Friday, July 25, 2008

Poker Morality

While talking to my sister during my vacation over the last couple of weeks, she suggested that poker is immoral. She said it's wrong for a skilled player to take advantage of an opponent who has a gambling problem.

It's a strong point that I had a hard time arguing with.

I said that my rights shouldn't be curtailed because a percentage of my opponents may have a gambling problem. My sister said she wasn't arguing for restricting individual freedoms; she was talking about an individual decision to profit from someone else's sickness.

I said that everyone playing poker knows what they're getting into. She claimed that some of my opponents don't have the ability to think rationally about their gambling decisions, and I facilitate their gambling addiction.

I said that most poker players don't have a gambling problem, and I won't let the weakness of the few ruin the game for the rest of us. She said it doesn't matter exactly how many people have a gambling problem because I'm still harming those who do.

When I brought up her arguments to another friend of mine, he made the point that my sister was essentially comparing me to a drug dealer, profiting from addicts who don't know better or can't control themselves.

How should we as poker players resolve this dilemma? Do we try to remain blissfully ignorant of our contributions to perpetuating gambling addiction? Should we rationalize the negative consequences of our actions as an inevitable outcome of the game? Can we claim that if we weren't taking our opponents' money, someone else would? Should we give a portion of our winnings to charity in an effort to offset the harm we may be doing? Can I argue that I have as much of a gambling problem as anyone, and therefore everyone is on an even playing field?

Or perhaps there's only one way to stay morally pure: quit playing.


$mokkee said...

poker is a business.

Businesses compete against each other all the time. the business that's best prepared with efficient resources and a good plan wins...

most of the time.

DuggleBogey said...

A fool and his money are soon parted.

An addict/loser is going to find a way to be irresponsible about himself and his money.

Someone is getting that money, it might as well be you. It's not like if you don't take it nobody else will.

Your argument is still essentially good. The game is not going to stop because of a few people who are unable to take responsibility for themselves. Not playing because of this solves nothing. Taking the money and doing good with it is the best you can do.

Ryverrat said...

Dammit I cant get my head around the right answer for this one.

I had never looked at it in this way. Your sister has got a point.

We purposely try to hunt out the fish. We are looking for the weak, the drunk, the aggro monkey and sitting them to our right with the soul purpose to take their cash before anyone else does.

I guess if you could have knowledge that every player says they are not a gambling addict and know the risks associated with the game that this would make it a less moral issue. But lets be honest when you are online and staring at an avatar of someone the other side of the world, do you really care. They are someone else's problems.

Tough one.

The Poker Meister said...

Screw it. Life isn't fair or black & white. People are responsible for their own decisions - we shouldn't be forced to protect them from themselves. That's why a motorcycle helmet law is stupid.

Capitalism, baby...

Mondogarage said...

Who says we've ever taken down a gambling addict? Your sister seems to be implying that all fish are junkies, and not just bad players.

I dunno about you, but I'm not sure I've ever taken a pot away from someone who just tossed their subprime mortgage payment into the pot.

The two are different beasts entirely.

And, in the end, your decision to play or not should not impact my decision to play, or not.

James said...

your sister's argument is a straw man. Are high street stores immoral because they take the money of shopaholics?

Easycure said...

Morality...all that word represents is somebody projecting their version of good or bad onto you (or you onto them).

You cannot control what addicts do, the only control you have is what you do.

Life is short, so check-raise.

SirFWALGMan said...

If you go down that path your going to have to give up strippers because are not a portion of them drug addicted sex slaves that have no self esteem and your taking advantage of them?

I think you give enough back on your blackjack and slot machine addiction to make up for the bad karma of the one poker addict you happen to take advantage of. It is even steven. You can sleep well tonight.

Absinthe said...

Does your sister think capitalism is immoral? Because it can't exist without exploitation, by definition. If you don't sell a product for more than it's worth there's no profit, so you either have to overcharge the customer or underpay the worker.

Draw a line you're comfortable with.

Lucypher said...

There are no moral phenomena at all, only moral interpretation of phenomena. - F. Nietzsche

By winning an opponent’s money, we may be preventing him from doing something worse – like buying crack, getting high, and beating his wife. You just never know.

An essential element of freedom is that people are also free to make bad decisions.

Klopzi said...

Tell your sister that if you don't take their money, I will. And I won't be half as kind as you are about it!

And if I ever find myself facing off against you from across the felt and you're still questioning the morality of poker, let me just say that I have a gambling problem and you should let me win.

kurokitty said...

I read this on my Blackberry while in an Avis rental car shuttle at the airport and my first thought was something along the lines of enemy combatants: Dude, don't pick up the AK if you don't want to be shot.

