With this one I share some details from an entertaining early poker story told by the English actor Joe Cowell in his memoirs. The book was published in 1844, and the story he tells concerns his being introduced to poker aboard a steamboat back in 1829.
The story is fairly diverting, though it’s a digressive reference to Henry Clay by Cowell that I mostly focus on in the article. Cowell repeats the idea that the Kentucky politician actually invented poker. It’s an entirely spurious claim although still interesting given the fact that Clay was running for president (the fourth of five tries by Clay, none successful) the very year Cowell published his memoirs.
I follow the Clay thread a bit to talk about some other likely apocryphal tales of him and fellow politician (and failed presidential candidate) Daniel Webster playing poker against each other, something they certainly did although the stories of their games seem more than a little embellished.
Reflecting the cultural significance of poker circa the mid-1840s (still a relatively new game), supporters of Clay’s opponent, James K. Polk, publicized Clay’s poker playing as reason not to vote for the candidate.
I write more about that in the column, too -- if you’re curious, check it out: “Poker & Pop Culture: Heads-Up for Pols -- Henry Clay v. Daniel Webster.”
Images: Daniel Webster (left), painting by Richard Francis Nagle (ca. 1849); Henry Clay (right), painting by Henry F. Darby (ca. 1858) (public domain)