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Not bluffing

"Not bluffing" Continued...

Issue: "Going it alone," Nov. 2, 2013

Jenkins’ latest book, I, Saul, an adult thriller that delves into the life of the biblical Paul, went on sale in August. His co-author, James MacDonald, is the senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, a church with seven campuses in the Chicago suburbs. Beyond co-writing a novel, Jenkins said he and MacDonald have also played poker together in the past, although MacDonald no longer plays.

In a sermon in November 2012, MacDonald told his congregation he began playing poker with friends several years ago, sometimes in his basement and sometimes “in public places.” When the Harvest elder board informed him some people in the church were offended by his practice, MacDonald said he wrestled over the subject for a period of time before deciding to give up poker both in public and in private.

“Up until June 2012, Pastor James played Texas Hold ’em poker with friends and on the rarest of occasions in a casino, but stopped at the request of our current elder board chairman,” said Harvest spokeswoman Sharon Kostal in a statement to WORLD. “He considers recreational games for very small amounts of money to be a matter of Christian liberty. However, he has publicly committed to having given up his personal liberty in this matter, in view of the increasingly public nature of his pastoral ministry.”

Jenkins’ son Dallas, a filmmaker who joined Harvest’s staff as media director in 2010, once told Christian novelist C.J. Darlington in an interview about his participation in tournament poker. In an email to me, Dallas called poker his “hobby” but declined to discuss it.

“Because poker is a game of skill, Dallas has studied and practiced and managed to do quite well,” said Jenkins. He identified a Global Poker Index profile belonging to Dallas that listed his lifetime earnings at $57,396, including $30,725 won during a single Los Angeles tournament in 2007. He did not speak of his son’s losses but said Dallas had been “profitable.”

Jenkins said many evangelicals have relaxed opposition to poker: “Easily half the people I play with in home games are fellow believers.” He said his entire family plays poker, and he sometimes plays at Golden Gates Casino in Black Hawk, Colo., where his youngest son, Michael, works as a dealer. The novelist said he doesn’t hide his identity: “I am known where I play, and people know I am a Christian. I share my faith. I sign and give away books.”

Jenkins declined to say how often he plays in homes or publicly, and how much money he typically spends. His own practice, Jenkins said, might not be relevant to others, and “might not be healthy to someone with an addiction or money problem. … No hobby should become an obsession.” 

Of course, the Bible has no explicit “Thou shalt not play poker” commandment. Poker is not the same as playing the slot machines: It does involve skill (although the cards are dealt randomly). Players bet chips and win them by forming the best five-card hand possible, and attempt to mislead opponents into believing their hand is better or worse than it really is. Experienced players learn to read the subtle eye movements or nervous facial expressions of opponents who may be bluffing. Although it’s not necessary to play for money, high stakes heighten suspense. (Disclosure: I once played for Skittles and have played bingo for dimes.) 

Some evangelicals see no problem in playing for small amounts of cash. Others have tended to avoid poker because of its association with gambling. From the Westminster Larger Catechism in the 1640s (which criticizes “wasteful gaming” in its question 142) to the present, many have seen gambling as a violation of the 8th commandment, “You shalt not steal”—but debates about what is wasteful, what is gambling, and what is stealing have also raged. Does a particular game create hardship to losers and their families? What is the motivation involved? What is moralism and what contributes to human flourishing or diminishing?

Asked whether it was a problem that some poker players lose so others can win, Jenkins said the same dynamic was true of sports like basketball and softball. “I would respectfully challenge anyone to find biblical justification for prohibiting playing poker for money (in moderation at amounts they can afford) while allowing spending the same amounts to play golf or engage in fantasy sports leagues,” Jenkins said in an emailed response to follow-up questions.

Tournament poker opponents would point out that while Jenkins may be able to afford the money he risks at poker, his opponents may not be able to. Barrett Duke, vice president of public policy and research at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says gambling is different from other forms of entertainment: “You are basically trying to win other people’s money, and risking the money that the Lord has entrusted to you. Plus, you’re also engaging in activity that has destroyed millions of lives.” (Duke believes poker qualifies as gambling because “the turn of the card determines who wins.”)

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