The Godfather of Poker, Doyle Brunson, once said, ‘Poker actually isn’t about winning or losing; poker is about making the right decision.’ In my opinion, this is a very versatile saying. For example, if you were to substitute the word poker for life, you would have a quote worthy of an inspirational fridge magnet. Such is the nature of poker. It is a brooding, philosophical game; a microcosm of the peaks and troughs of life. This is why so much poker terminology permeates our language… it’s the fall of the cards… when the chips are down… I’m going all in… Even Voltaire employed the poker/life metaphor in his writing, ‘Each player must accept the cards life deals him or her: but once they are in hand, he or she alone must decide how to play the cards in order to win the game.’
I find it interesting that poker is so often used as a vehicle to deliver life advice in spite of commonly being understood to be a vice. Certainly vices are present in poker; greed, envy and pride being the most obvious; but as Shakespeare said: ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ With this in mind, the rest of this blog post hopes to give ground to the idea that poker could in fact, in part, promote virtuousness and good character by exploring its relationship with the virtues of wisdom, temperance, justice and humanity.
In his vindication of Martial Arts as a means of becoming more virtuous (The Way to Virtue in Sport), Allan Bäck acknowledged that ‘People—even philosophers—often claim that practicing a sport improves moral character’ and that even ‘Plato advocated education of the body as well as of the mind: gumnastike as well as mousike.’ Now you’re not going to achieve a six-pack playing poker but I would argue that, like sports, games like poker can constitute an education of the mind, i.e. cultivate intellectual virtues.
In order to learn a game like poker you are going to need, or need to develop, a love of learning and curiosity, two of the five character strengths that comprise the virtue of wisdom according to the VIA Classification of Character Strengths. For beginners, just the rules of play can be difficult to grasp, and beyond this there are the endless annals of poker strategy in print and online. The successful player has to be interested, engaged and willing to learn. They will need to develop the grit and resilience expected of any serious sports player.
Judgement and perspective, also constituents of wisdom, are essential for the developing poker player. In my experience of playing poker, it is those players that develop a sense of entitlement that are those quickest to stagnate. This stagnation can lead to bitterness and cruelty (online poker comment boxes are a treasure trove of profanity, usually players mourning themselves and cursing others.) It takes an open-mind and a rational perspective in order to prosper as a poker player.
As Michael Austin writes in his article Sports and Moral Development, ‘A child learns how to play soccer by imitating those who are good at the sport. Similarly, a child can learn how to be virtuous by imitating those who are morally good.’ Just as football has its goodies and baddies, its role models and bad examples, so does poker. Fortunately, the game of poker has a vibrant community of players and tutors that encourage, through discussion and training, what Austin calls the ‘proper habits of the practice’.
In the film Rounders (a film that is generally acknowledged as the greatest poker film of modern times) – Mike McDermott (Matt Damon), in an argument with his non-poker-playing girlfriend, exclaims, ‘Why does this still seem like gambling to you? Why do you think the same five guys make it to the final table at the World Series of Poker every year?’ The point Mike is trying to make is that, though poker is fundamentally a game of chance, the player has the potential to put the odds in their favour. Thus the game becomes not solely about luck, but also a contest of skill.
Any poker strategy guide worth its salt advocates strict bankroll management. It is arguably the most important part of poker strategy and based on temperance. Bankroll management essentially requires you to have the prudence and self-regulation to play only at a level financially viable to you. You keep your poker bankroll divorced from the rest of your finances and you only ever play with a small fraction of it at a time. Doing so should hopefully mean that your losses are small enough not to affect you mentally and financially and also that you will be able to outlast any periods of negative variability.
Interestingly, the reason why Mike McDermott is in such hot water with his girlfriend is because at the start of the film he was a victim of his own intemperance, losing everything on a single hand of poker. This is why actively practicing the virtues is so important if you are going to play poker. Despite what Mike McDermott tells his girlfriend, poker is a game of chance, it is gambling, and gambling can be, and in many cases is, insidious. For those poker players who struggle to exercise control over gambling, the right decision would be to not play at all, or to play without the involvement of money, purely for the love of the game.
Justice and Humanity
Poker is a game that promotes sophisticated decision making. Players who do not exercise temperance and wisdom will quickly find themselves exiled to the spectator’s rail. But the virtuous character strengths developed through playing poker also have other applications; poker can develop a practical wisdom (phronesis) that can contribute to societal flourishing. Thus, to borrow from Allan Bäck, ‘it purports to be a serious part of life—and to transcend contests’. Raising for Effective Giving is a charity founded by poker players that uses a poker philosophy to maximise their philanthropy. As World Champion, Martin Jacobson, is quoted as saying on their website:
“Contributing to charity in any way, shape or form is really important for me and I have found REG to be the superior option. Their rational strategy to effective giving is something I can relate to because I use the same approach to maximize my potential as a professional poker player.”
Considering this, the versatile sentiment of ol’ Texas Dolly, Doyle Brunson, can even be applied to the character strengths of social intelligence, kindness, fairness and citizenship, strengths comprising the virtues of justice and humanity: ‘Poker actually isn’t about winning or losing; poker is about making the right decision.’
Vice or Virtue?
In this blog I have proffered that poker players who exercise the virtuous character strengths of wisdom and temperance are the most likely to succeed, and presented a shining example of charitable action taken by poker players (of which there are many), but is this enough to claim that poker itself, on the whole, is virtuous? You could argue that the game of poker is a morally neutral construct and it is each individual’s interaction with the game which is virtuous or not. However, poker is a zero numbers game, which means for every win there has to be a loss of the same amount. The circumstances of the game therefore directly promote the vices of greed and envy: greed because in order to win you must engage rapaciously in the pursuit of material possessions and envy because that which you covet is your neighbour’s chips. So is the gentrification the game has enjoyed in recent years merely a virtuous veneer atop a cankered core? Tell Shakespeare I am still thinking about it…
Richard Hughes is Research Administrator at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues