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Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Candidates' Vices: Craps, Poker


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."

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