Is It OK for Christians to Gamble?
By Ryan Hamm
September 16, 2009
When I was a kid, my parents wouldn't let me play with "face cards." I didn't know why one set of grandparents had them and the other didn't, except the ones who did must have been lesser Christians. I knew that the "face cards" must have some sort of devilish allure, along with things like alcohol and pool. And Smurfs.
I never knew why I wasn't allowed to play with playing cards. According to rumors, there was some sort of evil, demonic symbolism in some of the symbols in the cards. My family was never very clear on this topic. I think the biggest problem was that cards were often used in gambling and gambling, well, was used to lock people away in a quick trunk to hell.
In sixth grade, we got a computer with free cell on Microsoft Windows. Suddenly, the prohibition on playing cards that never really made sense was repealed. And then, I learned how to play poker ... at a missions conference. A bunch of the high school students would sit in the hotel lobby at the conference and play five-card draw for pennies. My parents were semi-horrified, but I enjoyed it so much—it was a great way to hang out with friends and we all had such a good time I don't think any of our parents cared as much as they claimed to.
And from then on, I liked poker. I played occasionally in college, and then after college. I went to Vegas after I graduated (though avoided the high-stakes poker table like the plague because of my just-graduated budget). After I got home, my mom—who I respect and love deeply as a Christian example—looked at me in a disappointed way and said "Gambling is wrong. Why would you do that?"And who wants to disappoint their mom?
That's what she said pretty much anytime I talked about playing in my bi-weekly poker group or going to a casino: "Gambling is wrong."
Her reasoning behind the prohibition is usually couched in terms of stewardship. As in, God has given us resources (including money) so we shouldn't squander those resources by throwing money away. Most people who oppose gambling usually point to the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, where Jesus suggests we ought to use our resources responsibly for his glory—and people who squander their God-given resources get slammed pretty roundly.
And people who use the stewardship reasoning are often spot on. If you've ever been to a casino, chances are you've seen the destructive power that gambling can have. In Vegas, hotels will often give players cards with magnetic strips hooked up to an account; you can add to or subtract money from your account. One night at 3 AM, I noticed several retirees using their cards at the slot machines—their cards were connected to them via a lanyard, so it looked like they were connected to the slots like some kind of twisted life support system. With each press of the button, they would quickly lose another $20 ... and a little more life in their glazed-over eyes. It's one of the darkest parts of Las Vegas (which is a pretty dark city), and it's difficult to watch an octogenarian burn through his or her social security check.
So yes. The stewardship arguments hold some weight, particularly when gambling can and is abused. People really do have serious problems with gambling—so much so there are recovery organizations similar to Alcoholics Anonymous to help them. This abuse of gambling is, without a doubt, not something to take lightly, and we shouldn't ever disregard people who have a genuine problem with gambling.
A balancing actBut what if you're not gambling compulsively? Is gambling, in and of itself, so bad? Well, it depends on who you ask. And, especially, how you play.
The most popular game out there right now is poker. Thanks to the ubiquitous "World Series of Poker" broadcasts on ESPN, poker—especially Texas Hold 'Em—is more popular than it's ever been. The thing about poker (and games like blackjack and baccarat) is that enough skill is involved that the "gambling" or chance aspect of the game is taken down several levels. Sure, you can always get beaten on the last showing of cards (the river), but the odds of you losing completsly are pretty low—if you're good enough. That's why most of the players seen on the World Series of Poker are professionals—they make their living playing a game many of us see as a game of complete chance.
In a 2006 interview with RELEVANT, professional player Daniel Negreanu said "To call me a gambler would be to say that a man who sells stocks for a living is a gambler. What I consider my profession to be is a skill." And he's right. In the right hands, poker is much less a game of chance than a game of skill. Even amateurs can use enough skill to make the game less about luck and more about a proper technique of betting and learning the habits of other players. I have friends who know exactly when to raise and when to fold with certain players because they've watched long enough to be careful when necessary and raise by a large amount when careful.
But what about other games? Things like slot machines, craps, roulette and games of completely random chance? Those are a little more tricky. And like so much of the Christian life, the guideline seems to be one of moderation rather than a hard and fast rule. Because the Bible doesn't say anything like "You can gamble, but only when you're really good at the game and the odds are better than 25-1;" it gives guidelines for stewardship and suggests the best ways to use our resources, but specifics are left up to us.
I would suggest that gambling of many kinds (and especially in the skilled games category) falls into the area of entertainment for most of us. We don't play to make money or because we feel a compulsive drive to do so; we play because it's fun. Poker night with my friends is a great time not because of the game (though that's part of it) but because of the conversations—and ripping on people who make huge mistakes. And paying for that entertainment isn't, in and of itself, a bad thing.
After all, how many things do we pay for that are strictly entertainment? We go to movies—sometimes they move us and make us think as true works of art, other times we go because they're entertaining. Why do we pay to go to sporting events? Because they're entertaining and let us enjoy time with our friends. Any number of activities we all engage in without any sense of guilt (and rightfully so) are done not out of any commitment to "stewardship" but because they're fun. And God is okay with us having fun—there were several times in the Gospels when Jesus was actually chastised by the religious leaders for having too much fun! And think of his very first miracle; his provision of the "best" wine at the party hardly suggests a God who wants us to only use our resources to follow the path of eternal boredom and misery.
Instead, one of the most important things anyone can do is to build community and relationships. In my life that's come through mutual experiences—yes, even experiences at casinos. As anyone can tell you who attends a weekly poker game, the evening is much less about money than about the fellowship. This kind of activity, in moderation, isn't harmful; it may be (dare I say) glorifying to God. The question about poker and gambling should be less whether it's right or wrong, but where it leads you. Does it lead you to greed, overextension of resources and poor stewardship? Then stop. Does it lead you to entertainment, community and a feeling of skilled play? Then continue. Like so many parts of the Christian life, God's grace allows us flexibilty and freedom—the key is wisdom.
Ryan Hamm is the associate editor at RELEVANT.