US election: Poker player Barack Obama has better odds than dice man John McCain
By Tim Shipman in Washington

Barack Obama is winning support for his White House campaign from an unlikely quarter – America’s poker players.

Stetson-wearing Las Vegas pros who like his belief in the freedom to gamble are putting their chips on Mr Obama, who is himself a skilled player of Texas Hold’Em and Seven Card Stud.

Doyle Brunson, America’s greatest living player and formerly a life-long Republican, has come out for Obama.

Another leading poker player and Obama backer, Andy Bloch, told The Sunday Telegraph that most players in Las Vegas for the main event of the World Series of Poker, which began on Thursday, are backing the Democrat. Meanwhile a group called Poker Players for Obama writes a blog on his campaign website.

Their support has drawn attention to the fact that this year’s presidential election features seasoned gamblers for the first time since the days of Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson.

While Mr Obama regards poker as one of his hidden talents, his Republican rival John McCain is a dedicated gambler who enjoys few things more than a 14 hour session at the craps table.

Mr McCain has enjoyed the camaraderie and the thrill of chance in the dice game, where players bet on the outcome of the throw, since his days as a tearaway pilot in the Navy. He is reputed to wager several thousand dollars a session, and had to be prevented from gambling when a campaign trip took him through Las Vegas earlier this year.

By contrast, Mr Obama used his love of poker to get to know rivals during his days as an Illinois state senator, where he developed a reputation for playing to win – usually doing so with strong cards, and rarely bluffing. Terry Link, a fellow state senator at the time, told Time magazine: “If he runs his presidency the way he plays poker, I’ll sleep good at night.”

Announcing his support for Mr Obama, Mr Brunson, twice a winner of the world championship, said he could not back Mr McCain because the Republicans support the current US ban on internet gaming. Mr Obama has said he would like to regulate online poker and gambling, rather than criminalise it.

“Poker players have to support Obama,” he said. “God help the internet gambling business if McCain does happen to win.”

But others see Obama’s poker skills rather than his gaming policies as the better qualification for the presidency. Andy Bloch, one of the world’s leading players who has accumulated $715,000 so far at this year’s World Series, told The Sunday Telegraph: “There are a lot of skills playing poker that would help the chief executive.

“In poker you have to put yourself in the shoes of your opponents, get inside their heads and figure out what they’re thinking; what their actions mean; what they would think your actions mean; and reading people’s bluffs.

“One thing that got us into the Iraq War was that George Bush didn’t realise that Saddam Hussein was basically bluffing, trying to look like a big man, when he really had no weapons of mass destruction.”

Anthony Holden, the British poker player and writer, whose book Big Deal did much to popularise the game in the UK, said Obama is following in a long tradition of poker playing presidents, from Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt and Warren Harding to Harry Truman.

He told The Sunday Telegraph: “Eisenhower was a good player who did not like winning money from fellow officers, let alone other ranks, and he was a nice guy. Nixon had no such scruples at all and funded his first political campaign from his wartime winnings. He turned out to be just as unprincipled in power.

“Barack Obama, like Lyndon Johnson, used poker to make political connections. He seems not to be much of a bluffer. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a giant bluff by JFK, which was not called by Khruschev. I don’t think we’ll get those kind of geopolitical gambles from Obama.”

Both men are concerned by the details of Mr McCain’s Craps habit. “You’re always at a disadvantage at craps,” said Mr Bloch. “It’s a problem, if you have a leader who believes they can beat the odds. You don’t want him shooting dice with the economy.” Mr Holden added: “We poker players don’t call poker gambling. It is a game of skill. Craps is an absurd game of luck. You may have thrilling short term wins but only madmen play craps.”

Both candidates need to work on their poker faces, according to another poker player who analysed their “tells”, those physical mannerisms they use when they are lying.

The blogger, cthulhuology, said of Mr McCain: “Every time he bends the truth, dissembles, or just outright lies, his left eye starts twitching more than his normal excessive blinking. McCain then looks down, in a rather sheepish fashion, and looks away from the interviewer breaking eye contact.”

He added: “Obama has several mannerisms which give away when he’s stalling for time, trying to parse a statement, or just crafting a half truth. Watch how he touches his face on occasion, when a statement or comment disturbs him.”

(Similar articles on this topic can be found by CNN here and TIME magazine here.)