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McCain’s commitment to poker is no frivolous matter

(AP Photo/CBS News, Chris Usher)

(AP Photo/CBS News, Chris Usher)

Tiffany Torralba

Quite a controversy was sparked last month when a photograph appeared of Senator John McCain (R-AZ) considering his online poker strategy in the midst of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the conflict in Syria. Critics pointed out that he ought to have been paying more attention to the proceedings, but McCain’s own response, posted to Twitter, was to defuse the brewing scandal and remark, ‘Worst of all I lost.’

It should not come as a surprise to anyone that McCain is an avid poker fan. His own father, a four-star Admiral in the US Navy, once remarked, ‘Life is run by poker players.’ It is a lesson that McCain has learned well. The skills involved in playing poker are useful in business and politics. Whether there are cards and chips or treaties and lives at stake, being able to look across a table and read the strategy of your opponent is vital. McCain can sit in a Senate committee room and use his phone to play the best poker online, but rather than being a distraction, it is a way to relieve stress while still focusing on strategic thinking.

Even when one considers it on a wider scale, McCain’s commitment to poker and to the gambling industry is far from being a frivolous matter. Navajo casinos in his home state of Arizona generate an income for the tribe of many tens of millions of dollars. One casino, recently opened near Flagstaff, provides jobs for 800 people, many of them Navajo. McCain, twice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, has played an instrumental role in legislating for the Native American gambling industry. McCain played a key role in drafting the 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a piece of legislation that laid the foundations for a multi-billion-dollar industry. He also supported a 1994 expansion of the law, allowing many additional tribes to establish casinos, as well as voting for tax breaks to assist the gaming industry. From the Kentucky Derby to the tables of Las Vegas, gambling is an important part of American culture. The freedom to take chances is part of the American way.

As well as being an important part of American culture, playing poker is also an increasingly important part of the American economy. As the industry grows and innovates, the distinction between online and live gambling makes less and less sense. McCain has, however, been less supportive of online than of offline gambling. In the Senate hearing, he was playing poker free online and not gambling for real money. Nonetheless, by playing poker on his phone, he demonstrated the connection between online and offline play. Many of the same skills and pleasures are involved.

Free online gambling is a great way to learn how to play poker for beginners. American professionals like Gavin Griffin have progressed from online poker to the live tournament circuit. Probably the best known and biggest poker tournament is the World Series of Poker, the main event of which takes place in Nevada. This brings real economic benefits to the country, and the recent openness to and growth of online gambling in the United States has been driven, at least in part, by the tax revenue that it can generate.

While the gambling industry provides employment and raises billions of dollars for the economy, any US military intervention in Syria will cost millions or even billions of dollars. Even then, one must consider how many lives it might cost. For example, it may not be a good idea when, in the midst of a tense hearing, someone decides to play online poker games for free at websites such as It might appear to have been disrespectful, but it was serious as well as fun. Both George Washington and Andrew Jackson were keen card players and gamblers. They understood, as John McCain’s father did and as the Senator himself seems to, that the worlds of politics and business have a great deal in common with the world of the Texas holdem poker table.

If you can use a phone to play poker free from inside the Senate, then the game has changed. Nonetheless, the stakes on Capitol Hill are as high as ever. Just like in a game of poker, no one really knows what will unfold, but expect everyone to have something up their sleeves.

Tiffany Torralba is a freelance writer


  1. So,is Senator Amnesty John McCain trying to con all of us into believing he is really Kenny Rodgers,in the Gambler? If so Johnny Boy,then maybe it’s time,
    for you, “To fold out and walk away from the table and when to run!” As your
    days as a high roller are done! In other words time for you to retire from the US Senate Johnnie Boy!

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