Monday, September 17, 2012

Playing Poker With Truman and Churchill

Harry Truman says 'The Buck Stops Here'One very fun thing about teaching this “Poker in American Film and Culture” class each semester is discovering additional readings, films, or other material related to the course. I’ve taught the class a few times now and every time I do I end up finding new, interesting items to incorporate.

Of course the class remains just one semester long, which means I have to decide sometimes whether to cut readings in order to bring in the new material. I’ve compromised somewhat in this regard by introducing an ever-growing “Recommended Readings & Viewings” section where I’ve been moving articles and clips that are getting replaced.

James McManus’s Cowboys Full remains a core text for the class, a book we spend a lot of time with especially early on. Doing so ensures we have some idea of the history of poker in the U.S. and thus some context for the films and other cultural productions we examine later on.

Those of you who’ve read McManus’s book know how he makes lots of references to events in American history in which poker was of particular relevance. A few examples come in the chapter about Harry Truman, one of many poker-playing U.S. presidents.

Truman’s adopted motto -- “the buck stops here” -- is in fact derived from poker, the “buck” referring to the buckhorn knife once used as a the dealer’s button. McManus explains that bit of trivia while also telling the story of Truman playing stud with the press aboard the U.S.S. Augusta battleship while waiting for news regarding the detonation of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.

We all know how the Enola Gay, piloted by Paul Tibbets, was the name of the aircraft from which the first bomb was dropped. McManus doesn’t mention the names of a couple of other aircraft involved in the missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- the Straight Flush and Full House (both of which handled weather reconnaissance).

Winston Churchill delivering the 'Iron Curtain' speech at Westminster College in Missouri, March 5, 1946McManus does go on to talk about WWII’s aftermath, including Winston Churchill’s famous “Iron Curtain” speech delivered in March 1946. Churchill had arrived in Washington D.C. and rode with Truman on his private train to Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri where he gave the speech (pictured at left). On the way, Churchill, Truman, and others played poker on the train.

McManus explains how the game went, with Churchill losing steadily before finally quitting at 2:30 in the morning. The next day Churchill then delivered the speech that along with Stalin’s response many point to as the start of the Cold War.

McManus resists drawing any substantial connections between the poker game and the speech, but reading between the lines it is tempting to give it some symbolic significance as a prelude to the cementing of a significant and enduring alliance.

We’ll be discussing this chapter along with others today in class. When preparing I found this clip in which long-time journalist David Brinkley talks about playing in the poker game on the train with Truman and Churchill. I think I’ll show the clip in class today and let the students hear Brinkley talk about how after beating up on Churchill for most of the night, the Americans finally eased up before the game concluded.

Like I say, it’s tempting to give the game some significance it probably doesn’t deserve and talk about how it demonstrated something of the Americans’ character to Churchill. Or perhaps even illustrated a modest example of diplomacy. In any event, it’s fascinating how often poker comes up at key moments in the nation’s history.

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