But it's not as clear cut as being a straight up businessman, as there aren't any stigmas against running most regular businesses.

For most people though, I'd say the upwards of 95 percent of the people you and I play against, poker is fun if it isn't profitable.

We all do have a responsibility to make sure addicted gamblers stay away from the tables.

We can tell people like your sister that we support the industry's efforts to continue to make the game fun for people, including 800 number hotlines and even voluntary restraints that keep people from being able to play for a period of time.

We can use poker's profits to donate more to charities, to help the greatest number of people possible just by being proficient at a game.

There will always be inequities n life. You can go so far to say that every time you benefit from anything, someone else is hurt.

We can tell those people who insist otherwise that we can have it both ways -- the ability to be successful in our careers (poker) while still being a good citizen of the world.

Alan aka RecessRampage said...

This post tilts me...

Good or bad is in the eye of the beholder and I hate it when someone judges me for what I do based on their biased morals which is no better than anyone else's. If someone kills for a religious cause is that good or bad? Basically, everything in like could be flipped as good or bad. If someone donates billions of dollars to a charity, is that person better than someone who gives a $100? What if billions is only .01% of someone's net worth and $100 is 1% of someone's net worth? Does that make that person better? Or is the act of giving good enough to be "good"? What if they had alterior motives? I could go on and on. In other words, we're not fueling the fire that is the gambling problem. We're merely pawns to the machine that fuels the gambling problem that is poker. If she thinks you are bad for playing poker, I sure hope you don't ever purchase alcohol (profits businesses that contribute to alcoholism), play the lottery or even buy tickets as gifts (or any other form of gambling), or... again, the whole discussion is also pointless. It's like one's opinion on gun control. If you have an opinion, there's nothing anyone can say to you that will change your mind.

Phew. Rant over.

Marie said...

Hi everyone. I'm the sister. :) And I'll take on all of you and your rationalizations -- to a point, at least.

I'm sorry, a lot of your points are weak ones, from where I stand, logically/ethically: that those disadvantaged people out there will get screwed over by someone, it might as well be me (or you)... that it's not the poker player's responsibility to look out for others' well-being... basically that people are (or should be) responsible for their own well-being...etc. Most of these are more or less convenient rationales designed to make it easier for each of us to blame the victim in any circumstance.

Some comments, which my brother brought to my attention specifically, countered with the question of whether similar paradigms, such as capitalism and its sundry advantage-taking mechanisms ("high street stores" were one example), are to be considered ethically problematic also.

To that I answer yes, they are.

That said, consider the following: Our environment no doubt has an influence on each and every one of us. So on one hand, we have a good degree of freedom with which to choose our actions, keeping in mind the affect those actions might have on others. (To a point at least.) On the other hand, capitalism is structured to prefer certain people in certain classes and circumstances over others. Those with money, resources, social networks, of good mental capacity, etc. are much more likely to continue accruing these than the individual with less or none. This is where the tough part comes in with regard to poker specifically, because you as a player can almost never know the degree of the others' mental states.

While I don't intend to come off as a bigot, a prude or an ethics expert, in my opinion the quality of an individual's ethical standpoint rests on how he/she answers this question. Many of you might not consider this stuff on a regular basis, but at the same time I'm sure it's nothing new.

It might not be a bad idea to rethink it through from time to time.

Shamburglar said...

If playing poker is the most immoral thing I do in a day then I'm having an off day.

Marie said...

I didn't say anything about moral extremity, just that it's unethical.

Fuel55 said...

Never thought of it that way.

But with that said, preying on the weak (whatever form they take) is driver of the natural world.

Shamburglar said...

But seriously, you are actually doing the addict a favor. They will never recover from their disease until they hit rock bottom. You are just facilitating the process.

And we all enjoy people who are a mess. Who didn't know that the 88% concentration dude was going to go complete busto and sell his house? Is it more immoral to enjoy watching him self destruct or then to seek him out at the tables and expedite the process?

Either way you need to decide if something as subjective as morals gets in the way of personal responsibility. You may take responsibility for "taking advantage" of them, but they have to be (fiscally) responsible for putting the mobneys at the table in the first place.

And does is have a monetary restriction? My donking around at tiny tables taking fish's mobneys $25 at a time will not make them have to sell the kids into chattel slavery. But if you bust them for $1k does is make a difference?

I guess I'm saying there are no moral absolutes. If you decide to quit playing to maintain your moral upper ground you can choose to do so. But, as many other people have pointed out, there will be somebody from the wait list who sees it differently to replace you.

Wow, that was rambling and disjointed. Remember what Dr. Horrible said, "the status is not...quo."

spritpot said...

I am tilted as well. I have absolutely zero problem with playing poker to separate idiots from their money. Especially because sometimes they will lay horrific beats on me and win some back.

