When I saw a few tweets and then followed a link or two to read about the incident last week, I initially thought it was a Photoshop-fueled hoax. But soon it became clear that the photo above taken by Washington Post photographer Melina Mara was exactly what it appeared to be. McCain was playing a play money game, VIP Poker, and it looks like he was calling from under the gun with Q-2-offsuit (click to enlarge).
Almost unseemly to use that term in this particular context. “Under the gun,” I mean.
I immediately thought of the first chapter of James McManus’s Cowboys Full in which he focuses a lot on poker-playing presidents, and in fact draws a pretty sharp distinction between Obama and McCain.
Tipping his hand (pun intended) in terms of his political leanings, McManus favorably highlights Obama’s poker-playing background both by noting the many correspondences between political tactics and poker strategy while also linking Obama to a long list of U.S. presidents who played the game.
Meanwhile McCain is contrastingly drawn as a lesser candidate in part because of what seems a willful turning away from poker. McManus tells of McCain’s father, John S. McCain, Sr., once advising his children “Life is run by poker players, not systems analysts,” then notes how John III “turned out to prefer craps, a loud, mindless game in which the player never has a strategic advantage and must make impulse decisions and then rely on blind luck.”
Some might recall how in the run-up to the 2008 election both Obama’s poker background and McCain’s preference for craps were briefly highlighted, most particularly in a Time feature by Michael Weisskopf and Michael Scherer appearing in July and titled “Candidates’ Vices: Craps and Poker.” Going further than McManus does in his chapter, the article vigorously searches for all sorts of meaning in the two gambling games to discover ways they might reflect personality and indicators of leadership ability.
It was the memory of these stories about McCain and craps that probably added to my skepticism when first seeing the story last week. Wait, I thought... he was playing poker? But that’s not his game...?
Shortly after Mara’s photo whipped around the web, McCain deflected the incident with a jokey tweet that shruggingly tried to make light of its significance. “Scandal!” tweeted McCain. “Caught playing iPhone game at 3+ hour Senate hearing - worst of all I lost!”
Well, of course he lost. I mean really, limping queen-deuce UTG?
Op-eds since have mostly fallen into two categories -- Sheer Outrage and No Biggie. Late night comedians have all taken their shots, too. Jon Stewart on The Daily Show used more acid than others in his treatment:
David Letterman was relatively tame with his top ten:
And over on Conan O’Brien’s show came a sorta inspired clip from a newly imagined C-SPAN show, The Senatorial Hearing Poker Challenge:
However one responds to the story, it is safe to say “poker” doesn’t come off all that well here, once again playing the role of troublemaker.
I suppose the story wouldn’t have played too differently had McCain’s chosen game had been Words With Friends or Plants vs. Zombies. But there’s something about poker and the ready application of the game, its vocabulary, and its strategies to the world of politics that made the incident all the more enticing. And made it all the more likely to be passed around the web by the rest of us, similarly distracted by our phones.