Poker and Philosophy: “Jewish Philosophy Wins the Pot: How Stu Ungar and Emmanuel Levinas Corralled the Texans”

Last month I received a collection of essays edited by Eric Bronson called “Poker and Philosophy: Pocket Rockets and Philosoper Kings.” I requested the book from the publisher Open Court and promised that I would give a review of it on this site.  Here is the first entry of this review.  There should be many more to come.

One of the essays in the book is by Philip Lindholm entitled “Jewish Philosophy Wins the Pot: How Stu Ungar and Emmanuel Levinas Corralled the Texans”.  I found the essay to be interesting, in large part because it attempts to shows a connection between gamblers and Jews, and since I had written a post on Jews and poker, I thought it would be a good piece to start with in my discussion/review of the book.

The first thing that struck me about Lindholdm’s piece was the title, specificaly that it mentions Jewish philosophy.  Certainly there have been Jews who have been philosophers, e.g. Spinoza, Saul Kripke, and Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), the philosopher that Lindolhm discusses in the essay.  There are many (perhaps too many) non-philospher Jews who like to philosophize.  For proof just come to a Seder at my mom’s house.

And there are many similarities and connections between Judaism and philosophy.  For example, in philosophy of religion there is the question of God’s existence and the conception of God that philosophers use is one that comes out of the Old Testament.  But I am not sure what a Jewish philosophy is. As Kenneth Seeskin points out in his introduction to “Jewish Philosophy in a Secular Age,”

‘the notion of an inquiry that is both Jewish and philosophical has long been problematic.  Philosophy is not indigenous to Judaism.  With the exception of Philo, whose direct influence lay mainly with Christianity, Judaism did not produce a genuine work of philosophy until the tenth century.  Even then, Jewish philosophy was largely a response to an external source: Islamic influence.  Many regarded this response as suspect.

But the thirteenth century, a controversy arose on whether Maimonides’rationalistic version of Judaism was heretical.  The controversy is still with us.  For some, Judaism demands surrender to the will of God, so that any attempt to devise a philosophic justification is misguided.  For others, Judaism is a culture and does not need philosophic argument to claim legitimacy.  Not surprisingly, one can still pick up a book on Jewish philosophy and find the author replying to the charge that the investigation is somehow un-Jewish.  The reason this charge still has force is that philosophy is by nature a secular enterprise.”

So what does Lindolm have in mind when he talks about Jewish philosophy?  He has in mind the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, specifically his commentary on Exodus 19:17 entitled ‘the Temptation of Temptation”.  Lindohlm believes that Levinas is criticizing a certain philosophical view about when it is correct to act, and offers what he believes to be the correct view on this issue, which Lindolm believes is the view taken by the gambler. Lindholm tells a story about the 1980 WSOP, where Stu Ungar, one of the greatest poker players to have ever lived, in order to illustrate the gambler’s approach to action.

According to Lindohlm, Levinas’ view is that the philosopher believes that you should never act unless you have certainty, and if you do you’re being naieve. Does Levinas believe that you can ever obtain certainty?  Here Lindholm is equivocal.  He says on the one hand that ‘the philosopher refuses to act until all the results are in, and therefore, because all the results are never in, he or she never gets around to doing anything.”

But on the other hand he quotes Levinas who says “Only philosophy takes away naivete,” which seems to suggest that through philosophy one can obtain certainty.  So which is it?  Perhaps we can reconcile the apparent inconsistency in the following way:  One who does not do philosophy should not act, because his actions will be done with uncertainty and therefore will be naive. I shall assume that this is what Lindholm has in mind when he talks about the “philosophical” approach to action.

Lindohlm then contrasts this philosophical approach to the approach taken by the gambler, who, according to Lindholm, embraces uncertainty. It is naive to think one can know with certainty before one acts in an an honest game of poker, as there is uncertainty in every hand you play.

This uncertainty existed when the Jews had to decide on whether to accept the Torah, the essence of Judaism. This act of decision in the face of uncertainty is what the gambler accepts, but according to Levinas, as interpreted by Lindholm, it is what the philosopher tends to reject. Lindholm writes, “For Levinas, the willingness of Jews like Ungar…to decide, to take action before knowing the result, is a distinguishing mark of the Jewish character.  This is the Jewish way of “being in truth,” which contrasts with the philosophical endeavor to first “know truth”.”

In a previous post I wondered about why there are so many Jews who are good at poker. Perhaps Levinas’ view offers some insight into the answer to this question.

The essay is interesting, but it leaves me with many questions.  For one, what philosophers does Levinas have in mind when he says that we need certainty before we can act?  The only person that came to mind was possibly Descartes, who in the Meditations was searching for an indubitable foundation for scientific knowledge.  But did even he say that you should never act without certainty?  Did he say that you should never act?

I have a suspicion that Levinas, or more likely Lindholm, is creating a straw man in an attempt to represent the “philosophical” approach to action.  Philosophers think that you should generally have support for beliefs that you hold. However, I think similar things can be said about poker players, at least the good ones.

They believe that when you make a decision about how to play a hand it should be as well supported as possible. So, assuming that Lindholm’s interpretation of Levinas is correct, and, as indicated above, I’m not sure what his interpretation precisely is, then it’s not clear whether there is an important difference between the way the philosopher thinks about action and the way the gambler/Jew does.

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