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John Mccain's Gambling Problem

Michael Scherer and Michael Weisskopf have a great piece in Time this week about what the two candidates' gambling habits say about their political (and, potentially, governing) styles. Short version: McCain is a high-stakes craps player who loves the pure, adrenalin-pumping, rush of the game. Obama is an exceedingly low-stakes poker player who sizes up his odds methodically and rarely loses money.

It's a great insight into the two personalities. And there's an even better scoop a little further down. While I knew most of the details of Obama's poker-playing, I had no idea McCain was such a hard-core gambler:

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.

"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." [emphasis added].

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.

At the end of the piece, a former Obama colleague, refering to Obama's contemplative gambling style, tells Time, "If he runs his presidency the way he plays poker, I'll sleep good at night." I think the converse is true of McCain--I'd sleep pretty poorly if he were to run his presidency the way he plays craps. (And I think the odds are high that he would. He certainly seems to run his campaign that way...)

*Of course, if by "a few thousand dollars at a time" Scherer and Weisskopf mean "a few thousand dollars a hand roll," then we're potentially talking millions of dollars over a period of several years, not hundreds of thousands. We'd be in real pathological territory--nothing particularly borderline about it.

--Noam Scheiber