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Ante Establishment

When I came to Washington from Baltimore in 1974, I had reason to be interested in a profound question: Do Republicans make better poker players than Democrats? My $15,000 salary at the Baltimore Sun remained unchanged, but the mortgage on my new house was four times the old one. So my Friday night game, which often lasted until 6 a.m., became a matter of survival.

Seven years later, I moved over to The Washington Post with a modestly improved salary, a second mortgage, brutal tuition bills, and a higher-stakes poker game. Survival required accurate assessment of how reckless Richard Viguerie, the grandfather of right-wing direct mail, would be with $1,000 on the table, or whether Louisiana Representative Buddy Roemer would raise or fold. I never got a chance to play with Duke Cunningham at the now infamous poker parties hosted by defense contractor Brent Wilkes at the Watergate and Westin Grand. But I have played with congressmen from Massachusetts, Alabama, Louisiana, Missouri, Georgia, and California; Washington's top divorce lawyer; former Governor William Weld; a chairman of the Republican National Committee; Attorney General John Ashcroft's counsel; a judge on the D.C. Circuit; champion Democratic fund-raisers; and countless Capitol Hill staffers and lobbyists.

Poker is the quintessential Washington game. A group of men (there are few women) get together to bull and rib while each tries to inflict as much damage and suffering as possible. Presidents--including Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman--have been devotees of the game. These days, there is a well-known judicial-legal game in which Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia plays. I have no firsthand knowledge, but I have heard accounts of this game as "amateur night" with low stakes and a lot of loose calling.

Reporters are generally too circumspect to be really good or really bad. That rule of thumb, however, did not apply to a prominent author/investigative reporter (you have to guess). Initially, I could barely afford his game, so I was cautious, slowly building a stake. The famous reporter, in contrast, played almost every hand, an attractive strategy for everyone else at the table. One night, he said he would rather die than play like me. I muttered quietly to myself that I hoped he would continue to play his way forever.

The best player I have run into, whom I shall call X to avoid offending Christian right donors to his think tank, is a Republican. X, who played in a Capitol Hill game where the big winner would often be in the $7,000-plus range, used to make so much money that he could have given up his day job. Why was he so successful? Republicans are much less risk-averse than Democrats, and taking risks is crucial to poker. Howard Baker noted that Ronald Reagan's 1981 tax cut was a "riverboat gamble." The GOP has consistently demonstrated a willingness to risk high deficits, especially to cut taxes that fall on their biggest donors. The party advocating preemptive war is not likely to be cowed by a big bet. Democrats, conversely, are the party of risk-aversion- -supportive of the safety net, opposed to new weapons systems, and sympathetic to protective trade policies. They are less able to tolerate the tension and uncertainty of a game in which a week's salary--or more--can be won or lost in a single hand.

Another argument for the view that Republicans make better poker players is that poker rewards what feminists have long considered one of the worst attributes of men: the capacity to "objectify" the other. In poker, friends, colleagues, and even loved ones become subjects of manipulation and deceit-- sources of cash who must be persuaded to make mistakes and to misjudge their strengths and your weaknesses. The game, pitting men against men in a zero-sum competition, is the classic form of evolutionary conflict. The logic underlying this argument requires a book to explain (you will be able to buy it on August 28; it's called Building Red America, by yours truly). But the quick and dirty summary is that the Republican Party's candidates attract a greater percentage of men than women by advocating a male view of life as a game in which the rewards justly go to the winners.

In keeping with this theory of the GOP as the party that embraces male evolutionary psychology, I've noticed that conservative poker players are more willing to go for the kill. They will crush an opponent with big bets in the closing round when the aggressor knows, from the visible cards, that he is a "lock," or sure winner. Many liberals in these circumstances will simply check and turn over their cards to collect a more modest amount. I remember a right- wing game in Alexandria: When we discovered a shortfall of $100, instead of letting the winners absorb it, everyone but me voted to make the losers pay, jacking up their debt to make up the deficit. This should not be interpreted, however, to mean that liberals are nicer or that they are worse poker players. It may well be that the liberal winner recognizes that it could prove more lucrative over time to keep a loser in the game than to beat the crap out of him that Thursday night and never see him again.

And conservatives are vulnerable to the one thing that can ruin even the best poker player. Remember X, the conservative think-tank head who routinely pulled in several thousand per game? A bachelor until late middle age, X got married a few years ago, and, more recently, he became a father. These joyous events have made him happy. They have also killed his poker game. For the last year, he has been a net loser. X attributes this to the fact that, because of his family obligations, he is both tired and he plays more cautiously. Maybe, but the real culprit is love. In a game where the goal is to inflict as much financial and psychological harm as possible, love is fatal. Compassion -- whether conservative or liberal -- is bad for the serious poker player. I find that, when I invite a friend to join a game and try to protect him as he learns the intricacies at the table, I invariably lose. Empathy and affection damage the ability to win. I think the person who probably best understands all this is Karl Rove.