Why as a Christian I play poker

As a Christian, I am often asked about one of my more unusual hobbies – why I choose to play poker at the King’s Arms Pub in Bristol most Thursday nights. When I mention my enjoyment of poker to church friends they usually raise their eyebrows in surprise somewhat, and try to work out a polite and well-meaning manner in which to venture the question – doesn’t that mean I’m gambling, which Christians shouldn’t really do? I have to say though, that this is nothing compared to some of the shocked expressions I get from men and women at the poker table when I say I’m training to be a vicar. Once they have got over my eccentric seeming choice of profession, they say to me, doesn’t that mean I’m gambling, which vicars shouldn’t really do?

The short answer to why I play poker is – because it’s fun, and I enjoy it, and I make good friends doing so. I am, as a game player, ultra competitive. Nearly as competitive as my sister. Which meant that the family board games of “Mine a Million” that I continue to play with my (now married) sister every Christmas Eve usually result in heated arguments as I attempt to justify why I can move my boat six spaces forwards even after playing a card that moved it three spaces back, and why the rule book is working in my favour, and not hers, while my brother-in-law holds his head in despair as to why his generally mature adult relatives have degenerated into bolshy twelve-year olds.

So poker for me is for me a game, not a money-making enterprise. Even though it involves chips, for me, it needn’t involve money. I can disassociate the two – just as I can happily enjoy a game of monopoly without feeling the need to get my cheque book out at the start to buy into the game.  Texas Hold’em Poker, the form I play, is becoming increasingly popular as a game in its own right. It is not just luck – it involves skills of working out how much to bet, calculating odds, working out where you sit relative to the dealer, bluffing, acting, trying to read other people from their mannerisms and the way they play, trying to fool other people by not allowing them to read you or predict the way you play – all of which is good fun. (By the way I haven’t mastered all this – I just try to play cards randomly to mix things up*).

When I play at the Kings Arms, I play in an amateur league. (This means I don’t play with cash – I’m not like the Reverend Fairbrother in Middlemarch, who gambled his clergy stipend away on the card tables, and I don’t have ambitions as a vicar to go to Las Vegas to win a few extra bob to mend the church roof.) What happens is I play in a tournament, entering for free each week, and being given chips to play against (usually about 15) other people. The prize is a bar voucher, and points towards a league final every couple of months, where cash prizes can be won.

I am  very grateful to my Christian college friends who introduced me to poker. As well as giving me a good social hobby which requires little athletic prowess, they had the foresight to see that it is a great opportunity for Christians to witness to the power of the gospel by showing we can have fun playing a good game. Others have mentioned to me also that when Christians play poker in the league, the games can become much less aggressive, and people focus more on having a good social time rather than fuelling an addiction.  I hope that as Christians playing poker we can show people that they can enjoy the game without money being involved.

So what about Christians who do play Poker for cash? Well, my advice would have to be – be very careful. Think very hard about it. Some Christians do consider it okay to spend a bit of money in a gambling game as part of a night out – whether that be a night out playing bingo or entering a  raffle (my grandma, a lovely Christian lady, was uncannily good at winning bingo and raffles). For others, any form of gambling is dangerous. It has to be a personal decision. I know of devout Christians who refuse to take out insurance, for example, because they see it as a form of gambling against disaster with the insurance companies, and I respect their choice, even though I wouldn’t adhere to it personally. For me, it is a personal choice, but a choice which should never be made lightly without thought.

If you do decide to enter a poker tournament, to my mind, paying £5 at the start for a game where the winner takes all, should provide at least a couple of hours of entertainment (if you play reasonably enough), and I wouldn’t object to that. But cash-in cash-out games at casinos can be very dangerous, because of the temptation to “buy back in” with more money, especially if you see others doing so. I would give four warnings about this:

1) Poker playing is addictive. It is addictive enough when you are just playing once a week, not for cash. If you cross the line of playing for money, you can land yourself with a very unhealthy addiction which is dangerous.

2) Think about others on the table as well as yourself. If you are feeding someone’s addiction by playing cash poker with them, that is clearly not a helpful Christian thing to do – it is like offering a glass of wine to an alcoholic.

3) I don’t think “cash in-cash-out” games are very wise to play as Christians. Tournaments are much better because everyone puts in the same at the start. With a “cash in-cash out” game, either you are tempted to put in money when you lose, or else you end up winning large amounts of money from others. To my mind, when you put in £5 and someone puts in £50, if you win £55, you have practically robbed them. The Bible constantly condemns rich people who rob and oppress the poor and take advantage of their weaknesses (which might include their inferior poker playing abilities).

