Growing up with poker as a family hobby, and having experienced poker as a lifestyle choice/profession at a very close distance while at the same time earning a degree in philosophy has unsurprisingly led to questioning the ethical status of poker as a game, a hobby, and a job. Before looking at the various dimensions of poker that are needed to determine its moral status in my eyes, I need to state an important caveat that is rarely, if ever, understood by those who do not play and observe the game for any significant amount of time: poker is not gambling. As such, this discussion does not bear on the question of whether it is morally acceptable to try to make one’s income by gambling. I will only try to justify this claim briefly, but anyone who is interested can feel free to leave a comment below and I will do my best to provide a fuller explanation. In a nutshell, poker is not gambling because the luck factor is negligible over the long term (when I say long-term, I mean long term, measured in years of playing multiple times a week). This is the case because, while we can all agree that the cards that each individual gets during a given hand are random, and therefore the winner of a given hand is at least partially determined by luck, over the long-term this advantage disappears. Just as flipping a coin can produce 10 or even 100 heads in a row, if you flip (or simulate flipping) a coin, say, 10 trillion times, the percentage of heads will almost invariably be 50%. In a similar vein, while I can get lucky for one hour or one week of playing poker, over ten years I will not be reaping the benefits of anything but what is left over after the luck factor has dissipated. Everyone will get an equal share of luck, which leaves the skill portion of the game to shine through.
Given that poker is not gambling, is it moral? Since the real moral question for me lies not in whether the game should be legal at all, or in whether one can morally defend having a social evening of poker once in a while, but rather in whether making poker one’s profession is moral, I will address the first two only briefly. However, the first two scenarios, namely playing poker at all, and playing socially, actually run afoul of the caveat that I introduced above. Because if poker is not gambling only in virtue of the fact that one play many hours over the long-term, then if one only intends to play socially, as a rare event, then in fact playing is gambling. Then the moral question becomes, is it acceptable to gamble recreationally? I think that, in this type of scenario, playing poker a few times a year amounts to little more than going to a hockey game a few times a year, in that the money invested is just the cost of entertainment. Of course, with poker there is the added bonus of once in a while coming away with more money than you put in, but at the end of the day most games will just be another form of entertainment, with the goal being to have fun and not to make money.
As far as the legality of the game as a whole goes, I think there is room to argue against the legality of casinos or gambling institutions, as they provide an easy outlet to waste away one’s time and (hard-earned) money that is hard to resist for many. This can often fuel addictive behaviour, which is especially dangerous for people with families depending on their incomes. However, if casinos were deemed illegal, and all that was left was poker, I don’t see that fueling the same addictive behaviour, simply because playing poker at a casino does not strike me as satisfying the gambling impulse that roulette or slot machines do, even if poker is gambling in the short term.
Moving on to the more interesting moral question, can one defend the practice of playing poker professionally and considering it their job, on a par with being a businessman, pilot, or a plumber? With the question of gambling out of the way, various secondary issues arise. First, is playing poker professionally stealing? This might seem to be the case, especially given the argument above for poker not being gambling, as it would seem to indicate that there are basically two classes of people at any given poker game: those that play professionally, who are not relying on luck, and those that do not play professionally, and are relying on luck. Given this picture, are the professionals stealing from the non-professionals, exploiting their skills to their advantage?
I think that, on any further reflection, equating professional poker playing with stealing leaves one in a very uncomfortable position with regard to almost any form of making money. This is because, if poker is stealing, then so is working really hard and beating out the competition for that prestigious scholarship, or for that job promotion, etc. Without denying the problems inherent in a society that bases itself on capitalism and the ever-present need to turn a profit, winning a game of poker to put bread on the table is no worse than many other jobs that are readily accepted in society.
However, what if poker, while not necessarily gambling, is still inherently promoting an addiction (even if on a lesser scale than other casino games), in which case professionals may be taking advantage of people who really need to be counseled and weaned off of their addiction?
