Show Hide image

Is playing poker a sin?

Victoria Coren takes a gamble on the idea that God has bigger fish to fry.

Last Christmas, I wrote a newspaper column about the new wave of proselytising atheists who seem suspiciously eager to snatch away the consolations of their fellow men. On the internet, among the sweet messages from shy believers and the insults that, I smugly reflected, rather proved the point, were many people asking: "What does God think about gambling?"

These came from the faithful and the sceptical alike but all, I think, meant it sarcastically. They knew I play poker for half my living. Perhaps "wryly" is how they meant it.

The short answer is: I don't know what God thinks about gambling. If He created man and then gave man free will, that was certainly the biggest gamble of all time. Bigger, even, than the time my friend Barny won $30,000 in the World Series of Poker and attempted to turn it into a million on the roulette wheel.

(I won't tell you how that ended, though I will say it was lucky he'd already bought his plane ticket home.)

I don't know what God thinks about anything. You might say: read the Bible. And I'd say: meh, I'm still six weeks behind on the Observer Magazine.

Forced to guess, I would say that if there's a God and He's anything like the one I talk to quietly at night, He wouldn't massively care if somebody wants to have a fiver on the 3.50 at Cheltenham. If God thinks that's evil, someone needs to have a stern word with the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Perhaps our editor could do it? Just don't ring her mobile in the middle of the race.

I don't think of poker as a sin but those correspondents pressed a finger to my conscience nonetheless. In any moral framework, with or without religious guidelines or government laws, it is surely incumbent on us to treat each other gently, honestly and with a view to causing as little harm
as possible.

I type this sincerely, even as I simultaneously plan, the moment I've finished, to hurry out for a poker game where I will attempt to trick and deceive people into giving me as much of their money as I can yank from their hoodwinked fingers.

Table manners

For the individual, assuming that he or she can comfortably afford the stakes, I think poker is rather good for the soul. It's like a military training in Rudyard Kipling's "If". Like any sport, it obliges you to meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just
the same. But, unlike most sports, there is a lot of random luck involved. Abandon entitlement, all ye who enter here.

A good player must be able to win the maximum when the universe is smiling on you and lose the minimum when it isn't, through a combination of instinct, analysis, bravery, self-knowledge, psychology, calm and maths. But to maintain sanity and any shot at peace of mind, you must never imagine that the smiles or otherwise of the universe are under your control. Humility is all.

Thus, as I sit drinking tea, guzzling doughnuts and playing cards while normal people are at work, I cheerfully tell myself that it's the road to becoming a better person. And so much more lucrative than volunteering for Oxfam.

Nevertheless, it still involves deceiving other people. That is the very essence of the game. Of course, that is also true of Cluedo. Then again, Cluedo rarely leaves people skint. You don't see Professor Plum going back and forth from the cashpoint, ruefully paying off a cackling Colonel Mustard.

I say "cackling"; that would be much frowned on in the card room. You'd be surprised how many rules of etiquette hold sway there. A player is expected to be gracious in victory, philosophical in defeat. (Or, as we say in Marble Arch, "Get it quietly.") It is bad form to cheer if you win or complain if you lose. Our considered sins are cheating, collusion and failing to repay loans if you can afford to. Bluffing at the table; total truth away from it. We take each other's money but we try not to make it any worse.

Yet it would be disingenuous to claim I haven't had dark nights of the soul. I cope very well with losing; must be all the practice. When it comes to winning, I probably have the wrong attitude. A true professional is delighted to see an opponent drunk, confused or chasing losses so desperately that he's lost all reason. I can't embrace that at all. If my opponents are not my intellectual equals, sober and logical, as likely to take my money as I am theirs, I know my reflection will itch in the morning. So I play on through the qualms of conscience but choosing the tougher line-ups and the harder games, which falls terribly between two stools.

The more honest answer, then, to "What does God think about gambling?" is: I'm gambling that He has bigger fish to fry. If I have fallen between two stools, then I am lying on the floor, squinting upwards, hoping this is all forgivable. l

Next week:Nicholas Lezard

This article first appeared in the 13 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Rowan Williams guest edit

Show Hide image

The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless choice about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.