We’ve all heard of the celebrities and athletes who are notorious gamblers. Ben Affleck, Charlie Sheen, Tiger Woods, and Charles Barkley are only a few of the high rollers who both make and gamble millions. But we’re not talking about celebrities today – we’re talking about a different type of famous. We’re talking authority, monarchy, presidency – we’re talking about Heads of State.
Poker and betting: The Royal King games
King of England, 1485 – 1509
Also known as Henry Tudor, Henry VII was the first Tudor king, after the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485 in which Richard III was defeated. Although there isn’t much information delving into the King’s gambling, he was known for playing cards (though not a poker player – the game hadn’t been invented yet) and setting aside a good amount of money to do so.
According to historical records, on January 8, 1492 he set aside a whopping £5 for an evening of gambling, which was a pretty significant amount of money to gamble away at the time, considering it was close to the average man’s annual salary.
However, Henry VII really let loose when he lost £40 playing cards on June 30, 1492, gambling away almost eight times more than what most ordinary folks made in one year. He was also known for paying his entertainers very well, especially musicians, regularly tipping a staggering 33 pence. Okay, it doesn’t sound like much, but back then it was a great sum for entertainers. I guess it paid to be King, and to sing for him too.
King of England, 1509 – 1547
Although better known for his reformations of England’s church and his many wives instead of as a poker player, Henry VIII was a fan of pretty much any betting game on offer. He played anything from dice to Bragg, often competing against both fellow monarchy and commoners. The King supposedly started gambling heavily after his second wife, Queen Anne, miscarried what should have been their first son, was arrested on suspicion of committing adultery with five men, including her own brother, and beheaded for it. I suppose becoming a gambler is one way to cope with your “grief,” along with marrying your third wife less than two weeks after your second wife was disposed of.
Henry VIII was fond of a game called “Tables,” which is a version of backgammon, a checker-related game known as “Queek,” and dice games. He also enjoyed Bragg, which was a popular game played throughout London that is believed to be a distant ancestor of poker.
He regularly participated in gambling tournaments across Europe, even though he was considered one of the unluckiest gamblers of all time, known for losing tons of money and even prized possessions every time he gambled. Over the course of two years, the King lost a sum of £3,250, which was a good-sized fortune back then. In addition to attending gambling tournaments, he also held tournaments that tested competitive combat skills such as archery and jousting, and betting was a regular function that the King took part in.
Henry VIII’s most famous gambling blunder occurred when he lost the Jesus bells of St. Paul’s Church on a single roll of dice. The King claimed that the bells were worthless anyway, except for the metal they were made of, which angered and offended many of Henry VIII’s subjects and decreased his popularity. In order to get back into his people’s good graces, Henry VIII had Sir Miles Partridge, the man who won the bells, arrested and convicted of treason. Sir Miles was then publicly hanged on Tower Hill in full view of everyone, which apparently earned Henry VIII the respect of his people once more, but definitely discouraged others from gambling against the King again.
So, now we know – if you lose a bet with a friend, just have him thrown in jail and publicly hanged, and you’ll never lose to anyone else again.
Queen of England and Ireland, Queen Consort of Spain, 1553 – 1558
Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, was technically the first queen regnant of England. She’s remembered mainly for her restoration of the Roman Catholic Church in England, and the subsequent executions of 280 Protestants which gave her the posthumous nickname “Bloody Mary.”
However, along with her apparent pleasure of burning religious dissenters at the stake, Mary also enjoyed gambling. She liked playing cards and apparently ran up significant gambling debts. After the fall of Queen Anne, when Mary was returned to favor with her father, she is reported to have spent nearly a third of her monthly income on gambling alone.
According to one story, in 1540 Mary was playing a game known as “Bowls” and during the course of the gameplay asked her servants for money. They refused, so she wagered payment for the next day’s breakfast instead. As evidenced by her account book, she lost the game – there’s an entry that reads, “Payed for a Brekefaste loste at Bolling by my lady maryes grace.”
Dauphine of France, 1770 – 1774, Queen of France, 1774-1792
Marie Antoinette was born an Archduchess of Austria, the fifteenth and youngest child of Empress Maria Theresa and Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor, and eventually became the Queen of France by marrying Louis XVI. During her time as Queen, she spent extravagant amounts of money on clothing, gambling, and other luxuries, even though her country was embroiled in a serious financial crisis and the general population was suffering.
