Adopting the “Quaker” Approach to Poker

I had two unpleasant poker experiences yesterday.  I lost all my free money ($10 – no deposit required), plus about $12 in winnings, at Crazy Poker, and I placed somewhere around 2500 out of 9000 entrants in a freeroll tournament at Poker Stars.  Perhaps I can attribute both of these performances to Gambler’s Ruin. Thanks QuietStorm for this possible explanation.

Since I believe I’ve tried all the poker rooms that give free money with no deposit, I’ve decided to take the Quaker approach to poker and stop playing, at least for a little while. This will no doubt make my wife happy, as she is both a Quaker and someone who thinks that I may have a problem with my constant poker playing.

Trying to please my wife is a good reason to stop playing poker, at least for a little while.  However, when I think about the Quaker reasons for not playing poker, or more specifically the Quaker reasons that my wife has given, I don’t immediately see any clear-cut justification for such an action.

It can’t be because poker is gambling that Quakers are opposed to it.  After all, it is impossible, to go through life without gambling.  As the philosopher Tom Morris once wrote,”We are always wagering our time and energy on one strategy or another in pursuit of our own hopes and dreams.” If what Morris says is true, and I certainly believe it is, then we are also constantly wagering money, as time/energy = money.

If you are a rational person, then when you make a decision about something, whether it is calling a hand in poker, placing a bet on a horse at the races, choosing a new car, or changing your line of work, you take into consideration three things: the payoff, the chance of success, and the cost of making it.  If this isn’t gambling, then I don’t know what is.

You may even apply this decision making process in the realm of religion, as the French Philosopher Blaise Pascal famously did.  He thought that the evidence for God’s existence was not at all compelling, but he argued that you should try to become a believer in God because it is more in your self-interest to believe that God exists than not to believe.  This prudential argument has come to be known as Pascal’s Wager.

Poker is not like the lottery, where, as my wife put it, the idea is to get something for nothing.  In no-limit Hold’em, for example, players frequently go all-in, which means that they risk all their money to win the pot, and they do this often in an attempt to win less than the amount of money they are wagering.  Perhaps trying to get something for nothing is a principle that one should not adopt, and perhaps this is a good reason not to play the lottery.  But I don’t see how this principle has any relevance to poker.

My wife is obviously correct that players use deception in poker to try to win others’ money.  In fact, that’s in large part what makes the game so much fun.  But obviously the problem can’t be with the deception by itself.  Not all deception is bad. There is, as QuietStorm has pointed out, nothing morally problematic with deception in sports, when, for example, a player tries to fake another player out.  And if a person has to lie to another person to protect that person’s feeling (No, honey, you’re not playing too much Free Cell), then, arguably that person should do so.  Sorry Kant.

I know that my wife’s reply to this would be that it is not the deception by itself that makes poker morally problematic, but rather it is the fact that when you play poker you may try to deceive someone in order to win their money.  Of course, if I were to deceive some unsuspecting person in order to get his or her money, then I would be a morally unscrupulous person.  However, in poker there are no unsuspecting people.  If you play poker you implicitly accept the fact that all the players may try to deceive you to get your money.  So I think that there is a relevant disanalogy between poker and the real world, and thus a further argument is needed to show why the “combo of being deceptive while trying to separate your opponents from their $$” is not kosher.

The final point that my wife made concerning the problems with gambling is, in my opinion, the best.  My wife points out that gambling is ‘thought to take focus away from the spiritual life”. While I do believe that there is something to this objection, I think I need some more clarification about the meaning of “spiritual life” before I can give a final ruling on its merits.  As I said above, I think that what in large part makes poker fun is the deception aspect, and I think that fun and spirituality are closely connected.  Now, this is probably not what my wife has in mind when she talks about the spiritual life.  But if it is not, then why not?

I’ll admit that if you want to live a good life there are probably more worthwhile activities than playing poker, or tennis, or chess, or reading most novels, although I doubt that praying is one of them.  If this is the main reason why Quakers believe that one should not play poker, then I feel the force of their reasoning.  It is after all the wisdom given to us by Aristotle.  And so in the spirit of eudaimonea I commit to stop playing poker, at least for a little while.

