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Poker Goes Mainstream

Poker gets mixed reactions from Christians, but the growing popularity of the game is forcing many to sort through their thoughts on the matter. Can poker be used as outreach?

At a recent pastors' retreat, a few of us decided to play a couple hands of poker and catch up on the year's events. We sat there playing cards and chatting about life when in walked some of our friends who have witnessed the harm poker can inflict on people's lives and regard it as a particularly carnal tool the enemy can use to draw people into the world of gambling. Judging by their expressions, it was evident this was not what they expected to see us doing at a pastors' retreat.

Poker is getting mixed reactions from the Church, but the growing popularity of the game is forcing many of us to sort through our thoughts on the matter. I discovered the poker fad when one of my parishioners discovered Texas Hold-em while he was visiting his family down south. I was sceptical, but not from a moral perspective—I didn't enjoy the game when I was young.

Soon after, I noticed its pervasive television coverage and realized many people were catching poker fever. Texas Hold-em actually looked like a lot of fun. So when my friend organized a game, I told him I would play as long as we kept money out of it. We had a great time, but just because something is fun and popular does not make it right.

As someone who looks for evangelistic opportunities in unlikely sources, I immediately recognized the potential of this game. Not only has it already captured a strong following, but like many other games, it has created community among players.

I had to ask myself whether poker deserves to be demonized by the Church. We all know stories of folks who have taken gambling to excess, and gambling is a serious problem. But does poker always need to be tied to gambling and lead to destruction?

Assess the game

Let's remove money from the equation for a moment and assess the game on its own merits.

I am an avid gamer who loves many different types of games and I believe that Texas Hold-em has a lot of appeal. The rules are simple and easy to pick up. You just need a deck of playing cards and some poker chips.

The game requires a fair bit of strategy to play well and contains a great deal of psychology—always fascinating to gamers. While playing with a novice the other night I had great fun trying to figure out what he had in his hand by how he played.

The biggest complaint I hear about removing money from the game is that the thrill of the game is the potential to win more money than you put in. Unfortunately, most people I know who want to play for money really cannot afford to do so, especially since it is likely they will lose. Are they secretly hoping to win so they can afford to pay their rent for a change? I am sure many of you are like me and are not at all comfortable about creating a situation like that. So, if poker is that problematic, then why play at all?

Community building

The biggest draw for me is the incredible potential for community and relationship-building. I think this actually works better when you remove money from the equation because then the players are really there just to have a great time. At that pastors' retreat the owner of the retreat centre joined in our game and we had a chance to build relationship with him.

For a while I was an active part of an online poker community. I still pop into their community boards and chatroom once in a while, though I have less time these days. They were not just playing a game; they were building a community. I was one of a small handful of Christians there with them. A number of times I was in the right place at the right time to bring God into the picture and offer prayer or a word of encouragement.

That potential opened me to the possibility that God could call someone to come into those communities with the light of Christ. What better place for Christians to be than in the lives of people (many of them living in isolation) who are reaching out for something real?

Two questions

I am sure many of you are still not convinced you should have anything to do with poker. Good. There are many other ways we can build communities to reach people with the Good News.

Christians can have fun

For me there are two important questions Christians who are serious about following Christ should ask themselves if they use the game of poker as outreach.

What do you do with problem gamblers?

First, why are you playing the game? One of the problems I encounter is that Christians tend to be all too utilitarian in their thinking. They feel that if they are not specifically accomplishing goals, then they are sinfully squandering their time. If you take that attitude to poker—playing just to make converts—then you are not going to enjoy the community that forms and will likely alienate your players.

It is okay for Christians to have fun. In our church we encourage people to form what we call affinity groups. This involves taking things you love doing and inviting others along to do them with you—especially your non-Christian friends. These natural connections allow others to see how following Christ makes a difference in your life. I recently baptised someone who came to Christ in just this way. It all started with some guys getting together to have some fun.

The second question is more sober. What do you do with problem gamblers?

If you are going to be in the world of poker, you will find people who are addicted to gambling. Actually, this is a compelling reason for Christians to have a presence in the poker world—people addicted to gambling are in desperate need of the saving power of God. Loving gamblers requires making some tough decisions, so it is good to think this through before you run into the situation.

I want to encourage openness to the Lord's leading. There is nothing more exciting than seeing someone you have poured time and energy into give their heart to the Lord. Perhaps those at the poker table will end up at the Lord's table.

Frank Emanuel is pastor of Freedom Vineyard in Ottawa.

Originally published in ChristianWeek, September 1, 2006.




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