D.C. Power Players Ponder Big Deals: Private Poker Game Offers Relaxation

By Geracimos, Ann | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 10, 1998 | Go to article overview

D.C. Power Players Ponder Big Deals: Private Poker Game Offers Relaxation


Geracimos, Ann, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


One of the capital's most secret sanctums is a stud poker game played by some of the biggest names in town.

The movie "Rounders" - about cutthroat poker in New York City's gambling underworld - bears no comparison: Wins here seldom go above $30 or $40 a night. Gossip is outlawed, and, from all accounts, the self-perpetuating all-male clan is scandal-free.

Participants, however, are loath to say much else about what might be the only leak-proof meeting in Washington.

The privilege of belonging isn't measured in dollars but in prestige. It's not who wins but how they play the game. The group, which meets once a month on a Wednesday night at members' homes, has some of the sharpest minds around.

Political scientist Walter Berns, the ringleader, firmly declined to discuss arrangements. Robert Bork said through a spokesman that he hadn't attended in a long time.

Regular players Irving Kristol of the Public Interest and Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist also declined to discuss the game.

In fact, Chief Justice Rehnquist, in answering a written request for comment, sent a note saying he prefers not to talk about "a very informal, private affair."

And he sent copies of his reply to Justice Antonin Scalia, Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and lawyers Leonard Garment, Arthur Scheiner and Tom Whitehead.

When he is not playing poker, Judge Sentelle heads a three-judge federal appeals panel that appoints independent counsels such as Kenneth W. Starr.

But, of course, the group's code prevents any intimation of undue influence at work.

Justice Scalia declined an interview, although at a recent social gathering he suggested that observing young lawyers with a poker hand might be a way of gauging their potential for the law.

"It's blue jeans time. Cigars. Beer. No wild, wild women," says Mr. Garment, one of the group's least inhibited members. "It's still slightly old-fashioned in concept. The wives leave the cold cuts out."

Former Washington Opera Director Martin Feinstein calls himself "an extra" - an understudy, mere B-list material. (This is disputed by Mr. Garment.)

Asked if he declares his winnings to the IRS, Mr. Feinstein would only say "I've never declared my losses. You can say that, over the years, I'm neither a loser nor a winner be."

"It's a chronological list, based on the time people joined," Mr. Garment says. "We've even buried some of the founding kibitzers. Anybody who has anything moving up to the Supreme Court stays out. Bob Bennett [President Clinton's attorney in the Paula Jones case] hasn't been there for the last six months."

"I had a case [before the court] two years ago and stayed away. I lost the case. …

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