In addition to ordering a rumored 300 dresses per year, Marie loved to spend money on gambling. On one occasion, she and a large group of friends spent three entire days leading up to her 21st birthday gambling, a fact that caused her reputation among the general public to sour, with many beginning to blame her for the economic situation. It was suggested that France’s inability to settle its debts was the result of her outlandish spending.
Everyone knows how Marie’s tale ends – not well, to say the least. But, not known by many is that the widely accepted story that in response to France’s bread shortage, Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake!” is false. The story and phrase was first attributed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau to an unnamed princess in his book Les Confessions, which was written before Marie Antoinette arrived in France. And in the book, the princess doesn’t even say “cake” – she says “Let them eat brioche.” So, yeah, she may have spent a ridiculous amount of money on dresses and playing cards while her people were starving, but she never suggested they eat cake.
King of the United Kingdom and Hanover, 1820 – 1830
Born in 1782, George IV was the eldest son of George III and became known as “the first gentleman of England” for his charm and extravagant lifestyle that contributed to the fashions of the time. However, taxpayers loathed him for his wasteful spending while the country was fighting in the Napoleonic Wars, including an excess of money spent on property and gambling.
George IV was a well-known womanizer with numerous mistresses, a heavy drinker, and a wild gambler. In the 1780s, he was so deeply in debt from his extravagant lifestyle that he appealed to Parliament in an attempt to get them to bail him out. They eventually granted him the money: £161,000 to pay his debts and £60,000 for renovations to his home, on top of his £50,000 annual income, which obviously didn’t solve the problem and only encouraged him to continue his exorbitant spending.
By 1795 the Prince was £630,000 in debt – the equivalent of £58,700,000 today – and once again asked Parliament for more money. His father, King George III, refused to allow the government to help him unless he married his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick. The marriage went through, although the couple lived apart after the birth of their daughter, Princess Charlotte. Parliament granted the Prince an additional £65,000 (£6,056,000 today) annual income, plus another £60,000 eight years later. George’s debts from 1795 were officially cleared in 1806, but debts incurred after 1795 remained unpaid.
In other words, due to his excessive spending on fancy stuff and gambling, George IV went down in English history as the King of government handouts. Must be nice to appeal to your government to cover your debts.
King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, Emperor of India, 1901 – 1910
Edward VII ascended to the throne at the age of 59, serving as heir apparent and the Prince of Wales longer than any of his predecessors. Since his mother, Queen Victoria, didn’t saddle him with much governmental responsibility, Edward VII came to represent the elite, and lived a fashionable, leisurely life. This lifestyle included a love for women, horseracing, and gambling.
Edward VII’s game of choice was baccarat. The Prince loved to play the card game so much that he carried his own set of leather counters, engraved with the badge of the Prince of Wales on one side, wherever he traveled.
In 1891, Edward VII became involved in a widely known British gambling scandal known as the Royal Baccarat Scandal, or the Tranby Croft affair. The situation began during a house party in late 1890, when several people accused Sir William Gordon-Cumming, a decorated Army lieutenant colonel and a friend of Edward VII, of cheating at baccarat. The situation eventually landed in a court, and the Prince was called as a witness in a trial that the public could buy tickets to see. Sir William was found guilty, despite his lawyer’s well-prepared case and the public’s view that he was innocent, and Sir William was ostracized from society for the remainder of his life.
The Royal Baccarat Scandal greatly diminished Edward VII’s popularity among the people, but it was recovered not long after, whereas Sir William’s social banishment and his bitterness lasted the rest of his days. After the trial, the Prince continued to gamble quietly, and he never played baccarat again. Instead, he took up Whist, an ancestor of bridge.
I wonder what happened to those leather counters, whether he kept them or not. If he did, I’m guessing it wasn’t for sentimental reasons.
Presidents playing poker
Warren G. Harding
President of the United States, 1921 – 1923
Serving as the 29th President, Warren G. Harding was an avid poker player, and was known for hosting poker games in the White House twice a week. Harding and his fellow players smoked cigars and drank whiskey while they played, despite the Prohibition that began in 1920 and lasted until 1933. The group was made up of many members of Harding’s cabinet and other friends, and became known informally as the Poker Cabinet.
Unlike other Presidents who used their position to their advantage when they played poker in the White House, Harding insisted that people not worry about his rank and told fellow poker players to treat him like they would treat any other opponent. He’s quoted saying, “Forget that I’m President of the United States. I’m Warren Harding, playing poker with friends, and I’m going to beat the hell out of them.”
