'HE WAS a very successful poker player, and left the Navy with several thousand dollars in winnings,' noted yesterday's obituary of Richard Nixon in the Independent. This episode in Nixon's early life is worth remembering, because these winnings helped finance his first election campaign.
Nixon was a disciplined player, rather over-tight and money-oriented, but in the games he played during his naval service in the Pacific, that was a winning formula. One of Nixon's fellow officers recalls that one day he noticed Nick - as he was then known - was lost in his thoughts, and asked what was bothering him. 'Is there any sure way to win at poker?' Nick asked.
His friend told him he didn't know of a sure way to win, but his own theory for draw poker was that you should never stay in unless you knew that you had everyone beaten at the time of the draw. Nick liked what he heard, and practised various plays without money, soon becoming adept.
In the next two months, Nick won dollars 6,000 - a huge amount in 1943. Another friend from those days says: 'Nick was as good a poker player - if not better than - anyone we had ever seen. He played a quiet game but he wasn't afraid of taking chances.'
Nixon applied the principles of poker in his diplomacy. He took the view that if you didn't win the little pots, on minor matters - in dealing with China or Russia - then you couldn't win the big pots, on issues of national importance.
Nixon saw a like-minded leader in Moscow. 'There is no doubt but that Khruschev would have made a superb poker player,' he wrote in 1962, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. But, of course, Khruschev over-bet his hand.
Nixon was to make a similar kind of mistake over Watergate. The whole affair can be seen as a gigantic bluff, based on the calculation that Congress would never be able to call. That turned out to be a misjudgement, because all the 'cards' - in the form of conversations with his White House aides about Watergate - were recorded on tape. When the hand was shown face-up, the bluff was exposed.
Young Nick would have done well to remember that even though you may start with the best hand, you can still be outdrawn.
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