POSTED: 4 JULY 2008 - 8:30am EST

Candidates' Vices: Craps and Poker

image above: Illustration by John Corbitt for Time magazine

by Michael Sherer & Michael Weisskopf on 2 July 2008 in Time Magazine

The casino craps player is a social animal, a thrill seeker who wants not just to win but to win with a crowd. Unlike cards or a roulette wheel, well-thrown dice reward most everyone on the rail, yielding a collective yawp that drowns out the slots. It is a game for showmen, Hollywood stars and basketball legends with girls on their arms. It is also a favorite pastime of the presumptive Republican nominee for President, John McCain.

The backroom poker player, on the other hand, is more cautious and self-absorbed. Card games may be social, but they are played in solitude. No need for drama. The quiet card counter is king, and only a novice banks on luck. In this game, a good bluff trumps blind faith, and the studied observer beats the showman. So it is fitting that the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, raked in so many pots in his late-night games with political friends.
For centuries, the nation's political leaders have loved their games of chance.

Andrew Jackson owned fighting cocks and raced horses. Richard Nixon helped finance his first congressional race with his World War II poker winnings. Teddy Roosevelt noted that the professional gamblers he knew "usually made good soldiers." But even among this crowd, McCain and Obama are distinctive. For both men, games of chance have been not just a hobby but also a fundamental feature in their development as people and politicians. For Obama, weekly poker games with lobbyists and fellow state senators helped cement his position as a rising star in Illinois politics. For McCain, jaunts to the craps table helped burnish his image as a political hot dog who relished the thrill of a good fight, even if the risk of failure was high.

The Thrill of the Game
McCain's passion for gambling and taking other risks has never been a secret. He was a Navy flyer, trained in the art of controlled crash landings on aircraft carriers. He spent his youth sneaking booze behind the backs of his schoolmasters and reveling in his stack of demerits. He came of age on shore leave in the casinos of Monte Carlo, in a Navy culture that had long embraced dice in the officers' clubs.
The moral code of McCain's youth always distinguished between sins of honor and sins of pleasure. "Don't lie, cheat or steal — anything else is fair game," McCain told his son Jack when the boy left for the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md. In his memoir, McCain recalls that by his mid-20s, he "had begun to aspire to a reputation for more commendable achievements than long nights of drinking and gambling."

Over time he gave up the drinking bouts, but he never quite kicked the periodic yen for dice. In the past decade, he has played on Mississippi riverboats, on Indian land, in Caribbean craps pits and along the length of the Las Vegas Strip. Back in 2005 he joined a group of journalists at a magazine-industry conference in Puerto Rico, offering betting strategy on request. "Enjoying craps opens up a window on a central thread constant in John's life," says John Weaver, McCain's former chief strategist, who followed him to many a casino.

"Taking a chance, playing against the odds." Aides say McCain tends to play for a few thousand dollars at a time and avoids taking markers, or loans, from the casinos, which he has helped regulate in Congress. "He never, ever plays on the house," says Mark Salter, a McCain adviser. The goal, say several people familiar with his habit, is never financial. He loves the thrill of winning and the camaraderie at the table.

Only recently have McCain's aides urged him to pull back from the pastime. In the heat of the G.O.P. primary fight last spring, he announced on a visit to the Vegas Strip that he was going to the casino floor. When his aides stopped him, fearing a public relations disaster, McCain suggested that they ask the casino to take a craps table to a private room, a high-roller privilege McCain had indulged in before. His aides, with alarm bells ringing, refused again, according to two accounts of the discussion.

"He clearly knows that this is on the borderline of what is acceptable for him to be doing," says a Republican who has watched McCain play. "And he just sort of revels in it."

If McCain plays craps for thrills, Obama sees gambling as a way to vent his competitive urge. His love of basketball is well known. "I could get to the rim on anybody," he told HBO's Bryant Gumbel of his high school hoops days. He could not even play golf for fun, taking lessons to lower his handicap after a few poor performances. "Barack hates to lose," says Dan Shomon, an old Chicago political aide.

Poker may be sedentary, but it is no less competitive. Obama played most regularly as an Illinois state senator in the late 1990s. The legislature met in Springfield, which had little to recommend it after hours, except on Wednesday nights, when "The Committee Meeting," as it was nicknamed, convened in state senator Terry Link's basement. Obama and fellow senators made up the "core four." The game began at 7 p.m. and often lasted until 2 a.m. There were pizza and chips, a fridge full of beer, and enough cigars for a smoke-filled room. Obama usually showed up in a baseball cap and sweats. He cadged cigarettes and drank a beer, kept up with the boys'-night-out banter and roared at the off-color stories.

When he lost a hand, Obama joked that he couldn't afford gasoline to drive home.

But he always had his head in the game. The stakes were low enough — $1 ante and $3 top raise — to afford a long shot. Not Obama. He studied the cards as closely as he would an eleventh-hour amendment to a bill. The odds were religion to him. Only rarely did he bluff. "He had a pretty good idea about what his chances were," says Denny Jacobs, a former state senator from East Moline.

Obama's play-to-win approach drove other players crazy. Former state senator Larry Walsh, a conservative corn farmer from Joliet, once got ready to pull in a pot with a four-of-a-kind hand. But Obama had four of a kind too, of higher rank. Walsh slammed down his cards. "Doggone it, Barack, if you were more liberal in your card-playing and more conservative in your politics, you and I would get along much better," he said.

Obama used the sessions to bond with those who could aid his political ascent, including several lawmakers with whom he forged lasting political alliances, as well as some lobbyists. The banks, utilities and insurance agents were often represented. "We all became buddies in the card games, but there never were any favors granted," says David Manning of the Community Bankers Association of Illinois.

Obama usually left a winner. But he reaped a bigger payoff politically. When he announced his plans to run for the U.S. Senate, his poker pals — white guys from small-town Illinois — were among his earliest supporters. Link says the Wednesday-night gang didn't realize how far Obama would go: "Nobody said, 'Mr. President, it's your deal.' " But Obama's risk-averse, methodical approach to five-card stud gives Link confidence in his potential governing style. "If he runs his presidency the way he plays poker, I'll sleep good at night," he says.

What do the candidates' gambling proclivities tell us about who they are?

Politicians talk of their campaigns as grand contests of ideas. But in practice, the political battle is both a crapshoot and a poker game, a study in managing risk and in manipulating people. And there is no bigger gamble than a presidential run, which both candidates have conducted very differently this cycle. McCain's campaign, like his life, has been marked by its embrace of living dangerously and by clear runs of fortune and disappointment. Obama, meanwhile, has succeeded, no less remarkably, by diligently executing a premeditated strategy. But the general-election game is new to both men. And as the stakes rise, both know they'll need a little luck.