11 thoughts on “Adopting the “Quaker” Approach to Poker

  1. “While I do believe that there is something to this objection, I think I need some more clafirification about the meaning of “spiritual life” before I can give a final ruling on its merits.”

    I almost died laughing when I read this. So philosopher-like.

    “I commit to stop playing poker, at least for a little while.”

    Free-cell tournaments instead?

  2. Suber writes “It can’t be because poker is gambling that Quakers are opposed to it.” Well, yes, that is one of the reasons. But I mean gambling in a strict sense of the word – what I would define as a game to try to win $$. The other instances you give, of “wagering our time and energy on one strategy or another in pursuit of our own hopes and dreams,” is the definition of life. I think your quote uses “wagering” in a broad sense of the word. You have to spend your time doing something.

    Suber then says “poker is not like the lottery,” and I answer, well, again , yes, it is. Both are gambling games, under my specific definition above. Perhaps, getting $$, but without producing or providing something valuable is what Quakers would have problems with. That’s what I meant by “something for nothing,” i.e. getting $$ in exchange for nothing.

    As for “if you play poker you implicitly accept the fact that all the players may try to deceive you to get your money,” that is true. But Quakers advise staying out of those situations. The task of trying to live my life 100% honestly is hard, (and yes, being completely honest, maybe I do play a teeny, weeny bit too much Freecell), so I don’t want to put myself in situations, like gambling, where I’m cultivating the opposite traits, like being good a deceiving.

    (Reminds me of our side argument of if it’s ok to sign up for credit cards, just to get the free gift. I say no, for the same reason – 100% honesty.)

    Lastly, fun can certainly be a part of the spiritual life. A query to consider, however, is, is this activity bringing you closer to God, or do you feel led by God, as Quakers would say, to play poker?? You could pray to God for an answer to that one!

  3. Here’s a challenge for anyone interested…

    1. Add up the number of hours you spend each day playing poker, reading BLOGS about poker, etc., etc.
    2. Divide that number, by, oh, let’s say, 10.
    3. Pray, (however you define that), for that amount of time, each day for 1 week.
    4. Report back here on your experience!!

  4. So many comments, so little time, especially since I just found some more poker rooms that offer free money.

    Let me briefly address two of Sparky’s comments here. Perhaps I’ll use a post for a more lengthy discussion sometime in the future.

    Sparky writes, “getting $$, but without producing or providing something valuable is what Quakers would have problems with”. I assume that this is what people do when they invest their money in, say, the stock market. If this is problematic, then why? I assume that if I get entertainment from some activity, such as going to a movie or playing tennis, but don’t produce something valuable, a Quaker would not find this objectionable. So what is it about the money that bothers the Quakers? And why is gambling with the stock market ok, but not with poker?

    Another point that Sparky makes concerns the idea that poker cultivates traits like being good at deceiving. Perhaps poker does cultivate traits such as being good at deceiving in poker, but it is not clear to me why Sparky believes this is the same trait as deceiving in general? Again, to refer to the sports analogy. If I hit a misdirection shot in tennis, I am attempting to deceive my opponent. Am I cultivating general deceiving skills? And if I am, are they really that bad? Perhaps it is good to learn such traits.

    One final question for Sparky. If I play poker for play money, would a Quaker be opposed? I imagine the answer is “no” because there is no gambling involved, even though one would be cultivating the traits of deception. So this gets us back to the issue of gambling. Quakers, according to Sparky, think that there is something in general problematic with taking money money without providing anything valuable. And as I argued above, I don’t yet see what is wrong with that.

  5. When invest in the stock market, you are not gambling nor getting something for nothing. The main principle behind the stock market is that you are *giving your money* to a company for them to use to *produce* goods and services which in turn earn money.

    In other words, you are putting your money to work…not gambling it. As Warren Buffett has said in one way or another, if someone else is already good at something, investing is about letting them flourish at that activity, and participating in their success.