Maybe some of them do have geniune gambling problems but...I really couldn't care less about their problems. If it were somebody I cared about, I wouldn't do it. Like if I had the opportunity to play a high stakes game with friends or relatives that I knew they couldn't afford, I would decline. But I don't know these people at all. You're asking me to care about them to the extent that I'd harm myself (by not taking their money), even when they will harm themselves anyway (by losing their money to others), just because they have opposable thumbs? Sorry, no dice. It's not as if their life is on the line in a $1/2 or $2/4 game.

If that makes me immoral or unethical, according to you, fine. Again, I couldn't care less. The world is not a moral or ethical place. Morals and ethics are crutches that humans use to help them get through life, which is too complicated for anybody to really make sense out of.

You think capitalism is bad because it favors smart, hard-working, well-connected people? Umm...who else are you looking to favor? Brown-nosing apparatchiks? The emperor's nephews? Meritocracy with a safety net is the nuts. Sure some people are going to end up better educated and better connected because they started off in better circumstances. Does that mean they're supposed to then try to get dumber in order to give everyone else a better chance? Or just not take the money that's offered to them, that they are able to earn, because their parents were able to foot some tuition bills? There's a Kurt Vonnegut short story out there about this, which you should read, because it's basically the logical extention of your argument. I can't remember the title, but it should be easy enough to find.

I don't deny that in this country some people have it a lot easier than others. But look around at the rest of the world. Any of the other places you might want to be born into a family of lower socio-economic standing is also essentially capitalist. If you want to argue this point, I would be more than happy to engage you.

It's misplaced, uninformed, do-gooder sentiments like yours that have banned online poker in a fit of self-righteousness.

In any case, poker is different from capitalism because the economy is a POSITIVE SUM GAME. If I get to be a smart productive person, that benefits me if I use that to do a good job at something, but it benefits others as well. I produce stuff, others buy it, we're both happy. In poker, when one person wins, another must lose. I'm not selling a pot to that I win to someone else. They're just losing. Maybe I'm selling them the entertainment of playing with me, but that's all you could say. In any case, I'm glad they play, whatever their motives are, and I will continue to play as long as they do. Hopefully sitting on their left.

Marie said...

Let's not get onto the whole debate of subjectivity and levels of things. That serves no purpose but to distract from the main point: that playing poker involves yourself in taking from those less resourced to win than you. In my opinion this behavior is unethical because it will harm others. Either you are open to the concept of social responsibility or you aren't. If you're not, there's no point in arguing further. (I get a mental picture of dashboards bedecked with Ronald Reagan bobbleheads.)If you are, then you will consider tempering your actions to the best foreseeable advantage for all involved.
That's all.

spritpot said...'s a game, ok? The idea is to win. Do you let other people win at Monopoly just because they'll feel better? Should I be petitioning the guys that are better than me to leave my tables because it's unethical of them to take advantage of me?

Is it just because it's for money that you're squeamish about it? Be clear about your objection. Are you worried that some of these people are somehow irrational because they have a gambling addiction? Or you think it's unfair that I have either worked harder at my game or am more naturally gifted than they are?

For instance, if it were the case that opponents were gambling with money that they could afford, and enjoyed doing it, would you still object?

FWIW, I'm no fan of Reagan. Like I said, I believe in meritocracy with a safety net. Reagan weakened the safety net, and some might argue weakened the meritocracy part too.

SubZero said...

Such an interesting debate, and so many things to say.

I play poker for a living. However, I do believe in social responsibility.

I manage to work with a clear conscience because I keep an eye out for those people in my life who might have a gambling (or drinking, or drug, etc.) problem. If I spot someone who does, I would of course do my best to help that person. But I can't help everyone who has a problem - one person cannot police the world.
If everyone was like me, and looked after their own friends, then I'm pretty sure the number of dangerous gambling addicts would dramatically decrease.

Some people however won't help their friends or neighbours, and some who do try will get ignored. Should I feel bad about either of those facts? No. I do the right thing, and that is really all I can do.

You may as well feel guilty about having a drink in a bar for fear that bar may speed someone towards becoming an alcoholic.

Marie, I understand you, but I think you have spent too much time in a country where people are absolved of their personal responsibilities, and where people believe an individuals problems can only be solved via external intervention.

People who are too lazy to take remedial steps to improve their own lives shouldn't expect and demand the help of others. God helps those who help themselves.

Butch Howard said...

The grocer is not compelled to close nor the shoppers to stop buying because some people cannot control their eating habits and become obese. Neither the grocer nor the shoppers are immoral.

The person that encourages the obese person to eat even more is immoral.

