Roosevelt’s Poker Club
James McManus is an author and professional poker player. His most recent book is “Cowboys Full” an account of poker’s role in American history. His bestselling memoir, “Positively Fifth Street” was based on his coverage of a Las Vegas trial and his participation in the 2000 World Series of Poker. His journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's Magazine, and The New Yorker. A teacher at The Art Institute of Chicago, he lives in Kenilworth, Illinois.
Question: What historic poker game would you most want to watch?
James McManus: There was a game in the White House during the '30s played by Franklin Roosevelt, his secretary Missy LeHand, who was also his lover, some of his senior generals and diplomatic advisors, and there was also a woman named Lorena Hickok playing who was Eleanor Roosevelt's live-in lover. So that conglomeration of powerful men and women in a White House scenario that certainly would have raised Kenneth Starr's eyebrows, while the world is in the -- you know, we're in the thick of the Depression, World War II -- we're gearing up to fight the greatest war in history -- I think it would have been fascinating to have been a part of those games. Roosevelt, of course, couldn’t -- he didn't have much of an active physical life. Poker as not only his favorite game, but it was kind of his mind sport. And because it was difficult for him to travel around even within the White House, the radio microphone from which he made his fireside chats was a few paces away from the table that they played poker on. And he didn't use worry beads, and he didn't have a rosary; what he had were poker chips that he clicked together in his hand to relax as he was giving the fireside chats. And Tom and Betsy Madden, my grandparents who taught me how to play, could hear that --and along with millions of other Americans -- could hear that as they sat around, you know, listening breathlessly to Roosevelt's next pronouncement about what's going on in the economy or in Europe.
In the throes of the Great Depression and on the brink of entering the Second World War, FDR hosted some of the most fascinating poker games in American history.
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