Obama: Serious Poker Player, Serious President?

When President-elect Barack Obama was the new kid in the Illinois Senate, he used to organize friendly poker games to help grease the wheels of negotiation. James McManus, author of the poker book Positively Fifth Street, talks about Obama's history with the game.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Here's a sentiment you don't hear in American politics very often. I found playing poker instructive, as well as entertaining and profitable. I learned that the people who have the cards are usually the ones who talk the least and the softest. Those who are bluffing tend to talk loudly and give themselves away. And that's how Richard Nixon wrote about the game in his memoirs. He was an avid poker player in his younger days, and his winnings helped him finance his first run for Congress.

Poker is also a favorite pastime of President-elect Barack Obama, although he kept that pretty quiet during the campaign. Author and poker enthusiast James McManus says that Obama used to organize some legendary games back home in Illinois. And James McManus has written the influential poker book, "Positively Fifth Street," and he joins me now.

You have written about poker games that Barack Obama played back when he was a state senator in Springfield, Illinois. Who was there, and what were those games like?

Mr. JAMES MCMANUS (Author, Poker Enthusiast): There were a number of downstate Republicans, Chicago ward bosses, the occasional lobbyist, standard Illinois politicians, among whom Barack was not the most natural participant. He didn't fit in quite as easily as he might have hoped.

And one of the ways he used to break the ice was, he started a poker game in the home of State Senator Terry Link. And it was not about making money, and it was not about making political deals. It was a chance to meet folks, some of the people that it would be useful for him to know.

LYDEN: What can you learn about how Barack Obama might govern from the sort of poker player he is? Is he a risk taker, a cautious type, a bluffer?

Mr. MCMANUS: He's a much more cautious player. Serious poker is about sober contemplation, which, of course, is the president-elect's basic M.O.

LYDEN: We mentioned at the outset here that Richard Nixon was a poker player. What other American presidents played poker?

Mr. MCMANUS: You can break them down into categories. The people who played serious poker for high stakes include Nixon and Eisenhower. There are casual players, such as FDR, Johnson, Teddy Roosevelt, who played to make friends with people, as a way of relaxing. And Obama has a foot in that camp, in the low-stakes, friendly game-playing crowd.

LYDEN: Do you get a sense that he'll be bringing late-night poker back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Mr. MCMANUS: You know, I don't have a feel for that either way. There's a taboo nature about it that I think might make him go slow. I certainly hope that he returns the tradition to the White House.

LYDEN: Well, you have talked poker with Barack Obama, correct?

Mr. MCMANUS: I have. He's very interested in the history of the game, which presidents have played, its role in political and diplomatic history. He seems very interested in those subjects.

LYDEN: Do you hope that perhaps one day, you might play a game with him in the White House?

Mr. MCMANUS: Nothing would make me happier than to play poker with the president.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Thanks very much.

Mr. MCMANUS: My pleasure, Jacki.

LYDEN: James McManus is the author of the poker book, "Positively Fifth Street," and "Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker," due out next year. He joined me from his home outside of Chicago.

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