The poker table is the cardsharp's workplace, arena, and funhouse all rolled into one. Green or red, oval or circular, poker tables range from luxurious pieces of art to workmanlike fold-out tables to simply get the job done. But the table built by friends and Iowa natives Jim Gocke and Dave Knau is special, a work of amazing craftsmanship that would be difficult for most to reproduce. Three years ago, these skilled men combined a love of history, woodworking, and poker to reproduce exact replicas of former President Harry Truman's famed poker table.
The Truman table is unique to American history, and Gocke and Knau certainly know their way around a wood shop. The first table was built for Knau's home poker room, and the second was presented to the U.S.S. Iowa in 2013. The ship is famous for being the "Ship of the Presidents" and is moored in San Pedro, Calif. The two table reproductions are gems of construction and the men's passion shows in their precision and skill -- and the word soon spread about their presidential poker work.
The Truman Little White House (Truman's presidential library and retreat in Key West, Fla.) soon approached Gocke and Knau about building another replica. The retreat houses the former president's original table, which was in need of restoration. Gocke and Knau delivered the replacement replica in December, but the woodworking bug continued.
"While building the table for the Truman Little White House, I asked Dave to help me build another table to donate to the Blue Ribbon Foundation Corn Dog Kickoff auction," said Jim. "That has been completed and is awaiting the event in July. At the present time, there is no plan to build or donate any other true replicas of the Truman table. People who wish to purchase a very unique piece of poker furniture with a historical story will have this opportunity in July and possible another at some future date if and when the Truman Little White house decides to auction their table."
The Truman table will be auctioned off by the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation on July 9. The nonprofit organization raises money for fairground renovations. Gocke has been heavily involved with the group as a volunteer for 15 years and saw the auction of the Truman table as a chance to help fund one of the most popular state fairs in the country.
History and High Stakes
The U.S. presidency has seen its share of poker comparisons through the years. The Oval Office has also had its fair share of poker players -- and Harry Truman may have been one of the most well-known. After being inaugurated, Truman ordered chips emblazoned with the presidential seal. With $500 buy-in games a regular at the White House and on presidential outings that involved journalists and members of his administration, certainly poker proved a bit of a getaway for the President in the throes of World War II. After picking up the game back home on the farm in Missouri in the 1890s, he continued the pursuit while serving in the army during World War I.
The game stuck with him for life.
"Truman's preference for poker over fussy or Country Club pastimes helps explain the temperament of 'Give 'Em Hell, Harry' during American labor disputes, hot wars with Japan and North Korea, and the cold war with Russia and China," wrote author James McManus in his seminal book on poker history, Cowboys Full:The History of Poker.
The original table was a gift to Truman in 1949 by three civilian contractors working in the U.S. Naval Station cabinet shop. The table is a marvel of craftsmanship and one of the most popular pieces at the Key West presidential retreat. Measuring 58 inches in diameter and 28 inches high, according to Little White House Executive Director Bob Wolz, it is based on a poker table that was used on the presidential yacht, the U.S.S. Williamsburg. The highly-attractive piece is made of mahogany with built-in chip holders, and ashtrays crafted from recycled brass shell casings. A solid tabletop can be used to cover the poker table to turn into a dining space.
"The three most important artifacts that guests want to see are the poker table, Truman's piano, and his presidential desk," Wolz said. "We have had several master carpenters come and do drawings of the poker table to try to duplicate it. I believe the hardest part would be copying the ashtrays. They love the table!"
While Truman loved playing, he shied away from photos of his games. At the time, poker was considered gambling and a bit seedy. To many Americans gambling was a sin, and seeing the President playing poker would certainly not have been a plus for the officeholder.
According to Wolz, Truman regarded the regular poker games with friends and staff as a team-building exercise, and most were played for low to modest stakes. Some high-stakes games were held with the President, Vice President, Chief Justice, and Speaker of the House. Similar to Camp David, the house in Key West served as an actual White House under Truman -- and no doubt a poker game broke out occasionally after the leader of the free world had conducted his business for the day.
