Even in 2024, poker still carries stigma and is considered by some to be an immoral game. Sometimes that stance is informed by religions where any form of gambling is considered taboo. Other times, a friend or family member suffered from a gambling addiction, and other poker players are viewed as complicit in similar negative situations. Some of the most common criticisms of the game include:
It is wrong to win money from other people.
Poker causes and worsens gambling addiction.
Poker does not offer societal value.
Let's examine these claims in detail and see if any of them prove that poker is immoral under greater scrutiny.
Is it wrong to win money from other people?
Imagine a society that was okay with lotteries, day-trading, fantasy sports, and cut-throat competition amongst startup companies but where poker carried a stigma. All of these activities involve adults choosing to wager money against other adults in an environment where there will inevitably be winners and losers. Daily fantasy sports have been legalized in forty-five states due to their classification as games of skill. So why is online poker, despite its greater skill component, only legal in six states as of today?
Anyone who points to moral issues is deluding themselves as all of the activities above involve winning/losing money against other people. In the Western Hemisphere, capitalism is the predominant economic system. Despite its flaws, society has yet to follow a better alternative to capitalism, and all of the activities mentioned above must be judged with respect to their societal context. Poker is ultimately just capitalism laid bare: Money changes hands, driven by profit motive, which produces winners and losers. The only difference between poker and the other activities mentioned is how visible the poker process is with its unmistakable results there for everyone to see at a confined table.
Essentially, if capitalism is moral, then poker is moral. If capitalism is immoral, then a large subset of income-generating jobs and activities are immoral and poker should not receive unique treatment. In theory, capitalism is different from poker because it leads to innovation and generates more collective wealth for society. But there are of course massive challenges with wealth distribution and inequality that arise through capitalism which do create clear winners and losers even if total wealth increases over time. In the US, Financial Services and Insurance now form the largest sector of GDP, and many aspects of these industries do function similarly to a zero-sum game. Poker should be viewed similarly to these industries as well as most forms of entrepreneurship which require risking money for an uncertain outcome. After just the smallest amount of honest reflection, one can see that the real reason online poker has not been legalized is not due to moral reasons but because states have not figured out a reliable way to tax it yet, and most importantly because it does not have powerful lobbyists fighting for it to the same degree as daily fantasy sports and other commercial activities.
The following video goes into more depth around the morality of poker and how to perceive winning money from poker in our current societal context:
Does poker cause and worsen gambling addiction?
Addiction is a complex subject and there are certainly people who would be better off not playing poker. With that said, it would be wrong to conclude that poker causes addiction. Problem gamblers are typically more attracted to get-rich-fast, continuous stimulation games like slots, roulette, or blackjack compared to slow, methodical games like poker. If poker didn’t exist, they would almost certainly find another form of gambling or a different outlet for their addiction to take its place. Poker is ultimately one of many interchangeable vehicles, not the cause of these addictions. Additional explanation can be found in this video:
It is of course important to strike a balance between helping and treating those who are unable to play poker responsibly while preserving the freedom of the majority of people to enjoy their experience. Poker rooms function much like liquor stores and fast food restaurants: Most people are able to enjoy them in moderation, and removing these businesses would not cure those who overindulge. For serious and professional players, deciding not to play poker would not cure those with addiction problems, and choosing to play poker does not worsen the addictions of others. There is again little evidence that poker is functioning as an immoral activity.
Poker could have just as easily been used as a vehicle to promote well-being and foster health. The game rewards people who make good decisions, and good decisions come as a result of sleeping well, eating nutritious foods, exercising, meditating, and putting in disciplined technical study. Like most things, the verdict on poker depends on the individual's overall approach and whether poker is playing a healthy role for them or not. But if poker must be judged on a case by case basis, one cannot make a blanket statement that the game is inherently immoral.
Does poker add societal value?
At times, this question is used to shame poker players. But it is the wrong question. The better question is: What counts as societal value, and if an activity doesn't produce it, is the activity immoral?
Poker can easily be lumped in with a myriad of other entertainment activities like sporting events, concerts, movies, and other games which do provide value. Perhaps this level of entertainment value is not as essential for society's functioning as the role that doctors, teachers, and firefighters play. But it would be quite a stretch to argue that poker players are immoral because they don't meet this lofty standard. If they play the game with integrity, pay taxes, and treat dealers and other players with respect, then poker players are part of a productive activity that generates revenue for society while providing an entertainment experience for other players. The money won by poker players can also be donated to charities and other good causes which means that the impact of poker is actually not zero-sum. For example, poker hall of famer Barry Greenstein is known as the "Robin Hood of Poker" because he donates all tournament profits to charity. As usual, how the activity is done is much more important than the activity itself, and this applies to poker players, doctors, teachers, firefighters, and all other professions as well. Lastly, societal value is not confined to professional life: There are many ways to make valuable contributions outside of the workplace for poker players and non poker players alike.
The Importance of Being at Peace at the Poker Table
Ultimately, the time for philosophical reflection and debates is away from the poker table. All serious poker players will need to answer the questions above for themselves if they wish to play their best poker with peace of mind. Once you sit down, there can no longer be inner conflict, because poker has a way of punishing those who are not giving their full attention to the game. If you have big poker goals but you find yourself self-sabotaging in some way, make sure you have truly accepted your decision to play poker in the first place. You may be surprised by what you find.
This topic is just the tip of the iceberg. To go deeper and become the player you know you can be, contact Joel Wald today at firstname.lastname@example.org or book a free 30-minute Zoom call to discuss how PTO Poker can help you achieve your poker goals!