Poker dilemma: Temperance vs. Teetotalism

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By Father Paul Kammen

Reflecting on growing up and early gambling experiences, I can recall two stupid bets I made as a kid. In fourth grade I took the eighth-graders to defeat the staff in a volleyball game, lost, and then got upset about it not knowing how to pay off whatever I bet. All I remember is the teacher saying Dan, the student with whom I placed the bet, would not come after my family. (She also may have said, “Did you learn anything about gambling?” I think we know the answer to that question). And in seventh grade, I placed a bet (with no knowledge of what a “spread” was) of $5 that the Timberwolves, then in their inaugural season, would certainly defeat the Bulls (then with Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan and the rest). This did not happen, and cost me five bucks.

I never went to a GA meeting, and in the years that have followed, have continued to enjoy gambling; but now it’s entirely poker, the game I learned from my grandpa, who strangely somehow dealt me four aces with a joker as one of my first hands. However, I don’t play the game professionally. I play for small stakes, as I live in a town with two card rooms. I also enjoy writing, having written on small stakes stud and stud/8, completing two books on the game, and I wrote some columns for a time. But as I said, a professional player I am not, nor am I a professional writer (as is obvious from this column).

I became a priest, being ordained a little more than two years ago serving in the Twin Cities after six years at seminary following my stint at the University of Minnesota. I had hoped not to share with anyone in the parish that I had written about poker; but sure enough, when my archbishop introduced me to the parish, he promptly informed them I had written a book on poker. He didn’t mind at all, and I think he found it humorous. I consider poker an enjoyable hobby, along with bowling, photography and jogging. It’s a hobby with a goal of making money, of course, but I also enjoy the stories and the competition and find it a great way to unwind. Which leads me to the point of the column: What is the morality of playing poker and gambling, and does it constitute sin?

I strongly say no. It’s true some sects of Christianity have taken hard stances against gambling and alcohol; but the Catholic church does not state these are absolutes to be avoided. Certain things are moral absolutes in Catholic morality, such as taking innocent life and no premarital sex. These things we determine from scripture and tradition, the teachings of the saints and church authorities who interpret scripture. There’s no prohibition of gambling or alcohol use in the Bible.

So then, does this mean you should find a case of Milwaukee’s Best and cash in the savings account for a night of fun at the local casino? Not quite. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says it best: Games of chance (card games, etc.) or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice. They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant. The point is gambling is risky; one does not have to do it at all, and many don’t. Gambling also can be a dangerous slippery slope for people. So what is the bottom line on gambling? It comes down to embracing temperance.
Temperance is a Christian virtue which moderates pleasures.

Teetotalism is an absolute avoidance of things; hence it is more proper to call Prohibition of the ’20s not the result of temperance movements, but of teetotalism. Temperance causes us to use restraint. Thus, I think the best course of action is for a gambler (or for our readers, a poker player) to ask themselves the hard questions: Is poker too much in my life? Am I playing above my bankroll? Am I making excuses to not be with my wife or husband or children tonight just so I can play in this tournament? Am I cheating at the game? Am I using money that I need for bills or tuition? Am I using money that needs to go to my spouse or family? Am I sneaking out of work to play, or hiding my play from my spouse? Indeed, the catechism is quite right when it points out how the passion for gambling can become an enslavement.

Poker needs to be enjoyable. Ideally, you can have some fun and augment your income. Perhaps you lose more often than you win; if it’s your money and you’re not causing yourself harm by using money you need, but would spend the same on dinner and a movie, I don’t think it’s a big deal. Obviously there’s short-term variance in the game.
But for many, losing is a way of life. How many people populate tables constantly chasing time and time again, win a pot here and there, but essentially play slots with cards and not sound poker? The moment it becomes money you need, or money your family needs, you need to get away from the table or the mouse. With this, there are also the things money can’t buy, such as the moments with our families. Poker night with the guys or an hour before bed online is one thing, but if night after night is spent at the table and you have a family, you really are missing out on a lot. Yes, there are those who do this for a living, but even those who do so need to find time for their families. The game of poker will always be there; our families won’t.

The bottom line is poker can be enjoyable. You like it otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this magazine. And yet for some reason, there are those who see it as a sinful activity, or question its morality. It, much like alcohol, has the potential to become sinful; but it also is something that can be enjoyable when done in moderation. My advice? Budget accordingly and be open about it with a spouse. Make sure it never gets out of control, and if people start saying things such as, “Hey, seems like you’re never around anymore,” or “You seem to be getting stressed out about your poker game, is everything OK?” then hear them out. Don’t be afraid to ask friends and family for help.

Poker is a great game, and I’ve enjoyed it ever since I got those five aces “dealt” to me. I find it a great way to unwind, to perhaps have a story, and hopefully win a few bucks. It most likely always will be a part of my life. But my primary vocation is to serve God and the people of my parish. I also make priorities for my family and friends. No matter what your religion, we can all agree the people in our lives matter most, which is why we serve humanity by volunteering and giving to charity. These are the things that really matter, and I hope you keep them as the top priority in your life.

If, like me, you think poker is awesome then keep it up. But remember, so much more important than a game of cards is what we do away from the table. The key is to keep our priorities right.