4) Don’t play for cash online. There is no social element to this, it is all about you winning money at the expense of others.

So my principle is, it’s okay to have a good night out playing poker, and it needn’t cost a thing. Personally I think it is okay to spend a few quid to enter a game if it is going to be your night’s entertainment, but think about others when you do so. Poker can be a great way of making friends, and also, as Christians, I think we can be a powerful witness when we are out talking to unbelievers on neutral ground, not ours, showing it is possible to enjoy a game of cards without gambling.

I am always open to hearing other Christian thoughts on this subject (which is not uncontroversial – I am sure many Christians will fervently disagree with me!) and to be held accountable myself. What do you think – should Christians play poker?

Mark

* This sentence could be a bluff, be careful.

3 thoughts on “Why as a Christian I play poker

  1. Hi,

    A mutual friend posted this on facebook (Simon Morell) and I overall agree with everything you say, you raise a couple of questions though. Firstly is it possible for a Christian to be a professional poker player? What makes tournament poker any different from other profession, such as being a stock broker, or having your own extensive series of investments? All investments are, in their very nature, essentially gambling . The Bible teaches us to be wise with our money without being selfish (and without ignoring our relationship with God) and for a particularly talented player could this be simply considered a ‘wise investment’.

    My second issue comes with your fourth point ‘don’t play poker for money online’. As a Christian who plays poker online for (small) sums of cash I see it as effectively the same as renting a DVD for an evening, surely if it gives me an evenings relaxation when I’m on my own there is an argument for that? Also a lot of people do find it a particularly social thing to do, and I have in the past ‘met up’ with real life friends on poker sites for a quick tourney.

    Any thoughts?

    Mark

    • The article really touched me agreed with it all apart from one point; playing on the internet.

      I used to be a very out of control Poker player, playing in the casinos all time, at stakes way out of my league.

      Playing on the internet allows me to play for very small stakes and get a lot of satisfaction. I also have a deposit filter and table limiter on there so I can’t physically play any higher, even I was tempted.

      That means I always risk a small amount, to win a lot and I get immense enjoyment at the same time. Now I am winning player too and it’s no coincidence that it’s down to these principles.

      The other thing I worry about, in a Christian sense, is taking peoples’ money to the point where it affects their lives and is not just an enjoyment thing. But again, when you’re playing as little as $1 a time, that can’t be a problem either.

      Nice article dude,

      Peace
      nice

  2. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your post, it is great to get some feedback. My four “warnings” are just the principles I adopt personally, and my fourth point about not playing online is because for me I feel it removes the face-to-face dimension, and half the fun. Some of my very good friends do play for money online. I personally don’t because I think also it is probably one of the riskiest ways to get addicted, as “virtual money” perhaps seems less real than playing for money in actuality. If you are enjoying it as a social activity without massively costing yourself or others lots of through doing it, for me that is fine.

    I don’t want to come across as too legalistic about the choices Christians make about playing for money. I think people need to work out for themselves what is a “nights entertainment”, and what is a dangerous game of gambling. But the amount spent on a night’s poker online might be less than what others spend on a night out drinking. All Christians need to be discerning in this regard.

    What I like about the King’s Arms is that I can enjoy a game for free each week. It lasts from 8pm, usually till 11 if I win (otherwise I generally go out at 10pm). Some of my friends put in a fiver for a sidepot each week, but I don’t feel the need to do this. But I have on occasion (when knocked out early) put down a fiver to play an extra game with my friends who got knocked out early, when I know the game would last a good length of time, and I was okay with that. Once I did this without realising it was a cash in-cash out game, however, and I was surprised when the others on the table rebought for an extra £20. I felt guilty in case I ended up winning, because for me that would have felt like winning too much at other’s expenses. In the end I cashed out for £10, and I was relieved to be able to do that. So it was that that made me really think seriously about the principles I needed to adopt.

    As regards professional poker, I can see that in some cases poker is a highly skilled game or sport, and some people choose to play in tournaments as a sport. Others see it as a form of income or investment. I suppose from a Christian perspective, I would want to challenge poker “investors” to think (as with any form of investment) is it ethical? For me, principles 2 and 3 kick in here – you may be winning, but are others losing too much through the game at your expense, or are you fuelling someone’s addiction? This could apply as much playing online as in a casino, (or even being a stock broker).

    I hope this is helpful.

    Thanks,
    Mark

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