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?
* This sentence could be a bluff, be careful.