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Hold ‘Em or Fold ‘Em?

An Okie's brush with Texas Hold'em spurs some tough questions about poker.

It had been a rough day and it wasn’t even 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I had a few minutes of down time, so I dropped on the couch, remote in hand, searching for some good ‘ole brain candy.

After a few clicks, I landed on Celebrity Poker Showdown — a show where a Friends guy, that Hobbit actor and a Gilmore Girl were playing poker to win some money for their favorite charity. This could be fun.

I’d never played poker before. Strictly a spades girl, myself. But the hosts — including Phil Gordon, a professional poker player — were more than happy to educate me on “Texas Hold’em,” an audience-friendly and fast-paced form of poker.

I was surprisingly entertained and, by the end of the week, was hooked. I knew the lingo, could guess the odds and would even chuckle with the hosts over the celebs’ mistakes.

I didn’t think too much about it — it was just brain candy.

Then, a few days later, I read in the paper about some local “women only” Texas Hold’em tournaments.

“Holy cow!” my brain roared. “You could totally beat those women!”

“I know!” I replied, “You know, if I just went down there once …”

Even as the thought formed, I was surprised. Was I seriously considering going to a casino?

I was, I had to admit — even if only for that split second — and it seems that I’m not alone.

Poker used to be thought of as a game for old men in smoky back rooms. Now it’s repackaged itself as the all-American pastime. ESPN’s “World Series of Poker” gets higher ratings than “SportsCenter,” and poker regularly beats out audience figures for televised sports like professional basketball and golf.

Much of this popularity is being fueled by the very demographic casinos have long coveted but, until now, never conquered — college students and young adults. A recent study reported that among college students, 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women had gambled in the last 12 months. Card games with friends — like Texas Hold’em — were among the most popular gambling activities.

But the card games aren’t all staying on campus or in basements. Online poker sites are doing a booming business (over 1.8 million people play each month) and poker earnings at Nevada casinos jumped 48.3 percent last year, the state’s largest annual increase ever.

So, it’s wildly popular — and I can understand why. But should we, as Christians, be participating?

Historically, the church has said no.

“I do not hesitate to say that, of all sins, there is none that more surely damns men, and, worse than that, makes them the devil’s help to damn others, than gambling,” Charles Spurgeon, the famous 19th century Baptist preacher, wrote.

Whoa! Them’s fightin’ words! But I haven’t heard a preacher talk like that in my life time. Have you? Maybe the church is dealing with other issues, or has bigger fish to fry — but, either way, gambling seems to have definitely fallen off the radar screen.

So I asked around. What did my Christian peers think about poker? Did they — the first generation raised among legal gambling — agree with the church’s traditional stance? Although the degrees of acceptance differed, the general consensus seemed to be “no.” Sorry, Mr. Spurgeon, but to most of my friends, poker was benign, almost amoral.

This sentiment seemed to be reflected throughout much of the twentysomething crowd, Christian or not. “It’s a fun game,” one recent grad told the BYU NewsNet. “It’s better than Monopoly.”

But is poker really the moral equivalent of Monopoly? Can we dismiss the money lost on poker as just our “entertainment” budget — money that would have gone to dinner and a movie?

I think, when I’m honest with myself, the answer has to be no. Fun and entertaining though it may be, there’s a simple truth hiding behind all the hoopla. Poker is not just a game. It’s a game with risk.

Kool-Aid has never destroyed anyone’s life. Alcohol has. Both are a drink, but one is inherently more dangerous than the other. We get that.

From there, it’s a short walk to “games.” I don’t know anyone whose life was destroyed by the game of golf. I’ve never heard of someone committing a crime in order to score a green fee. But lives have been destroyed by poker.

Just a few months ago Greg Hogan, president of his class at Lehigh University and son of a Baptist minister, was arrested for robbing a bank to cover his $5,000 poker losses. I wonder when he started playing to “blow off steam” if he ever thought he’d be facing 20 years in prison.

Take a look around your five-person weekly game. The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that at least one of you will develop a gambling addiction. However, while the risk of addiction and a loathing to support an industry that creates addicts are both laudable reasons for avoiding poker, they aren’t mine.

My brush with poker, small though it was, got me thinking in another direction. Not about the risks, but about the very essence of the game. Unlike other games, I can gain nothing in poker until you lose something. I achieve success only when you sacrifice something of value. Though some like to call poker a “game of skill,” what skills are we actually using?

Yes, there is an element of mathematics in the game. In fact, experts report that it’s the guy with good grades, a competitive streak and an aptitude for math that is most likely to become a gambling addict. But ultimate poker success depends upon either deceiving your opponent and/or exposing his deceit. As Phil Gordon has said, and Matt Damon’s character stated in the movie Rounders, you aren’t playing the cards, you’re playing your opponent. Your object is to expose your opponent and take his money.

This is exactly what John Wesley condemned in his sermon “The Use of Money.” After commanding Christians to “gain all we can” through honest labor, Wesley gives this warning:

“We are … to gain all we can without hurting our neighbor…. We cannot, if we love everyone as ourselves, hurt anyone in his substance. We cannot devour the increase of his lands, and perhaps the lands and houses themselves, by gaming…. None can gain by swallowing up his neighbor’s substance, without gaining the damnation of hell!”

In poker, we are doing harm to our neighbor. We are perfecting a “skill” that is exactly opposite to what the Bible calls us to do.

Of course, this brings up the question: What if I don’t play for money? “Pretend” poker seems to be almost as popular as its gambling brother. Many of my friends commented that once you take money out of the game, it’s no longer gambling and, therefore, no longer a moral issue.

Maybe. But I started to question that logic when I researched the College Poker Championship — an online Texas Hold’em tournament that started three years ago. At first glance, the tournament seems like a pretend poker dream come true. It costs absolutely nothing to play, and winners get cash scholarships (this year they’re giving away over $200,000). It’s a “a safe and fun environment,” the organizers promise.

But what’s the catch? Why would they give away hundreds of thousands, reward me for referring friends and actually pay me to promote the tournament at my school?

I can’t answer that question for them, but I have a guess. Buried in the “Terms and Conditions” portion of the rules, we find that the tournament is organized by Royal Vegas Poker — a, you guessed it, online casino.

My assumption is that they understand the most basic of marketing principles — free samples lead to more business. As a Christian, I need to understand that too — that pretending to do something makes it easier for me to do it down the road. I certainly never thought that a television show would tempt me to a casino. But it did.

As poker’s popularity continues to rise, believers are going to have to answer some tough questions. Is this what God wants us doing with our time and money? Can we justify the pain that an industry causes simply because it brings entertainment to us? Is an occasional game with the guys (or gals) worth the risks?

And, maybe, didn’t the church and Mr. Spurgeon have it right all along?

* * *

Want to read more about a Christian perspective on gambling? Visit Citizen Link. Think you may have a problem with gambling? Find out by clicking on a link below.

Copyright 2006 Heather D. Koerner. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Heather Koerner

Heather Koerner is a stay-at-home mom and freelance writer from Owasso, Okla.

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