Supposedly, Harding was a relatively loose poker player, playing more for the thrill of the game than to win. In one instance, he apparently gambled with Louise Cromwell Brooks on a game of “cold hand” and lost. The game is like the children’s game “war,” where players draw a card and whoever has the highest card wins and names the payment. Brooks won with the highest card and requested a set of White House china, which Harding had wrapped up and delivered to her the next day.
The tale may be apocryphal, but it’s one hell of a story for Brooks. Who else could say they won a lovely set of china in a one-card game against the President of the United States?
Franklin D. Roosevelt
President of the United States, 1933 – 1945
The only President to serve more than two terms, Franklin D. Roosevelt was also known for his love of poker. Roosevelt held games in the White House, and players included the closest members of his inner circle, as well as other members of the cabinet, staff, and White House press. Regular players included the Vice President, Speaker of the House, Attorney General, Secretary of Commerce, and at least one Supreme Court Justice. The President’s secretary, “Missy” LeHand, served cocktails and often joined in on the games.
Roosevelt’s favorite game was seven-card stud, and as a poker player he was considered a great bluffer and a commander of the game, and apparently, as Walter Trohan said, “Nothing delighted him more than a successful bluff.” However, Trohan also points out that the President didn’t seem to suspect that his adversaries might have been hesitant to call him out, especially members of his staff. He was known to study his fellow poker players as much as he studied the cards, and was famous for his comebacks. Robert Jackson said the President would be down several dollars early in the game, but would invariably earn it all back right before the end. Jackson said, “We finally told him that the only way we could beat him was to break up the game…about four hands before the finish.”
While in office, President Roosevelt held an annual poker game on the night that Congress was supposed to adjourn. The rule of the game was that whoever was ahead at the moment that the Speaker called would win the game. According to one player, during one of these games the Speaker called at 9:30 p.m. to inform Roosevelt that Congress had adjourned, but the President was losing to his Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau Jr., so he pretended the call was from someone else and continued to play. Around midnight, when Roosevelt had pulled ahead, he told an aide to bring the phone, picked it up and said, “Oh Mr. Speaker, you’re adjourning, how fine!” Then he turned to the other poker players and said, “Well, boys, I guess I win!”
Everything was fine until the next day, when Morgenthau read the paper and learned that Congress had adjourned at 9:30 p.m. Morgenthau was actually so angry that he resigned for a few minutes, until Roosevelt charmed and persuaded him that it was all in good fun.
Poker was such a familiar comfort for the President that apparently he occasionally could be heard riffling poker chips during his famous “Fireside Chats” radio broadcasts during the war.
Harry S. Truman
President of the United States, 1945 – 1953
Harry S. Truman became the 33rd President when Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office, and was a dedicated poker player like his predecessor. Truman learned the game as a soldier in WWI and was apparently a somewhat loose player, and encouraged things like stealing other players’ poker chips and peeking at cards. While in office, Truman’s regular weekend games had a $500 buy-in, with an option to buy more if a player lost all his chips, and 10 percent of each pot was put into a “poverty bowl” to fund players for their second buy-in.
Truman was such an avid poker player that he had a presidential poker chip set made, in which all the chips featured the presidential seal. He also had a sign on his desk that read “The Buck Stops Here”, which was given to him by another poker player and became the phrase associated with him and his presidency. The phrase refers to the use of a knife with a buckhorn handle to designate position in poker games during the frontier days. James McManus, author of Cowboys Full, said the phrase was Truman’s way of “letting Americans know he was responsible for what happened on his watch.”
In August 1945, during WWII, Truman is said to have played poker with members of the press on the U.S.S. Augusta during the days when the decision was made to drop the atomic bombs in Japan. And while the first bomb was dropped from a plane named the Enola Gay, the other two planes that accompanied it for weather reconnaissance had gambling related names – the Straight Flush and Full House.
Seven months after the war ended, Truman boarded a train with Winston Churchill bound for Missouri, where Churchill would deliver his famous “Iron Curtain” speech. On the way, the two men played poker with members of Truman’s staff. Seeing that Churchill was a green poker player, the President encouraged the others to “go easy” on him, contrary to what the Americans agreed on before the game started. While it probably didn’t affect world politics, that poker game may have been a symbol of the alliance between the U.S. and the U.K. during the Cold War period that followed.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
President of the United States, 1953 – 1961
Dwight D. Eisenhower learned to play poker in his youth, from an old frontiersman in Kansas. The future President was known as a serious player, who won much more often than he lost – he won so often that he had to stop playing while in the military, to stop his fellow soldiers from losing money.
