9 Politicians Who Would Make Great Poker Players

By J.W. Paine
Published on March 22, 2019

Carl von Clausewitz, as every gambler knows (go with me on this one), famously said: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Among his lesser-known aphorisms (lesser-known because he never said this) is this gem: “Who dares, wins.”

Poker is a game of skill. Even the government admits this. Poker requires the intelligence and wit to understand probabilities and odds.

It also requires carefully applied aggression — is a raise enough to scare everyone away from the pot you probably wouldn’t win in a showdown?

Alternately, will my opponent figure out my deception and be wary after seeing me call his raise?

Call it audacity, foolhardiness, or bullying, but without aggression, poker would be just another variation of solitaire.

The final ingredient to effective poker playing is the ability to deceive — not with evil intent, but to conceal your real intentions or simply to imply a strength of hand you may not actually have.

As Clausewitz, that inveterate aphorist (and my favorite sock-puppet when I’ve said something passably cleverish and want to make it seem more so), once observed: “Prefixing ‘poker’ with ‘liars’ is redundant. All poker players are liars, and all liars play poker — however much they protest the accusation.”

One might even say that all diplomacy, persuasion, bargaining, and negotiation is comprised at least partly of such deception, usually to avoid what no one wants — “the continuation of politics by other means.”

Which makes virtually every politician, by default, at least a journeyman poker player, even if they claim to have never touched a card or a poker chip in their lives.

And among politicians, there are a select few who — in their day — would have stood a chance at the World Series of Poker.

In fact, here are my nominations for the politicians most likely to make it to the final table at WSOP.

Lindsey Graham

Your only real choices in poker, they say, are to raise or to fold. Calling (dismissively referred to in hold’em as “limping in”) is rarely a smart play. So why Senator Graham? He is viewed, even by his constituents and his fellow Republicans, as a bit of a — what’s the phrase — oh, yeah: weak sister.

Which made his sudden and unexpected transformation into a veritable Braveheart marshalling the troops during the earlier years of the Trump administration so shocking.

Lindsey Graham

Lindsey Graham

If anyone could make limping in work, it’s Graham. While his opponents around the table would sneer at his apparent weakness, Lindsey would suddenly roar “All In!” like a Viking boss samurai, and the other players would fold their cards in shock and horror. In fact, I think John Kerry spotted.

Frankly, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as watching the worm turn, and Lindsey has shown he can walk the walk.

Ronald Reagan

Like that great skit on SNL suggests (back in ’86, when SNL still employed comedy writers), it is my theory that Reagan had everybody fooled with his doddering grandpa demeanor.

Seriously, his speeches (the ones he wrote and delivered) display a confidence and intelligence very unlike the slightly dotty personality the opinion pages encouraged us to believe.

Go ahead, convince me that “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” is not a classic all-in move.

Reagan knew the importance of taking control of the battle. For instance, he vetoed a record number of bills passed by Congress, more vetoes than those of all of his successors combined, in fact.

At the poker table, Reagan would take control of the action, wearing down his opponents to the point where they would actually wander off, dazed and confused, each vowing never to play poker or be in the same room with Regan ever again. Advantage: Reagan.

Frederica Wilson

I know just what you’re going to say. Frederica who?

You know I’m gonna say something about her wardrobe. I can see you’re just waiting for me to do it.

Okay, I’ll do it, and I’m not being mean.

Come on — it’s not like everybody in Frederica’s congressional district wears bedazzled cowboy hats everywhere. That’s weird, even for southern Florida.

But guess what, smart guy? Frederica recently got a 200-year-old prohibition against wearing hats in Congress overturned.

Frederica Wilson

Frederica Wilson

That’s how committed she is. You can now wear a hat in the House of Representatives, and you have Frederica to thank for that. And it’s just that sort of hyper-focused attention to a goal others might scoff at as somewhat inconsequential that would make Frederica a formidable poker opponent.

Think about it.

Frederica spent significant political capital to ensure she could continue to wear her neon-colored cowboy hats (just like American hero Audie Murphy did) while voting on other important matters her Florida constituents deem vital to the nation’s security and well-being.

Important stuff, like common-sense limits on fraternity and sorority hazing — apparently a huge problem in southern Florida. Personally, I didn’t even know they had universities in southern Florida. It seems so out of character.

Other poker players at the final WSOP table might be worried about the flop, but Frederica would throw them all off with her insistence that the deck be changed to include jokers, which would, of course, be wild.

Why would she do that? Because she’s wearing a cowboy hat, dammit! Do not argue with her, because whether you know it or not, she’s your huckleberry.

Technically, Nixon might be the better player, but his tactical skills would take a beating once Frederica got inside his head.

Richard Nixon

Speaking of Nixon, he’s a shoo-in for the final table. Nixon actually made more money in the Navy playing poker than he made on his ensign’s salary (which, in all fairness, wouldn’t have been all that hard to do; his salary back then was about $150 a month).

Key strength: Never greedy, but savagely predatory when it mattered. Or when it suited him.

