Facing Poker

Q. Our synagogue is thinking of raising funds through a poker tournament. Is this proper? Can the rabbi take part?

A. In a previous column, we explained the basic ethical approach to gambling. According to the Talmud, the two main ethical problems with gambling are:

  1. Habitual gambling fosters a careless, “easy-come, easy-go” approach to money which erodes values of conscientiousness.
  2. Gambling often takes advantage of unsophisticated or addicted individuals who falsely believe that they have a realistic chance of winning.

Based on these ideas, we concluded that there is no problem with occasional gambling when the main motivation is to help a worthy cause, and the chance of winning is just an added incentive. And even if the motivation is for enjoyment, occasional gambling is not unethical; the gambler knows that on the whole he is likely to lose money, but for him this loss is part of his recreation budget, just like some other person may spend his money on lift tickets.

It follows that gambling on a game of skill as a fund-raiser for a worthy cause is not forbidden, as long as the participants are fully aware that participation is much more likely to cost money than to earn money. And even if a few participants are highly skilled and likely to win, that’s not a problem as long as others are fully aware of the situation. There are lots of people who are happy to risk a few dollars to test their skill against an expert.

There are still two reservations regarding the situation you mention. The first is the choice of game. We can all agree that bridge, backgammon and poker are all games which combine luck and skill. But there is a difference in the skills they require. Bridge and backgammon require analytic skills, which are appropriate to develop. Of course the ideal way to develop these talents is through Torah study, but there is nothing inherently wrong with developing them some other way.

Poker also requires analytical skill, but above all it requires skill in bluffing and dissembling. Without doubt this is a skill which we occasionally need in life, but a Torah way of life does not cultivate it. The Torah tells us to be whole-hearted in the service of God (Deuteronomy 18:13); the ideal attitude is one of candor.

We see this very clearly in the Biblical story of Jacob. The Torah praises the young Jacob as a “whole hearted man” (Genesis 25:27). Afterwards, Jacob learns that in order to overcome evil, he has to develop his cunning; perforce, he learns, with God’s help, to outwit the scheming of his father-in-law Laban (Genesis 31:7-8). But this is not his inherent quality, but rather an unfortunate necessity.

It follows that poker is a poor choice for a game for a fund-raiser.

The second issue is the participation of the rabbi. It is told that the great early Chasidic master Rav Simcha Bunim of Peschischa used to play cards with Jews who were far from their religion in order to befriend them and draw them back to observance. However, this was at the time when Rav Simcha Bunim was a businessman, before he took on a leadership role in the community.

Once a person takes upon himself community leadership, it is best to minimize public participation in activities which have a smack of triviality. This should be considered only if the rabbi’s participation might have a substantial impact on the fund-raising; for example, if the event is a chess tournament and the rabbi is a chess grandmaster whose involvement would attract many paying participants.