I play poker, in two different games — one with mostly Democrats and the other with mostly Republicans. I enjoy both games and the people in them. But I’ve noticed something.

The divide between our two major political parties that sharply polarizes Congress and the Minnesota Legislature and America generally now reaches into friendly card games. Political attitudes permeate even how we play together.

The rules are the biggest poker divide — in perhaps unsurprising ways. The GOP game has virtually no rules. Bet as much as you want. Bluffing is a big part of poker, of course, but it can lead to bullying by the player with the most money. That’s part of the action in GOP poker.

Also, play any game you want. Wild games invented on a tractor — literally — might suddenly appear with names like “Chaska,” “Bemidji” or “Chanhassen.” New players are at a disadvantage and become a source of entertainment: Newbies like me toss away money in a haze of confusion — and to roars of laughter among the regulars.

When I inquired about adding a few rules to the GOP game, one of my good friends explained with some concern that he might have invited the wrong player: “Larry, we play free market poker. No regulations.”

(Side note: You may be wondering, “I didn’t know Larry was a card shark.” That isn’t the case. It’s probably revealing in some way that I’m not more clever than I am, given how long I’ve played.)

Back to the partisan poker divide. The Democratic game is literally the reverse of the GOP game. New players need a robust orientation to the regulations. A strict limit is imposed on betting — raises of $1 are tops until the end of a hand, when $2 raises are allowed. And most games are some variation on a handful of classics, with most modifications open to group debate.

True to character, most evenings with the Democratic group feature a rules fight over some arcane provision or another: Can you check and then raise? Do you lose everything if you tie on the high hand while also losing the best low hand? Some fights get so heated — I kid you not — that the rule is now fixed as a mandate. Fortunately, we have a few lawyers on hand to keep track of the regulations. (By the way, no lawyers in the GOP game — that may be one of the few rules.)

How winners and losers are treated is one of the biggest divides. In the Democratic game, winners are expected to tithe to the player who is losing. In the Republican game, there’s a cheery “goodbye” when you run out of money and leave to drive home. This can occur 15 or 20 minutes into the game. And, yes, that isn’t a great feeling.

In fairness, a few players in the Democratic game resisted what they’ve described as “welfare poker,” and tithing is a bit less common now. And the GOP game expects the biggest winner to buy pizza for the following game.

For all the differences between the two groups, there are similarities.

“Play the cards” is a familiar refrain whenever there is an interruption to the drumbeat of dealing, betting and shuffling.

My wife, Julie Schumacher, often checks in after I return home, wondering what we “talked about” during the game. It is a reasonable question, and my answer game after game is the same: “Cards.”

Critical life events have occurred without being discussed over the three or four hours that we play. Once, in the Democratic game, I learned years after the fact that one of our players had gotten married and was celebrating the first birthday of a daughter. (Proud of this discovery, I reported it to Julie, who welcomed it with a slow, sad shake of her head. She wasn’t impressed.)

When the “play the cards” rule has been broken, it has happened in the Democratic game. The most epic breakdown occurred because of ferocious jousting over Abraham Lincoln. What I remember isn’t the argument itself but the reaction — a walkout by players disgusted with the violation of poker etiquette.

The biggest similarity between the two poker groups is the fellowship. The simple act of playing cards in a low-stakes game brings together an often odd mix of people for an evening. We break away from the hubbub of our crazy world, detach from our cellphones and gather around a kitchen table to partake together in an ancient game. That’s a beautiful thing.


Lawrence R. Jacobs is the Walter F. and Joan Mondale chair for political studies and director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota