Monday, April 06, 2015

Nixon Was a Five-Card Man

My “Poker in American Film and Culture” course includes a couple of readings I’ve written about here on Hard-Boiled Poker before -- a 1932 short story by the humorist James Thurber called “Everything Is Wild” and a 1963 essay by the historian John Lukacs titled “Poker and American Character.”

The Thurber story I discussed once in a post titled “Hold’em’s History Makes a Good Mystery.” The story involves a “dealer’s choice” game in which a few different variants are called -- including some made-up ones -- and one of them suggests elements of hold’em which led me to share that as an early, not necessarily reliable bit of evidence regarding hold’em’s origins.

I also many years ago included “Everything Is Wild” in Episode 13 of the Hard-Boiled Poker Radio Show, if you fancy hearing a reading of the very funny story.

Meanwhile the Lukacs essay received lengthy treatment in a couple of different posts, which if you go read them kind of add up to my lecture about the article. Here’s Part 1 of that discussion, and here’s Part 2.

All I want to say about the readings today is to point out a parallel between the main character in Thurber’s story, Mr. Brush, and Lukacs, both of whom express distaste with any variant of poker that diverges from what Lukacs calls “classic” poker.

In the story, Brush gets stuck playing a game in which others all want to play variants involving wild cards, and he “hated any silly variation of the fine old game of poker.” In the essay Lukacs also complains about poker being corrupted (in a sense) by the introduction of wild-card games, in which (he says) “the human factor is weakened and the factor of chance is correspondingly increased.”

Both Brush and Lukacs see wild-card games as indicative of bigger problems with society, in fact, with the way they tend to favor luck over skill suggesting a kind of immaturity among the thrill-seekers who favor them. Lukacs explicitly links wild-card games with a more general “erosion of the American national character,” something you can read more about, if you like, by following those links above.

Richard Nixon was another one who favored “straight” or “classic” poker over any variants including wild cards or anything diverging from traditional games. Five-card stud was his favorite game, and the one he played the most while taking thousands off fellow soldiers in the Pacific during WWII -- money he in fact would use to help fund his first Congressional campaign in 1946.

Many years later on September 7, 1972, then President Nixon had some visitors stop by the Oval Office just before noon -- the former governor of Texas John Connally (at the time heading up the “Democrats for Nixon”) and John and James Roosevelt, sons of FDR. The meeting was recorded, and while the audio is choppy and at times indistinct, Nixon’s disdain for wild-card games is nonetheless clear.

Nixon tells the Roosevelt sons about the home he owns in San Clemente, the famous “La Casa Pacifica” he bought from the widow of financier Henry Hamilton Cotton in 1969. Speaking of FDR, Nixon notes how “Cotton was a great supporter of his, of course” and how FDR even stayed there one night, something the sons sounds as though they might not have known.

“There was a rumor they were all supposed to play cards or something one night... poker, probably” Nixon continues animatedly, well knowing that FDR was a card player just like himself. “What did he play?” he asks John and James of their father. “Did he play five-card or did he like wild cards?” Before they can answer, Nixon declares his position on the issue: “I’m a five-card man, I like it.”

One of the sons -- it’s hard to tell which -- says something about how “once in a while one or two of the others would want to go play a wild game.” People are talking over one another, with other ambient noise making it hard to distinguish every word being spoken. But you can hear Nixon’s response pretty well:

“Wild cards is not poker,” Nixon says. “When you’ve got five cards, you know just what the odds are.”

It isn’t surprising to hear Nixon -- like Mr. Brush and Lukacs -- voicing a negative opinion regarding wild-card games. It also isn’t hard to think of Nixon when Brush spitefully invents his own wild-card games in Thurber’s story (e.g., “Soap-in-Your-Eye”) -- games for which he is making up the rules as they go and thus his opponents cannot possibly win.

Makes me think of the old sketch from the National Lampoon Radio Hour in which Nixon plays Monopoly (the 1/26/74 episode):

RMN: “All right, Bebe. You get Baltic Avenue. Now I’m the banker so give me $500 for the deed.”
Bebe: “But Mr. President, Baltic doesn’t cost $500. It’s only $60.”
RMN: “Ha.. well, Bebe, let’s just ask Chuck and Fred Buzhardt here. Fellas, what do you say? You’re my advisors...?”
Chuck & Fred (in unison): “The President’s right, Bebe. Give him $500 for Baltic.”
RMN: “Now... my turn...”

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