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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