Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Ethical Dilemma with Poker

There was an aspect of poker that bothered me, or more succinctly put, gnawed on me. For me, it was the proverbial elephant in the room, my bad conscience and something that I most times avoided even thinking about, because I didn't particularly like where the train of thought took me. But sometimes it's good to challenge one's demons, and in this particular case, I discovered that my demon was fictional.

What troubled me is the idea that when I play poker, I don't contribute to society. That's it, in its simplest form. In the best case scenario I'm just taking money - value - that someone else has created from the system and putting it in my own pocket. That made me feel like a thief. In the worst case scenario, someone else is winning my money. That made me feel like a loser.

See, when I make money doing what I actually do for a living - creating software for set top boxes - I contribute to the GDP of Sweden and the world. When I make money playing poker, I don't contribute. This constituted a great ethical dilemma for me, because I need to feel useful. I think I made the connection that playing poker isn't useful, and if I'm not useful, I'm a leech. Therefore, playing poker makes me a leech.

But I don't think this is true anymore. Or at least sort-of not.

Why would playing poker be a worse pastime than, for instance, playing golf? Well, okay, besides the obvious reasons (one is highly stressful, the other usually relaxing, one is done sitting on your ass in front of your computer or in a smoke filled casino, the other is out exercising in Mother Nature), but looking at it from a macro economical perspective, both are activities that for the majority of people cost money and take time. Both are volontary. And both are hobbies, of sorts.

A lot of people play poker and lose money. They may not particularly want to (or even think they do) lose money, but in effect they're paying to play cards as a hobby. If this was like golf, everyone would lose money in the form of green fees, membership costs, equipment, cost of getting to and from the golf course, etc. so why should it bother me that instead of all the "fees" that people incur from playing poker just going into the game itself, some of it goes to me? In fact, most everyone who plays do it with the hope that they'll be the ones who have a good day.

I should not feel guilty about having more good days than others. I've worked hard to earn them.

The reason it's perhaps taken me more time than most others who have thought about this to reach the conclusion that it's morally OK for me to play this game and win money is because I reached the wrong conclusion the first time I thought about it and I've been a coward and mostly avoided the thought since then.

But there you have it.

Now, there is still a potential ethical problem with poker, and that is that some of the people I play against are bound to have serious gambling problems. They might be playing with money that they need to buy food for their kids, they might be playing with stolen money and they might lose it all to me. This is a far cry from the majority of my opponents (which seems to be what the republican bible-thumpers are suggesting and Barney Franks so eloquently disagrees with) but there are bound to be some of them. For this, I still feel a sting of guilt. But even if I knew who they were - and that's borderline impossible when you're playing online - I'm not sure how to do anything about it. I'm falling back on the semi-faulty thinking that "they're not going to stop playing if I'm not there" which is essentially the same thing as saying "it's okay to do it because everyone does it."

That one I still don't know how to tackle, and I'm not sure I can or, honestly, have to. Perhaps I can accept that this is a part of the game I love and I counter that part with all the other things that are so magnificent about it. Poker is like a simulation of life itself in many aspects, and perhaps the misery of a few people are a needed reminder in the microworld that not everything is OK in the macroworld, either. A mirror of life that contains only rosy pictures is a poor mirror, after all.

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