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Poker and the Christian
A Christian's Response the to the game of poker and his perspective on gambling.
Last Updated: October 14, 2009
I'm a seminary grad and a devout Christian for 25 years. I must admit, I'm hooked on the new craze of poker. As a Christian, I've had to work though the issues of gambling, being a Christian and poker. As to my Christian background, I would be described as a conservative evangelical Christian in every sense of the word.
There are merits to the fact that Christians should not be playing poker. At the same time, there are merits to the exact opposite. Can a Christian justify playing poker? Can a Christian justify playing poker as a living? What does the Bible say about poker? What is the Christian response to poker?
The 2004 Poker Player of the Year and 2004 World Series of Poker All-Around player, Daniel Negreanu, is arguably one of the best overall poker players in the world and he is a Christian. He's taken quite a deal of flack from Christian for the fact that he is a poker player and a millionaire. Is he living in sin? Can he truly glorify God in the poker world?
The truth is the Bible is very clear about the fact that gambling is a sin. I feel the need to clarify this a little more. The Bible is very clear about trusting in fate to prosper. The Bible wants us to work hard for a living and rely on God for the things that we need. Gambling places our trust in the flip of a coin, the turn of a card and the lucky numbers in keno or the lottery. Placing your life's earnings on a single number on the roulette table is stupid and I don't believe God honors this.
Is poker gambling? To me the answer is yes and no.
If you don't know what you're doing the answer is definitely yes. If you're hoping to turn a little bit of money into a lot of money real fast, the answer is yes. If you think you're the next Chris Moneymaker and think you'll be the next big thing, the answer is yes.
I've learned that over the long run, if I play the cards that I'm dealt, I will lose. In fact I have lost. Early in my career, everytime I went to a card club I lost. The first time that I broke even was the day I got two full houses in a row.
I soon realized that unless I could begin winning at a card club then my poker career needed to end soon. I could not justify going to a casino and come up a loser and say it's only a game and that I'm not addicted to gambling.
How Poker Is Not Gambling
Black jack is a fun game. If you buy a card that tells you how to act based on your cards and the dealers up card at a casino gift shop, you'll lose about 5% of your bankroll as you play. Blackjack becomes a game of skill when you begin card counting. Card counting though will get you banned from casinos.
If you play your cards, you will win once every 40 minutes. Which means you'll lose in the long run. I want to make the assertion that poker is not a game of luck but a game of skill. The reality is that you can sit down at a table and come up a winner most of the time.
The reason is that in poker you are not playing your cards, but you are playing the other players. I liken poker to any game involving competition. In chess, you are not playing based on luck, but you are playing with a person, against his playing style and building a strategy to beat the other player.
In any game like football or tennis, you win by understanding your strengths and understanding how to exploit your opponents weaknesses. For example, in basketball, if I'm great at three point shots, my teammates will get me in a position we're I'm outside the three point line and unguarded. They will pass me the ball and I'll score that extra point. If I know my opponent is horrible at making foul shots, I'll foul him a lot near the end of the game because he'll miss most of his scoring opportunities.
When I sit down at the table, I have a general strategy. I play tight aggressive. I'm not playing every hand and I'm observing the other players. What is their style of play? Are they maniacs? Are they calling stations? Are they better than me? Once I've sized up the competition, I make my moved. I win with good bluffing opportunities. I win by representing hands I don't have. I win by isolating players with big hands or by getting free cards at getting lucky.
I can allow the blinds to pass me three times without ever getting into a hand. I also have to realize that there will be days where I lose. Days when I just can catch any cards. Days in which calling stations just down right get lucky.
When losing the key to playing winning poker is to realize that there is no 100% system. As you get to the higher limits, the play gets more and more difficult. This requires that you continue to study the game and read books. Your goal is to increase your knowledge of the game and practice. You also do not want to get into a game that is over your head. Start at a level that you can be successful at like $.50/$1 limit or $1/$2 limit. Sure, starting at a higher level will lead to better payoffs but you need a large bankroll to enter the game and the level of play will probably mean you'll lose quickly. Read the rest of my poker blog for my insights into winning poker.
I like to think of poker as a paid sports competition. When I played softball, I had to pay a $30 league fee, plus I had to buy my own equipment. Poker is the same, but I have a shot at winning money by winning the game. I'm currently playing $2/$4 holdem. I like to have 30 times the big blind as my entry fee. So I'm walking in with a $120 bankroll to play. If I lose it, I lose my entry fee. If I win, I walk home with money. At $2/$4, I consider winning coming home with a $20 profit. Although I have come home with more than $120 on occasion.
When Poker is a Problem
My assertion is that poker is a game of skill, but there are dangers to poker. Drinking in and of itself is not a sin, but drunkeness is. The game of poker is not a sin, but gambling or relying to fate to gain riches is.
Here are some signs that poker is a problem:
- Poker is an obsession. You'd rather play poker than take care of the things your life requires. You begin to neglect your family, friends, church. You skip work to play. You skip church to play. Your wife and kids complain that you're not around.
- Poker is an unaffordable expense. I have vowed to never finance poker. If I play poker, I have to pay cash. Money for online poker comes from my bank account and not my credit cards. If I don't have cash, I can't play poker. If I can't pay bills, I can't play poker.
- Poker is a source of negative cash flow. You can't consistently lose money playing poker. Before I began winning at card clubs, I realized that I can't keep going back until I figured out a way to win. For over 6 months, I never stepped foot into a card club until I had a means to win.
- Poker is the primary source of income. Unless you're a professional, poker should be a game or competition. If you need to make money playing poker, then there is a problem. This leads to the obsession win in order to live a better life.
- Poker has control over you. When I sit at a table, I like to be in charge and know exactly what is happening. I always lose, when I'm lost and now I'm just playing to get lucky.
- Poker is no longer fun. When you play in order to strike it big, you need to quit playing.
- Poker has nothing left to teach you. One of the keys to anything in life is humility. I know that there is so much more for me to learn. Once you think you're the best, prepare yourself for a great fall.
A healthy poker perspective means you have proper money management. You have to be comfortable with the bankroll you put on the line. Not that you'll lose, but you should know ahead of time how much you're willing to lose and have the discipline to leave when it's gone.
I've listened to and read many professional poker players and they have said that on their way to becoming a professional they all went broke. I just read an article on Mike Matasow who won $1 million at the World Series of Poker and he mentioned that the prize will help pay off a lot of debt. How bad does it have to get when you win a million in poker to pay off your poker debts?
I've sat at tables where I would spend hours losing $40, yet seeing my fellow players lose $100's of dollars, just laying out $20 at a time. Keep it fun.
Poker and the Bible
After my little diatribe, I need to bring the Bible into this. There are no references to playing poker in the Bible. There is no reference to baseball, basketball or football. These are all games. Games involving competition, strategy and skill. The difference is that in poker, you can lose everything if you're not careful and if you allow the game to control your life.
It takes humility to keep you from taking risks, you're not prepared to take and it take maturity and supernatural self-control to keep you from allowing the game to ruin your life and testimony.
To the Poker Player and future professional, be careful and continually ask your friends and God where you stand. To the Christian, it's a game, sit down and let's have some fun.
I've received many responses to this article and I've written a Part Two: Christian and Poker. Should Christian play games using deception to win? Should Christians take money away from people who are gambling their life savings.