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Reviving the “Ship of the Presidents”

Jim Gocke and Dave Knau recently completed a reproduction of Harry Truman’s poker table and presented it to the U.S.S. Iowa. The ship is famous for being the “Ship of the Presidents” and moored in San Pedro, Calif.

The original poker table at the Harry S. Truman Little White House in Key West, Fla.

The poker table was a gift to Truman in 1949 by three civilian contractors working in the U.S. Naval Station cabinet shop and the original is on display at the Harry S. Truman Little White House in Key West, Fla., where he often vacationed. The table is a marvel of craftsmanship and one of the most popular pieces at the Key West facility. Measuring 58” in diameter and 28” high, according to Little White House executive director Bob Wolz, it is based on a poker table that was used on the U.S.S. Williamsburg presidential yacht. The 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 says. “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.”

Before and during his presidency, Truman was known as a regular poker player, but shied away from photos being taken of his games. At the time, poker was considered gambling and a bit seedy. For 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 of the Supreme Court and the 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.

“I saw the original Truman poker table at the Little White House museum and realized how unique it was,” Gocke says. “An idea emerged to build two replica tables, one for the U.S.S. Iowa and another for Dave. 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.”

Construction went in two sections: The top ring, which includes the playing surface, seven sets of chip holders with finger slots and seven recessed ashtrays; and the seven-sided pedestal and base.

The top ring consists of four laminated layers of solid mahogany (like the original) and each ring is made from seven sections. Construction was a 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 both tables.

“We did everything but upholster the playing surface,” Knau says. “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 smoky cigar past, are one of the unique features of the table — perfect for storing your 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 table.

The table was presented in March to the U.S.S. Iowa.

“Our game is Texas hold ’em,” says 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.

“This was a special project that we both take a lot of pride in. Not only the finished table, but having it be part of a salute to the men and women of the Navy and Marines who served aboard the ‘Ship of the Presidents’ is quite humbling. We will cherish forever the honor of being a small part of this tremendous example of our nation’s pride and might.” 

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue.

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