While fishing was FDR’s favorite outdoor social activity, poker was a favorite source of indoor relaxation with friends and staff. Behavior at the poker table is often an unguarded and telling reflection of the player’s personality. Regulars in the presidential poker game included the closest members of his inner circle, Harry Hopkins, “Pa” Watson and Dr. Ross McIntire, as well as other members of the cabinet, staff and White House press corps. The following anecdotes speak for themselves:
(Walter Trohan, Political Animals, p. 68)
Roosevelt was a great bluffer and a driver in command of the game, calling on this person to ante up, bet or fold up. Nothing delighted him more than a successful bluff, although he never seemed to suspect there was some hesitancy to win on the part of most of his opponents, including his staffers. He was most unhappy when one of his bluffs failed, almost childishly so. My delight was getting a pair, back to back at stud poker, a great favorite for him, and calling his bluff. One of the first signs of his declining health came when he became vacant and forgetful at the poker table and often had to be invited to make his play.
(Robert Jackson, That Man, p. 143)
Hopkins was uniquely lucky and played his cards for everything there was in them. Secretary Ickes, like myself, was not a particularly colorful player. Watson was a rather careless player, bent on thorough enjoyment of the game rather than results. Dr McIntire was a keen player and thoroughly intelligent.
The President studied the players as much as he did the cards. We often caught him bluffing but throughout the trip there was a marked peculiarity in his playing. Invariably he lost the early part of the game and we would have him down several dollars. Invariably he made it up in the last three or four hands of the evening. We finally told him that the only way we could beat him was to break up the game and we were going to arrange to have a fire call about four hands before the finish.
(Samuel Rosenman, Working With Roosevelt, p. 148.)
The President thought he was a good poker player. That opinion, however, was not shared by all those who played with him- and some of them should know. He lost more often than he won. All of us took particular pride and joy in winning from him, and nothing pleased him more than to win from us. As the president grew older, Doc McIntire insisted that the number of hours of card playing on his birthday be cut. From the all-night sessions which used to take place in Albany, they gradually shrunk to 4 A.M. then to 2 A.M., and finally, much to the President’s disgust, to midnight. He would complain about quitting early, but on a glance from Doc we would all insist, and if necessary just get up and quit.
(Navy Nurse Barbara Lint, oral history describing a visit to Bethesda Naval Hospital, Potomac Currents, V. 2 no. 3.)
She remembers a time when he wheeled himself...unannounced … into the solarium where a taboo poker game was going on. Instead of a dressing down, the men were surprised by FDR’s request to be dealt in.
The following comes from wordsmith and father of two world-class poker players, Richard Lederer.
Because of paraplegia brought on by his polio, Franklin D. Roosevelt was unable to relax by taking long walks or playing golf or tennis. But he often had dinner with his poker-playing pals and then adjourned to a marathon session of cards. His favorite game was seven-card stud. Among the regulars were the Vice President, Speaker of the House, Attorney General, Secretary of Commerce, and at least one Supreme Court Justice. The President's secretary, “Missy” LeHand, served cocktails and often played in the game. One of the rules was that nobody could discuss anything serious at the evening poker sessions. The only thought was how to outfox the other players.
From Doris Kearns Goodwin: During the war, he'd relax with marathon poker games with his cabinet. The only thing he thought about was how to beat these guys in poker. There's a story about an annual poker game he held on the night that Congress was supposed to adjourn. There was a rule that whoever was ahead at the moment that the speaker called to say Congress was adjourned would win the poker game.
Well, he's playing one year, and it turns out that when the speaker called at 9:30, Roosevelt was doing terribly and his secretary of the treasury, Morgenthau, was way ahead.
So Roosevelt took the phone and pretended it was someone else on the line. "Well I'm so glad you're calling, but we're in the middle of a big poker game." Then they kept playing and playing until finally around midnight Roosevelt pulled ahead. He whispered to an aide, "Bring me the phone." So he says into the phone, "Oh, Mr. Speaker, you're adjourning. How fine!" Then to his friends, "Well, boys, I guess I win!"
Everything was great until Morgenthau read in the newspaper the next day that Congress had adjourned at 9:30. He said he was so angry he actually resigned for a few moments until the charm of Roosevelt persuaded him it was all in fun.