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John McCain's Gambling Problem -- and Ours?

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The surprising Time magazine piece this week about the gambling habits of John McCain (craps) and Barack Obama (poker) continues to reverberate, with McCain's much more avid and cash-expending pursuit drawing most of the attention.

A diarist at DailyKos is even probing whether McCain has ever filed the proper federal tax forms for gambling profits and losses. And Noam Schieber comments today at the New Republic's The Stump blog on McCain's visits to the crap tables in Vegas: "A few thousand dollars at a time? Wow. That's more than borderline unseemly, I'd say -- easily several hundred thousand dollars over a period of 5-10 years if McCain plays regularly. It's certainly a far cry from the $1-ante games Obama played in Springfield."

The Michael Scherer and Michael Weisskopf article at Time contrasted McCain's high-stakes and risk-taking gambling with Obama's cautious, cerebral brand, practically inviting readers to consider how this might play out when one of them is in the Oval Office. "He clearly knows that this is on the borderline of what is acceptable for him to be doing," says a Republican who has watched McCain play. "And he just sort of revels in it."

It's not exactly a bolt out of the blue -- as long ago as the 2000 campaign, Maureen Dowd was joking about the Bush men staking out the craps tables in Vegas to catch McCain in the act -- but still intriguing.

This is not exactly my area of expertise, though I have been to Vegas three times in the past two years for conventions, during which I played the slots in the casinos for about a half-hour total -- while winning two $75 jackpots on the machines at the airport!

You may have read the Time piece already so here is an excerpt from an earlier Connie Bruck piece in The New Yorker, May 30, 2005:

The moment the car stopped at McCain's hotel in downtown New Orleans, he set out at his usual fast clip for Harrah's, across the street. McCain is an avid gambler. Wes Gullett, a close friend who worked for McCain for years, told me that they used to play craps in Las Vegas in fourteen-hour stints, standing at the tables from 10 a.m. to midnight. "Craps is addictive," McCain remarked, and he headed for the fifteen-dollar-minimum-bet tables. At the most obvious level, the game is incredibly simple -- players rotate turns throwing the dice, and you either win or lose depending on what number comes up. But McCain's betting formula makes it much more complicated. "Uh-oh!" he cried, as a player accidentally threw the dice off the table. "This is a very, very superstitious game," he said.

And here's an excerpt from the Time story:

In the past decade, [McCain] has played on Mississippi riverboats, on Indian land, in Caribbean craps pits and along the length of the Las Vegas Strip. Back in 2005 he joined a group of journalists at a magazine-industry conference in Puerto Rico, offering betting strategy on request. "Enjoying craps opens up a window on a central thread constant in John's life," says John Weaver, McCain's former chief strategist, who followed him to many a casino. "Taking a chance, playing against the odds." Aides say McCain tends to play for a few thousand dollars at a time and avoids taking markers, or loans, from the casinos, which he has helped regulate in Congress. "He never, ever plays on the house," says Mark Salter, a McCain adviser. The goal, say several people familiar with his habit, is never financial. He loves the thrill of winning and the camaraderie at the table.

Only recently have McCain's aides urged him to pull back from the pastime. In the heat of the G.O.P. primary fight last spring, he announced on a visit to the Vegas Strip that he was going to the casino floor. When his aides stopped him, fearing a public relations disaster, McCain suggested that they ask the casino to take a craps table to a private room, a high-roller privilege McCain had indulged in before. His aides, with alarm bells ringing, refused again, according to two accounts of the discussion."

I love this quote from Anthony Holden, the well-known British poker-player and writer, from a recent article in the London Telegraph: "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."

But will all this attention now "scare the craps" out of McCain?

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Greg Mitchell's new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq.