Candidates Playing For High Stakes (in More Ways Than One)

I generally don’t care for pop psychology, especially when it’s applied to politics. It’s only natural that the public wants to know more about the personalities and styles of national leaders, but it’s very hard to believe there’s much to be gleaned about a presidential candidate, for example, by checking out their iPod.

Having said that, it’s with a tinge of guilt that I admit to finding this piece from Michael Scherer and Michael Weisskopf in Time pretty interesting.

The casino craps player is a social animal, a thrill seeker who wants not just to win but to win with a crowd. Unlike cards or a roulette wheel, well-thrown dice reward most everyone on the rail, yielding a collective yawp that drowns out the slots. It is a game for showmen, Hollywood stars and basketball legends with girls on their arms. It is also a favorite pastime of the presumptive Republican nominee for President, John McCain.

The backroom poker player, on the other hand, is more cautious and self-absorbed. Card games may be social, but they are played in solitude. No need for drama. The quiet card counter is king, and only a novice banks on luck. In this game, a good bluff trumps blind faith, and the studied observer beats the showman. So it is fitting that the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, raked in so many pots in his late-night games with political friends. […]

For both men, games of chance have been not just a hobby but also a fundamental feature in their development as people and politicians. For Obama, weekly poker games with lobbyists and fellow state senators helped cement his position as a rising star in Illinois politics. For McCain, jaunts to the craps table helped burnish his image as a political hot dog who relished the thrill of a good fight, even if the risk of failure was high.

Scherer and Weisskopf might be onto something here.

While I don’t know Obama or McCain personally, this piece about their gambling habits tends to reinforce the popular perceptions about their personalities. Obama, for example, is competitive and methodical.


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[H]e always had his head in the game. 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 he would an eleventh-hour amendment to a bill. The odds were religion to him. Only rarely did he bluff. “He had a pretty good idea about what his chances were,” says Denny Jacobs, a former state senator from East Moline.

Obama’s play-to-win approach drove other players crazy. Former state senator 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. […]

Obama usually left a winner. But he reaped a bigger payoff politically. When he announced his plans to run for the U.S. Senate, his poker pals — white guys from small-town Illinois — were among his earliest supporters…. But Obama’s risk-averse, methodical approach to five-card stud gives Link confidence in his potential governing style. “If he runs his presidency the way he plays poker, I’ll sleep good at night,” he says.

And then there’s McCain, who seems more interested in an adrenalin rush than in thinking things through.

In the past decade, he has played on Mississippi riverboats, on Indian land, in Caribbean craps pits and along the length of the Las Vegas Strip. Back in 2005 he joined a group of journalists at a magazine-industry conference in Puerto Rico, offering betting strategy on request. “Enjoying craps opens up a window on a central thread constant in John’s life,” says John Weaver, McCain’s former chief strategist, who followed him to many a casino. “Taking a chance, playing against the odds.” Aides say McCain tends to play for a few thousand dollars at a time and avoids taking markers, or loans, from the casinos, which he has helped regulate in Congress. “He never, ever plays on the house,” says Mark Salter, a McCain adviser. The goal, say several people familiar with his habit, is never financial. He loves the thrill of winning and the camaraderie at the table.

Only recently have McCain’s aides urged him to pull back from the pastime. In the heat of the G.O.P. primary fight last spring, he announced on a visit to the Vegas Strip that he was going to the casino floor. When his aides stopped him, fearing a public relations disaster, McCain suggested that they ask the casino to take a craps table to a private room, a high-roller privilege McCain had indulged in before. His aides, with alarm bells ringing, refused again, according to two accounts of the discussion.

“He clearly knows that this is on the borderline of what is acceptable for him to be doing,” says a Republican who has watched McCain play. “And he just sort of revels in it.”

Without more information, it’s hard to say for sure whether this might qualify as “compulsive” behavior, but it’s striking that McCain wanted a table brought to his private room in the midst of a presidential campaign, and even fellow Republicans wonder whether he’s going beyond what’s “acceptable.”

For that matter, Time’s article noted that McCain “tends to play for a few thousand dollars at a time.” I’m going to hope this is referring to McCain’s gamble per outing, not per roll.

As for what’s to be learned about the candidates from all of this, I had the same reaction Noam Scheiber did: “At the end of the piece, a former Obama colleague, refering to Obama’s contemplative gambling style, tells Time, ‘If he runs his presidency the way he plays poker, I’ll sleep good at night.’ I think the converse is true of McCain — I’d sleep pretty poorly if he were to run his presidency the way he plays craps. (And I think the odds are high that he would. He certainly seems to run his campaign that way...)”

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