactics and psychology in their role as commander in chief. His tendency to finish poker sessions in the black puts him in the company of Chester Arthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and Richard Nixon. But by limiting his play to small, friendly games, Obama is more like Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He has also played the national card game, as Theodore Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson did, at least in part because of the entree it gave him to political circles he would not have had otherwise.

Excerpted from Cowboys Full by James McManus. Copyright 2009 by James McManus. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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James McManus