'Oh Hell'

We're 30,000 feet over Wisconsin, and Howard Dean isn't happy. You can tell by the tension in his jaw, and the semiaudible murmuring that slips out under his breath.

We're two thirds of the way through Oh Hell, the signature card game of the Dean campaign, and--there's just no nice way to say it--Howard Dean is a loser. Or, as he tends to put it, he's "getting hosed." And this time, there's no heartening delegate count to cushion the loss.

After the dust had settled--after the losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, after campaign manager Joe Trippi left the scene, after the desperate Internet bid to refill campaign coffers, Howard Dean seemed to relax, resuming an earlier tradition of cut-throat in-flight games of Oh Hell (a sort of twisted cross between hearts and bridge.) "The best part of this game is, someone always gets screwed," says Dean. Tonight, that person is Howard Dean.

Card games have a distinguished history in presidential politics. Harry Truman spent weekends sailing the Potomac with his high-powered poker buddies. He liked an eight-handed game best, and he generally managed to eke out a victory, or at least break even. "Luck always seems to be with me in games of chance and in politics," said Truman.

Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign featured nearly daily hearts battles, with the future president the undisputed master of the game (except the day before the general election, when he finally lost. "I think he was a little distracted," reports NEWSWEEK's Mark Miller, who managed to win his first game against Clinton after a year of attempts.)

Howard Dean has a routine. Shortly after takeoff, he often grins and ambles into the reporters' area of "Pearl Jam One" (so dubbed because the famed alt-rockers were the aircraft's previous users), located halfway between the campaign aides in front and the cameramen lounging in the rear. Sleeves rolled up, usually sporting a pair of oversized glasses, he rounds up the usual suspects and arranges himself on one of the sofas lining each side of the cabin's midsection. He always keeps score.

On one recent flight, it's my turn to deal. Dean's sitting to my left; I shuffle the cards and offer him the cut. We're using the "Howard Dean deck," the governor's favorite; his own face stares back at him from the back of the pile.

On board, we play Oh Hell for hours on end, 14 or 16 rounds a game, with Dean keeping careful score throughout, painstakingly toting initial bids and final tallies. He delights in the competition, dramatically announcing point totals after each round and repeatedly swearing to "take the media down."

Dean tends to keeps track of who the front runner is, and openly target them, strategically sabotaging their play when he can, and encouraging other players to do the same. He isn't the best player in the group, nor the worst.

My first game, he offers some "friendly bidding advice," proclaiming his innocence when it backfires badly. He's almost certainly right--the game is relatively easy to play, but fiendishly difficult to explain; besides, I'm more of a poker player. Eventually, I catch on to the game's rhythm, and the other players' styles. Dean seems a mostly transparent card player, cool and calm when he's holding a good hand, obviously flustered when he isn't. I start playing it safe--and after a while, I start beating him.

"Watch out for that one," says Dean, gesturing in my direction as a round ends and he hands the deck off for shuffling. "She's getting good." "I've learned not to take your advice," I respond. He laughs. The game continues. The scores edge higher. Howard Dean keeps losing. But he won't quit the game, even with the cards stacked against him.