Eisenhower became friends with fellow officer George Patton during WWII, and the two hosted poker games with fellow soldiers a few times a week. In one of these poker games, one of the soldiers lost a significant amount of money to Eisenhower, and paid him with bonds that his wife had saved. Eisenhower accepted the bonds, but conspired with the other poker players to lose the next night in order to give back the money the man had lost. “One of the hardest things known to man,” Eisenhower said of the game, “is to make a fellow win in poker who plays as if bent on losing every nickel.”
Eisenhower then urged his friend Colonel Patton to prohibit poker playing for money among the soldiers, but in the end the two decided to ban gambling all together. Eisenhower never played poker while in the army again, but was still incredibly successful – he ended up becoming a five-star general, and the Supreme Commander of the Allied Troops during WWII.
Though Eisenhower stopped playing in the military, he resumed playing while he was President, occasionally hosting poker games in the Treaty Room of the White House.
President of the United States, 1969 – 1974
Richard Nixon became a poker player while in the Navy, when his fellow naval officer James Stewart taught him to play five-card stud. Known as “The Big Bluffer,” Nixon was supposedly a great poker player who played a tight game but wasn’t afraid of taking chances. James Udall, a lieutenant who served with Nixon, said he once saw the future President “bluff a lieutenant commander out of fifteen hundred dollars with a pair of deuces.”
However, Nixon apparently rarely won big, bug never lost, pocketing from $30 to $60 a game. Nixon’s friend, Lester Wroble, said that it “didn’t look like showy winnings, but when you multiplied it day after day, I’d say he did all right.” And he did – in 1946, Nixon used $5,000 of his poker winnings while in the military to fund his first congressional run, which was successful.
While he was considered a great poker player while in the Navy, others beg to differ while he was in the White House. Not much is written about Nixon playing poker as President, but Tip O’Neill said that while he was Vice-President under Eisenhower, he “thought of himself as a good poker player, but he talked too much and didn’t follow the cards. Moreover, he used the fact that he was the highest-ranking person at the game to his advantage.” Sounds like the power of the Vice-Presidency went to his head and affected his gameplay – if that isn’t a perfect example of foreshadowing, I don’t know what is.
In 1983, Nixon told Frank Gannon that while the President doesn’t have to be a great poker player, “it helps.” He said, “The Russians, of course, are chess players. I never understood chess, it’s much more complicated, much more complex. But many of the things you do in poker are very useful in politics, and are very useful in foreign affairs.”
Maybe Nixon should’ve paid more attention to chess, and then he might’ve felt the pieces closing in on him, backing him into a corner. But, his poker prowess came into play in the end – he knew the right time to fold, becoming the first and only President to ever resign from office.
President of the United States, 2009 – 2017
Our most recent ex-President, Barack Obama has been a poker player since he was a teenager. While he was a green senator in Illinois, he and Terry Links, a fellow Democratic senator, co-hosted a regular Wednesday night game that came to be known as the Committee Meeting. The group started out with four players, then grew to eight regulars, and even developed a waiting list. And the game wasn’t exclusive – players included Democrats, Republicans, and lobbyists.
But the games were strictly for fun, with no talk about serious talk allowed. In James McManus’s Cowboys Full, Link said, “You hung up your guns at the door. Nobody talked about politics or their jobs, and certainly no ‘influence’ was bartered or discussed. It was boys’ night out – a release from our legislative responsibilities.”
Obama agreed, describing the regular poker games as “a fun way for people to relax and share stories and give each other a hard time over friendly competition.” And even more importantly, the games provided the future President a way to network, even across the aisle. They were “an easy way to get to know other senators,” he said, “including Republicans.”
Among his old poker group in Illinois, Obama had a reputation as a cautious player who always left the table a winner. He played a tight game, and was known for his “stone face.” Link said that when Obama stayed in, “you pretty much figured he’s got a good hand.”
While there isn’t much known about the former President’s poker playing habits during his time in the White House, he made it known that he did he carry a lucky poker chip that was given to him while campaigning in 2007. It isn’t the only keepsake he kept with him, but one that I’m sure reminded him of his political beginnings in Illinois.
You may not be a kind, queen or head of state, but remember, it’s never too late to get it in the game!