Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Running Into Cactus Jack

For a few different reasons -- including this new “Poker & Pop Culture” series of articles I’m writing for PokerNews -- I’m finding myself burrowing deep in digressive, distracting paths after uncovering this or that historical nugget about people in the past playing poker.

Recently there came one such distraction as I called up a copy of the September 1, 1934 Reading Eagle, the daily newspaper of Reading, Pennsylvania. In that issue appears a review of a new poker strategy book called the Stud Poker Blue Book by George Henry Fisher that had first been published three years before.

I was scouting about for information about Fisher’s book for yesterday’s column, the focus of which has to do with the introduction of stud in the nineteenth century and the relative dominance of draw poker among cultural representations of the game thereafter (even while stud gained in popularity). Here’s that one, if you’re curious:

  • Poker & Pop Culture: Following Draw, “Stud-Horse Poker” Gallops In
  • The review of Fisher’s book -- written by Westbrook Pegler as an installment of his regular column, titled “Fair Enough” -- is a positive one, ending with a few almost tongue-in-cheek complaints about bridge having come to rival poker in popularity.

    “For some reason bridge has claimed rating as the gentleman’s game and is considered to be desirable nowadays as a part of the social equipment of young officers of the army, along with dancing, tennis and the etiquette of the seven-fork formal dinner,” writes a derisive-sounding Pegler.

    “There is yet time to reestablish stud poker as the old army game,” he continues hopefully. “Possibly Vice President Garner, who is one of the great American experts in stud would help to install Mr. Fisher’s Stud Poker Blue Book as one of the official studies at West Point.”

    Amid the kidding, I had to follow-up the reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s then-VP, John Nance Garner. FDR was of course an avid poker player, but I’d never thought much about Garner or his playing, so it was intriguing to see a casual reference to his stud expertise dropped here at the end of Pegler’s review.

    Hailing from Texas, “Cactus Jack” (as he was sometimes called) served in the Congress for three decades including as Speaker of the House for a couple of years, then was FDR’s VP for his first two four-year terms from 1933 to 1941. Though very active in Congress, he wasn’t so much as VP, and is famously quoted afterwards as having referred to the office of Vice-Presidency as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” (The source for that quote isn’t clear, actually.)

    Like most politicians he had both proponents and enemies, and among the latter group belonged the famous labor leader John L. Lewis. Once while testifying to Congress in 1939, Lewis referred to Garner as “a labor-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, evil old man” because “the majority of people will feel that anyone Lewis can’t control is all right.” (So reported Time magazine.)

    From what James McManus says about Garner in Cowboys Full, he actually “had grown up playing high-stakes draw” before becoming the stud expert (as Pegler calls him). McManus also points out how Garner wasn’t invited to FDR’s poker games, with their relationship deteriorating to the point that Roosevelt instead chose Henry Wallace to run with him as he won a third term.

    Incidentally, Garner would live to a ripe old age of 98. His 95th birthday happened to be November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Kennedy phoned Garner that morning at his home in Uvalde, Texas to wish him a happy birthday.

    Dan Rather -- then normally stationed in New Orleans -- was in Uvalde that morning to film a short piece with Garner, and had carried it to KRLD in Dallas where he dropped it off. Without an assignment for the rest of the day, Rather stuck around to watch the Kennedy motorcade. Shortly afterward he was among the first to pass along the news JFK had died, his report being picked up and shared over CBS radio even before Walter Cronkite’s famous pronouncement.

    There’s more to Cactus Jack’s poker story, I’m sure, though I’ve yet to dig further. Perhaps he was just too good of a player for FDR to want hanging around. In any case, that nickname suggests he was probably considered a bit prickly by others, too.

    Image: John Nance Garner, public domain.

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