As with the grocers, the casino owner is certainly not being immoral in proving a venue for us to freely meet and play a fair game. Nor is it immoral for him to take his fee for providing that service.

We sitting at the tables, virtual or real, are unlikely to be able to tell in most cases which of the people across the felt have a problem. We know that most people do not have gambling problems so it is not immoral for us to assume the best case and play on.

It would be immoral if we knew for certain that a specific individual had a problem, had a bankroll to lose, and yet still encouraged him to play a game. Even worse if it were a game that we were going to profit from. This certainly happens, and it is certainly wrong when it does.

Marie said...

Thank you for your comments. I'm enjoying this debate.

There are a few significant differences that I think are worth pointing out between poker playing and examples like the grocery store, the drug dealer (in the original post) and the alcohol consumer.

The grocery store example shows a case in point: it's difficult to impossible to know what's going on with the others at the table, especially where the Internet comes in. That distance element makes it very easy to assume they're equipped to take the risk that they are in approaching the table in the first place, when this may be far from the truth. You may argue that most people can be judged well equipped to play, but this is a big assumption to make, especially in a society where mental illness (and health in general) is disproportionately untreated in the lower classes and affordable, quality resources for treatment are often unavailable to those who most need them.

About the comparison between poker playing and overeating/alcohol use/drug dealing: Poker playing is a behavior and not a substance. While drug dealers can more reliably know they are selling to people with subtance dependency problems, and alcohol/food (over-)consumers can expect to get the buzz or euphoria they're seeking, neither of these conditions can be so easily perceived in poker. The element of luck involved in the game, along with its convenient anonymity and increasing ease of access with the introduction of online gaming venues, further obscures the players' levels of familiarity with each other. (Not to mention that winning, as a conditioning mechanism, tends to function in a self-justifying way and without the same precautionary campaigns that are given to obesity, alcoholism and substance abuse in general.)

As I discussed with my brother earlier today, few people (I would hope) would play poker with their loved ones if they knew it would hurt them. Not knowing is where things get problematic.

Bayne_S said...

Poker is Darwinism, there is nothing immoral about the lion taking down the weakest or slowest water buffalo. It is all part of survival.

The weak players need to learn to adapt or leave or generate enough ad revenue like waffles to stick around.

Each hand is a paid lesson in poker that the winner of the hand imparts on the loser.

No free lessons.

Owen said...

I think the most striking thing about the arguments against Marie is the presumption that, putting aside concerns over feeding other people's addictions, poker is a morally neutral activity. A lot of people seem to imply that, because poker is not immoral, it is a wholly justifiable pursuit. Further justifications, once addiction-feeding is taken into account, seem to all center on the "personal responsibility" and "social statics" argument that one man cannot alter his own behavior just because another man may suffer harm from it (or even worse, the concept that the enabler is doing the addict a favor by enabling him).

I love when I read someone saying "I play poker for a living." It makes me long for the day when I can play Nintendo for a living.

Let's put it this way: say we have two patients in a hospital with failing kidneys, both in desperate need of a transplant. The two patients are men, of the same age and background, and the only significant difference is that one is a journalist and the other supports himself by playing poker. I get into a car accident and die, and my kidney is now up for grabs. Who should we give it to? Let's put it to a vote. Democracy can decide who gets the kidney.

Who does society benefit more from keeping alive? The same goes for questions of morality. It isn't just a question of feeding an addiction, because the grocery store doesn't open its doors with the amoral goal of solely reaping the most efficient profit it can from the land with no concerns for sustainability. The grocery store, in its primitive initial form, intended only to provide a service for the community and render a subsistence for the grocer. I will grant in today's megacorporate world, short-sighted profiteering seems to be the order of the day, but that just invites the false dilemma that you either subscribe to all evils of society, or none of them. We've still got lots of good reasons to shop at the grocery store. What are our reasons for playing poker?

Boo said...

Hei :)

"she suggested that poker is immoral."

People play poker, for alot of different reasons.

I play because of the rush, competition & challenge it has to offer. Just like any other sport. I like to win, It's in my Nature.

Is it wrong/unfair for a predator to seek for a weaker prey?
I don't think so...

"She said it's wrong for a skilled player to take advantage of an opponent who has a gambling problem"

Poker is about strategy & not gambling!!
Those who think, they can win at poker by gambling, they deserve to loose...

Woof. . . .

moi erives said...

well i think this is probably immoral as well but i don't want to retype my opinion?

Jamil said...

Tell your sister that your actually helping the gambler, by making him/her realize they have a gambling problem. The first step to quit anything bad is admitting that he/she is addicted.

Your only one of many, who is helping the gambler realize that he/she should quit.

Also, not everyone who loses are addicts. Some just play as a hobby.