Stoic advice: should I keep playing poker against people who can’t afford to lose?

IMG_8272[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

J. writes: I am a fairly new aspiring Stoic and really like your blog posts. I have an analytic mind and my profession was in psychology so I enjoy the reasoning and people reading skills important in playing poker successfully. I also like the challenge and competitive nature of the game. I am fortunate to not need the money so that is not the reason for playing. In fact, all of my estate money will eventually go to charity after my immediate family’s financial needs are met. (Charitable remainder trusts). The moral dilemma for me is playing against people (and possibly taking their money) who may be playing with money they can ill afford to lose. Would a Stoic give up playing poker in card rooms or casinos?

Good question, and I would say that the answer is clearly yes. You cannot control what other people do, of course, so it may very well be that your disengagement with the activity will not save anyone from financial ruin. But you do control your own judgments and decisions, and I see no Stoic support for the practice, and a few positive reasons against it.

The obvious way to look at it, of course, is through the lens of preferred and dispreferred indifferents. It would seem to me that enjoying the game of poker for relaxation is a (mild) preferred indifferent, meaning that it doesn’t directly improve your virtue, but it’s a way to amuse yourself and even sharpen your analytical skills, both of which are indirect contributors to virtue. After all, Epictetus went to the baths to have a good time (Enchiridion 4).

(I do think that the human mind requires relaxation and entertainment in order for the individual to maintain a healthy mind, and the latter is necessary for arriving at virtuous judgments.)

The problem is that potentially taking money away from people who may be addicted to the game and may risk financial ruin is more than just a dispreferred indifferent, it is an example of unvirtuous behavior. This quote from Marcus seems appropriate here: “Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.” (Meditations, IX.12)

Or this one: “As you yourself are a component part of a social system, so let every act of yours be a component part of social life.” (Meditations, IX.23)

Social reason and social life definitely do not require aiding people’s compulsions and possibly causing them and their families financial distress. On the contrary.

Another way to look at it is that by potentially taking advantage of fellow human beings in pursuit of amusement you are violating the doctrine of oikeiosis as formulated for instance by Hierocles (apologies for the long quotation):

“Each of us is, as it were, circumscribed by many circles; some of which are less, but others larger, and some comprehend, but others are comprehended, according to the different and unequal habitudes with respect to each other. For the first, indeed, and most proximate circle is that which everyone describes about his own mind as a centre, in which circle the body, and whatever is assumed for the sake of the body, are comprehended … The second from this, and which is at a greater distance from the centre, but comprehends the first circle, is that in which parents, brothers, wife, and children are arranged. The third circle from the centre is that which contains uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers, and the children of brothers and sisters … But the outermost and greatest circle, and which comprehends all the other circles, is that of the whole human race … It is the province of him who strives to conduct himself properly in each of these connections to collect, in a certain respect, the circles, as it were, to one centre, and always to endeavor earnestly to transfer himself from the comprehending circles to the several particulars which they comprehend.”

Hierocles continues with some practical advice on how to begin to “contract” the circles of concern:

“It is requisite, likewise, to add a proper measure conformably to the general use of appellations, calling indeed cousins, uncles and aunts, by the name of brothers, fathers and mothers; but of other kindred, to denominate some uncles, others the children of brothers or sisters, and others cousins, according to the difference of age, for the sake of the abundant extension which there is in names. For this mode of appellation will be no obscure indication of our sedulous attention to each of these relatives; and at the same time will incite, and extend us in a greater degree, to the contraction as it were of the above mentioned circles.”

So, if you truly think of the people you play poker with as your brothers and sisters, would you in good conscience subject your actual brothers and sisters to the risk of financial ruin in order to satisfy your pleasure to exercise your analytical skills? Fortunately, the answer is simple: play poker for no money, or for nominal amounts only. You will then not be doing anything unvirtuous, and you will still be able to derive enjoyment from the game.


4 thoughts on “Stoic advice: should I keep playing poker against people who can’t afford to lose?

  1. Paul Braterman

    I think J may well have realised more or less how you would reply, or he/she would not have been moved to ask.

    Nonetheless, it is very helpful to see the moral reasoning set out in context

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beth

    Instead of playing ring games… play tournaments. These are affordable and have a limit on loss… but still offer the pleasures of the game. Most casinos and card rooms have them. There are even free roll tournies sometimes.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sophia Shapira

    Interestingly enough, the concept that Epictetus illustrates in Enchiridon 4 — in Discourses 2:5 – it is gambling that he uses to illustrate this same concept. (At least, that’s what I understand him to mean by a game of dice.)

    Though I like your suggestion that you offer in the last paragraph of the article — as well as Beth’s suggestion. Plus – I wonder if there may be a third suggestion that combines those two.

    Liked by 1 person

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