    Investing is really built around similar concepts as “commissioning” (art for example), except that instead of the final product being a painting or sculpture, the final product is 1) a better product or service from the company and 2) more money for you.

    The key to investing, though, is actually taking the time to find the businesses that are already good at something but which could use your money to become even better.

  6. I agree that when you make an investment you are getting something valuable. So I retract my analogy of playing poker to playing the stock market.  I was mistaken. But I don’t see why investing in the stock market isn’t gambling, unless you define gambling as, Sparky does, as trying to win money without providing anything valuable. I assume that an investment in the stock market is a financial bet that corporate profits will rise. Even if this is generally a good bet, and even if you’re putting your money to work, you are still taking a gamble on the success of the corporation.  If the corporation doesn’t do well, or it doesn’t do well quick enough, then you can lose all your investment, as I did, when I purchased an option in Disney many years ago. 

  7. What is described above as investing is not accurate. Very few people give money to a company when they buy shares. Most stock trading is in the secondary market. Shares are purchased not from the company but from another individual or institution. And there are hordes of technical traders and program traders who don’t even know the companies they are buying, only the patterns of price, volume and other trading parameters. There is really nothing to distinguish stock trading as practiced by the majority from games of chance other than the sorts of people you mix with. It’s wine versus beer, coke versus crack.

    Stock trading does not provide the sort of quick high that poker does and therefore does not tend to addict. Once again, I suspect that is why religions don’t view it as negatively.

  8. If, Suber, you felt LED to play poker as your job, that God was directing you to do this, that would be between you and God. But Quakers also have “corporate discernment,” which means you put your individual leading before the community, to see if your leading makes sense to your Quaker community. That is where you may run into problems with your wanting to play poker as your job.

    I have to also decide if I’m making the best use of my time, to put my skills and talents to use, to make the world a better place. (But, sadly, perhaps this IS what Penn best prepares their graduates for. 🙂 )

  9. Based on Sparky’s last comment, I infer that she and I just have different ethical foundations. Sparky thinks that she has an ethical obligatgion to use her time to put her skills and talents to use to make the world a better place. I, on the other hand, believe that one has an ethical obligation to use one’s time to aspire to personal excellence.

    Let me share the words of the philosopher Richard Taylor:

    “[H]uman beings have the capacity to think, reason, and create things. No other creatures do. This is the uniquely human function, the source of all worth, as it is exemplified in people like Beethoven, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Plato, Picasso, as well as singularly resourceful and courageous leaders like Winston Churchill, Malcolm X., Martin Luther King, Benjamin Franklin, and so on. It is people like those who count, that have singular worth, and their virtues are what we should aspire to – not for any utility that derives from them, but because they are uniquely good.”

  10. QuietStorm is wrong on several counts.

    First of all, for the technical investors out there, investing can be even more addicting than gambling, because with investing, you actually stand a greater chance of gaining money if you follow some basic principles. The stock market rises over time…it is not a zero sum game. The stock market runs on human production at its base, gambling does not.

    Second of all, QuietStorm is wrong that the majority of investing is done by technical investors (maybe the majority of trades, but not the majority of money). The majority of investing is actually done by people who are putting their trust in other people to handle their money wisely. In other words, the majority of investing is done in mutual funds, 401k plans and pension funds. Most of the managers of these funds do not do short-trade technical investing as a primary investing strategy. Most of them do long-term, low-turnover investing in companies that they either see as 1) having high growth prospects or 2) being priced irrationally low.

    In both cases, managers project these properties onto the companies based on the abilities of the companies to turn products and services into profits.

    Now QuietStorm is right about one thing: most people who invest don’t have the slightest clue about why the stock market works – they’ve just been told to do it because they’ll make more money in equities than elsewhere. But that doesn’t mean that their money isn’t being invested according to some of the sensible principles I discussed above.

    Of course some investment managers don’t know what they are doing either, but that doesn’t change what I’ve said.

  11. I should note that I did technical investing for a summer one time, and I got excessively addicted. There is a huge rush as you anticipate the timing of your buys and sales.

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