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Politics And Poker

May 2024
3min read

What one game of cards tells us about two famous statesmen

Poker (or its equivalent) has been popular among the political classes right from the beginning of American history. George Washington furnished Mount Vernon with a card table, multiple decks of playing cards, and two sets of “counters.” With military precision, he also kept careful track of his successes and failures, noting that he won slightly more than £72 during the years 1772–74, while losing about £78 during the same period, for a net loss of £6.

Many modern Presidents have been regular poker players, with table styles that seem to match their personalities. Richard Nixon financed his first congressional campaign with his relentlessly acquired winnings, while Dwight Eisenhower quit playing when he realized that he was taking in too much money from junior officers who could ill afford to lose it.

Part of the game’s attraction for politicians must surely be the permissibility of deception, as important in politics, alas, as it is in poker. Another part of it has to be the opportunity to practice bluffing, also a crucial political skill.

A classic—and particularly revealing—poker game took place between Daniel Webster (1782–1852) and Henry Clay (1777–1852), two of the foremost American politicians of the nineteenth century. Clay represented Kentucky in Congress for many years, serving six terms as Speaker of the House, and he was sent five times to the Senate. Webster was sent to the House of Representatives from his native New Hampshire before he moved to Massachusetts, where he was again elected to the House. He also represented Massachusetts for three terms in the Senate. Both men served as Secretary of State.

Contemporaries for many years in Washington as legislators and colleagues in the Whig party and also as prominent lawyers, Clay and Webster probably played cards together frequently, although only one extraordinary hand of Five-Card Draw is remembered today. Here is how David Spanier relates it in his 1977 book Total Poker :

“With Webster dealing, Clay drew one card on the draw and Webster stood pat. The two went on raising each other until each had $2,000 on the table. At this stage Clay stopped re-raising and called. According to this account Webster laughed sheepishly and threw down his cards. ‘I only have a pair of deuces,’ he said. Clay laughed too. ‘The pot is yours,’ he said. ‘I only have an ace high.’”

The usual point of this story is that both great men were steely-nerved risk takers, each willing to bet a small fortune ($2,000 was a phenomenal amount in the early nineteenth century) in the belief that he could outbluff the other. The poet and poker writer A. Alvarez observed that “Clay and Webster were hard, ambitious men as well as fearless gamblers, and when they faced each other head-to-head their pride was on the line. Each smelled the other’s weakness and was determined not to blink.”

But there is a more important lesson than that. Henry Clay badly misplayed his hand. Having set out to bluff with worthless cards, he was foolish to call Webster’s last bet. Rather, he should have either raised the bet (maintaining his bluff) or folded (cutting his losses). He had absolutely nothing to gain by calling, other than to throw an unnecessary bet into the pot.

In contrast, Webster played his hand flawlessly. He raised until the very end, obviously intimidating Clay into a costly blunder. Yes, he stood a good chance of losing—what were the chances that Clay could not beat a measly pair of deuces?—but that’s what bluffing is all about. You play your opponent, not the cards, and Webster figured that he could push Clay into backing down. Both men would surely remember that as the game continued—and probably in Congress and beyond.

Webster yearned for the Presidency, but he ran only once, losing badly in 1836. Clay, however, did even worse. He ran three times, becoming the only man ever to lead to defeat three different parties (Democratic Republican, National Republican, and Whig).

In poker terms, Clay’s worst “bad beat” came when the four-candidate election of 1824 was thrown into the House of Representatives. Although Andrew Jackson had won a clear plurality of the popular vote, he was denied a majority in the electoral college. Many thought that Clay would endorse Jackson, the people’s choice, but instead he threw his support to John Quincy Adams and was appointed Secretary of State. That agreement, denounced by Jackson’s supporters as a corrupt bargain, badly damaged Clay’s reputation and made Jackson his enemy for life. When the two ran against each other for the Presidency in 1832, Jackson won handily.

Clay was an early opponent of slavery (though he owned slaves), but as an ardent Unionist he often sacrificed principle for the sake of unity. He earned a reputation as “The Great Compromiser” for his role in brokering a series of legislative deals between the North and South in the years before the Civil War—including the Compromise of 1850, which enacted the loathsome Fugitive Slave Law.

Henry Clay backed away from the Presidency in 1824, and he backed down from the slavery struggle in 1850. Is it fair to say that he lacked the courage of his convictions? Well, he certainly lacked the courage to carry through his bluffs.

—Steven Lubet recently published Lawyer’s Poker: 52 Lessons That Lawyers Can Learn From Card Players.

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