Presidential Poker: Dwight D. Eisenhower

Presidential Poker: Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower learned to play poker from an old frontiersman when he was a boy in Abilene, Kansas. Born in 1890, the small town where he grew up had been a notorious wide-open cattle town just a generation earlier.

Young Ike befriended one old-timer who’d been a scout, hunter and professional gambler. He was “my hero-a great teacher,” Eisenhower said. On frequent outings, he taught him to hunt, fish, pilot a flatboat, and “the rudiments of poker.”

Although his mentor was illiterate, “he knew poker percentages. “Playing for matches, Ike recalled, he drilled “percentages into my head night after night around the campfire, using for the lessons a greasy pack of nickel cards that must have been a dozen years old.”

“I was fascinated by the game,” Eisenhower recalled, and “really studied hard.” So thoroughly did the old cowboy “drill me on percentages-I was never able to play the game carelessly or wide open. I adhered strictly to percentages.”

Apparently, Ike learned well. Years later, he wrote that since many military men “no nothing about probabilities, it was not remarkable that I should be a regular winner.”

A math wiz and outstanding athelete in high school, Eisenhower received an appointment to West Point. Highly competitive, his passion was football. He was a star until a serious knee injury ended his game. Sounding as much like a poker player as a running back, he told a sports reporter, “I tried to instill the fear of Eisenhower in every opponent.”

Out of football, cadet Eisenhower devoted much of his free time to poker. He used it to supplement his income. After graduation from West Point in 1915, the young 2nd Lieutenant bought his first new uniform from his winnings.

Assigned to Ft. Sam Houston, in Texas, Ike met and soon married his life-long partner, Mamie. The young officer cashed in poker winnings to buy gifts for his bride.

Eisenhower spent World War I as a training officer and football coach. He saw no combat.

Fearful he would never advance, Eisenhower jumped at a chance to go to the prestigious Command and General Staff School at Ft. Leavenworth in 1926. He graduated first in his class of 245 officers.

At Ft. Meade, Maryland, he studied tank warfare and became best friends and poker buddies with fellow officer George Patton. According to Ike, the two friends “managed to find time twice a week for a poker game.” The games, he said, were open only “to bachelors and others who could afford to lose.”

Despite the rule, Ike had a very unpleasant poker experience. A fellow officer lost a lot of money to him and paid with bonds “patiently saved by his wife during the years he’d been away to war.” Eisenhower accepted the payment, but was depressed.

Consequently, he conspired with the other players to let the soldier win back his money. “This was not achieved easily,” Eisenhower recalls, “One of the hardest things known to man is to make a fellow win in poker who plays as if bent on losing every nickel.”

It took until nearly midnight to get the job done. Ike then got his friend Colonel Patton to prohibit poker playing among the troops in order to prevent the young officer from repeating his folly.

But Ike had learned a lesson. He concluded, as a career officer, he could no longer play poker with other soldiers. “I decided that I had to quit playing. It was not because I didn’t enjoy the excitement of the game – I really love to play” he explained, “But it had become clear that it was no game to play in the Army.” He didn’t play in military poker games after he was 40.

Eisenhower was next assigned to the General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. MacArthur considered Ike “the best officer in the Army.” It was here he also became a passionate golfer.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, recently promoted Brigadier General Eisenhower was summoned to Washington D.C. to work under Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, the man President Roosevelt had put in charge of America’s war effort.

So impressed was Marshall with Eisenhower’s war planning and people skills, he promoted him to Major General. In 1942, he was sent to England. After his successful planning of the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy, Eisenhower was named Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces.

General Eisenhower planned and directed D-Day, the massive land, air and sea invasion of Europe that was the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany. By the end of the war, Dwight Eisenhower was a worldwide hero and celebrity.

Grass roots pressure for Ike to run for president was enormous. Eventually, he announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination. In 1952, he was easily elected 34th President of the United States.

Although Eisenhower had sworn off poker as a military commander, he resumed the pastime as President. Occasionally, he held stag poker nights in the Treaty Room after dining on wild game.

As President, political opponents criticized Eisenhower for devoting too much time to golf. Vice President Richard Nixon, defending his boss, told the media, “If the president spent as much time playing golf as (former President) Truman spent playing poker, the president would be able to beat Ben Hogan.”

In 1956, Ike won reelection in another landslide victory. For eight years, President Eisenhower avoided war and promoted prosperity. On March 8, 1969, he passed away and was buried at his home in Abilene with full military honors.

Mark Brown
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