And while modern poker may have advanced a bit beyond the wild card games favored by Truman, a look at the poker table that he housed in the White House would leave any poker fan in awe.
Constructing the Table
Certainly, the Truman table is almost unmatched in historical significance and who wouldn't want to play at such an ornate setup? Gocke and Knau have been friends for years, and woodworking is a major hobby for both. Reproducing the Truman table seemed like a brilliant project -- but would prove to be a major challenge.
"I saw the original Truman poker table at the Little White House museum and realized how unique it was," Gocke said. "An idea emerged to build two replica tables, one for the U.S.S. Iowa and another for Knau. This is the first woodworking project we have done together and both really enjoyed the experience. This project required two 'brains' to execute. We had no plans, notes, or instructions left behind by the original builders, so we had to collaborate on our thinking to figure out how to build it."
With no plans available, the men conducted their own measurements and drawings, and took detailed photographs from the original table. Construction went in two sections:
- The top ring, which includes the playing surface and a dice pit located beneath it, which is exposed when the poker top is lifted out. This also includes seven sets of chip holders with finger slots, and seven recessed ashtrays.
- The pedestal and base is also seven-sided to align with the seven playing sections on the top ring.
The top ring consists of four laminated layers of solid mahogany (like the original), and each ring is made from seven sections. Construction was an extreme learning process, and every component had to be fit by hand because the seven-section design creates 14 angles, which do not divide evenly into a 360-degree circle. Gocke and Knau estimate it took about 120 hours each to finish those first two tables.
"We did everything, but upholster the playing surface," Knau said. "Because there were no plans or notes from the original builders, a good chunk of time was building prototype sections to learn how to make the sections, chip holders, etc. Many times we took steps back to go forward."
The ashtrays, a symbol of poker's backroom and cigar-smoky past, are one of the unique features of the table -- perfect for storing a stogie while playing a hand. These replica solid-brass ashtrays were created and donated by Brownell's, in Montezuma, Iowa, and add an antiquated charm to the original two tables. Three Brownell machinists created the seven ashtrays for the U.S.S. Iowa from solid brass, note Gocke and Knau, and would cost a few thousand dollars to replicate. The two woodworkers say this work truly complemented their own craftsmanship.
For the most recent table, the men made a slight modification by including cup holders instead.
"The reproduction is accurate in every way possible with the exception that we are not able to recreate the original ashtrays," Gocke said. "We have furnished brass cupholders as an attractive and functional replacement. We are of the opinion that more people will drink a beverage while playing poker than will be smoking."
As for their own interest in the game, they play quite a bit at an amateur level regularly with friends and associates and Gocke plays some local casino poker.
"Our game is Texas hold'em," said Gocke. "For the inaugural game on the Truman poker table after presentation to the ship, we played seven-card stud. That was the game of choice of President Truman and the genesis of the idea of a seven-player table."
The longtime friends' hard work has certainly paid off and revived one of the interesting historical tales of presidential poker.
"Fortunately, we have had the luxury to pick and choose building these poker tables," Knau said. "All of this happened because a few dots got connected: a big interest in historical places and people; enjoyment of fine woodworking; and enjoyment of poker and several friends that encouraged us along the way."
He said three great organizations hopefully have or will benefit from the friends' efforts: the U.S.S. Iowa/Pacific Battleship Trust; the Iowa State Fair Blue Ribbon Foundation; and the Key West Little White House/Harry S. Truman Foundation.
The Truman poker table at Knau's home poker room has also made quite an impact at with his fellow rounders -- and quite a poker tale.
"The first thing people want to do is touch it," he said. "Between the satin finish mahogany and the green felt it just draws people to run their hands across it. When they hear the story of the origin of the design they quickly comment about how elegant it is. That reaction is almost universal for first-time viewers. I had that same reaction when I saw the original. Kudos and credit to the original designers."
For more information on the auction and bidding on the poker table, visit www.blueribbonfoundation.org.
Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas. His new book, RAISING THE STAKES: True Tales of Gambling, Wagering and Poker Faces, is available as an eBook and in paperback at Amazon.com. If you have a gambling or poker story idea, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @PokerTraditions.