Judging addiction, and its presence in any activity one undertakes, is very tricky ethically. There is a certain amount of passion required to complete any project, be it a degree, a painting, a major report, etc. Notice how I changed the word ‘addiction’ to ‘passion’ yet they are easily interchangeable except for the wildly different connotations the two have. Addiction implies something out of your control, something that you cannot stop. But if a driven activist just cannot stop trying to save the planet or cure AIDS, do we call that an addiction? Further, where does the blame lie if we can satisfactorily determine that a person is addicted to the rush poker offers? Is it entirely on society, or entirely on the individual? If it’s a bit of both, as is likely, then what does society need to do, and what does the individual need to do?
I just wanted to highlight the ethical problems with classifying addiction before providing the beginnings of an answer to the question about playing poker with the risk of taking advantage of another’s addiction. Parenthetically, this whole discussion excludes the scenario of playing only with others who are not addicted, which would be perfectly acceptable on this point. The answer, for me, lies in what I hinted at above. Are we, as a society, expected to criminalize poker — and by extension all forms of potentially dangerous and addictive activities — in order to never face the situation of having someone become addicted and waste their time and money doing that activity? I think that both extremes on this spectrum have been compelling to humans over history, and both real societies and imagined ones (through various forms of art) are easy to come by, illustrating the benefits and pitfalls of both. I think that we currently live in a society that seeks to cater to every imaginable desire irrespective of the consequences, and the problem of feeding someone’s addiction to poker by playing professionally doesn’t even constitute the tip of the iceberg of this societal problem. However, I find a 1984-esque society equally unpalatable. I have no final answer on this point, and while actively promoting someone else’s addiction is truly something to be avoided, I do not perceive the vast majority of poker playing to be doing that.
Finally, I want to address what I see as the one true moral issue with playing poker professionally, and that is whether doing so constitutes an acceptable way to make a living. In other words, even if we are all in agreement that each constitutive part of the game is not morally reprehensible, when taken together, the lifestyle (even excluding all of the other activities that normally go along with a life lived in a casino environment) still amounts to hours sitting at a table — real or virtual — and playing a game. Is it morally acceptable to spend the majority of one’s time doing this? Once again, I think that the basic answer to this must draw on the analogy of countless other societally acceptable jobs. Because if poker is deemed morally unacceptable because all one does is sit at a table and play a game, how is being a stock broker morally acceptable? I think this analogy can fruitfully be taken two ways. One way is to say that poker should be accepted as a profession just as being a stock broker is. The other way is to say that, in fact, our hesitations with accepting poker as a profession apply equally to being a stock broker, and the latter should be reconsidered as a morally acceptable profession.
Whichever way one takes the analogy, a further moral question remains: is it acceptable to make one’s living by doing an activity that does not seek, in a fundamental way, to better the living conditions of humans (and other living organisms) on this planet? Even if ‘living conditions’ is defined broadly, to include basic human needs like food and shelter, as well as emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical wellbeing, I still am doubtful that a job as a poker player (or a stock broker) would fall into this category. However, I am not calling for everyone to drop what they are doing and devote their entire lives to (e.g.) ending world hunger, even though that would be wonderful. It is not hard to see that we each have our interests and talents that guide much, if not all, of what we pursue in life. As such, there must be room for those whose passion is social justice to pursue that as a career, as well as room for those whose passion is playing poker to pursue that. However, to answer the question at the beginning of the paragraph, no, it is not all right to pursue a life that does not in any way improve the living conditions of those on the planet. As an example, then, while Bill Gates clearly had a passion for computers and numbers and business that left him immensely wealthy without having given back commensurately to the overall wellbeing of humanity, he has gone on to do just that in his ‘retirement’. By the same token, while playing poker professionally does not benefit anyone other than the successful poker player him or herself, I would be the last person to say that they could not pursue that as a profession if that is what they are passionate about, so long as it is supplemented in some way by another set of activities whose primary aim is to improve human wellbeing.
In conclusion, any analysis of whether x can be pursued as a profession will tend to rely on comparison to other currently acceptable professions. Given the professions that are not questioned in society today, and given what playing poker professionally consists of, I cannot think of a reason why there is anything wrong with playing poker as a career.