Every poker table needs a bad boy, and Nixon fills this requirement to an absolute T. Annoying your opposition is a time-honored tactic in the game, and just one mention of Nixon’s poker enemies list  would be enough to send several of the players spiraling into a strategy-destroying depression.

What? You think he didn’t have one? Nixon had more people on his list than Santa Claus — who was also on Nixon’s list, incidentally.

Naughty or nice, indeed.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Elected, I suspect, because everyone who voted for her thought they were the only ones voting for her (sort of a “well, bless her heart” vote), this bartender-slash-Congresswoman is so full of, um, ideas that her opponents at the poker tables would never know when she was bluffing.

They might not even understand much of what she was saying.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

They might, however, notice that she was betting with their chips, but that’s their problem, right?

Like her or loathe her, you have to admit you wouldn’t care to bet she’s not holding the winning hand.

Tip O’Neill

O’Neill was an excellent negotiator, understanding well when to raise and when to fold, but he’s on this list mostly because I’d like to see him actually play against Nixon, whose reputation as a world-class poker player was — or so O’Neill claimed — “overstated.”

An early opponent of the Vietnam War, O’Neill was his own man, or at least, his constituency’s own man. Later, he opposed many of Reagan’s policies but compromised or even supported others, proving himself a master of realpolitik — a pragmatist, in other words.

At the poker table, O’Neill would always know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. And he would be savvy enough to read his opposition well. But could he beat Nixon?

Ulysses Grant

You might not remember seeing his picture in the paper or on CNN, but Grant was kind of a big deal back in the day. Lincoln once observed that he could not afford to lose Grant (then a Union general) because “he fights.”

Parenthetically, all the other generals in the Union army apparently thought the Civil War was all some weird kind of re-enactment thing they were doing, something they would all refer to as “the late unpleasantness” while sipping sherry and playing whist down at the club.

Grant was the only one among them who took it seriously.

And don’t let the fact that his picture is on the $50 bill bother you. Yes, it might be considered bad luck in Vegas, but Grant himself was bad luck only to the Southern soldiers who opposed him. Well, and to Richmond, I guess. That certainly could have gone better for the Virginians.

Grant knew how to fight, and despite his diminutive physical size, he would put the fear of god into any poker player who considered calling his raise. He’d go through the other players at the table like, well, like Grant took Richmond.

Margaret Thatcher

Balls. Maggie had ‘em. Big brass ones. She might have even had a spare pair packed away, just in case.

If audacity is 50% of winning poker, Prime Minister Thatcher had at least a double dose of it. They didn’t call her “The Iron Lady” because she was a whiz with creases. She served as the Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1975 to 1990 — the first woman to hold that position, too.

Before she was a politician, she worked as a research chemist (I know, right?) and then as a barrister, which is a type of lawyer in the UK who argues cases in court, sort of a Perry Mason with a funny accent and a powdered wig. No, wait — that’s Rumpole of the Bailey. Pretend I didn’t say that.

Baroness Thatcher (I know, right?) would bring a level of class to the final WSOP table, but even better, she would bring an innate ability to judge the interplay among her fellow competitors and make shrewd decisions based on logic and reason. And then carry those decisions out to the end. Why? She had something… what was it? Oh, yeah. Balls.

Bernie Sanders

You didn’t think he’d survive to the final table, did you? Yeah, Old-Man-Yells-At-Clouds (his honorary Hacowie tribal name) is a tough old bugger.

He survived in American politics despite his long-held collectivist leanings; even when he was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont, back in 1980, Bernie described himself frequently as a socialist.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

Sure, his continued survival in the political arena may say more about his constituents than his own abilities, but survive he has — and prospered, too.

Having served in both houses of Congress, Bernie has found a new calling: running for the US Presidency.

Whether Bernie wants to be President or just likes to campaign is a question for the ages. In any case, Bernie has worked with people from all walks of life and has stuck to his principles for more decades than many of us have been alive.

He would bring that high level of people skills to the final WSOP table, and frankly, even though all his opponents are also skilled politicians, few of them have the tenacity to make a stand everyone else thinks is foolhardy.

Bernie’s strength in poker would be the fact that he is the very embodiment of variance. Yeah, he might have a pocket containing 7-2 off-suit, but if anybody can flop the nuts with a shaky hand, it’s Bernie. Care to test him?

I didn’t think so.

And the Winner Is—

Are you kidding me? They haven’t even dealt the first hand yet.

You know why?

Because Tip O’Neill suggested they all make a deal, and now they’re arguing over whether to do a chip-chop (Nixon’s preference, since he has the majority of chips), an even spread (Bernie and AOC are arguing hot and heavy for this), or what other WSOP players call “let’s make a deal” time, where anything goes, provided you can convince the other players to go along (kinda like Monopoly, but with real money, and nobody ever goes to jail).

You might want to avert your eyes. There will be blood.

Postscript: For those of you who thought John Kerry was going to be among the politicians at the final WSOP table, get real. Kerry doesn’t need to play poker. He made his money the old-fashioned way: He married it.