I'm around a number of Buddhists, though I'm not one myself. (Or, you could say, I'm an awful Buddhist who drinks, smokes, eats meat and denies being a Buddhist.) Recently, the lead teacher at the Insight Meditation Center, where I took their meditation course and occasionally attend while practicing my own form of bad Buddhism, mentioned that a Buddhist wouldn't bluff while playing poker since it was an act of false speech, and a violation of the five precepts (code of ethics) of Buddhism.
As a refresher, they are:
- Abstain from taking life.
- Abstain from taking what is not given.
- Abstain from sexual misconduct.
- Abstain from false speech.
- Abstain from fermented drink (though I would include all intoxicants).
Another poker writer I follow, who teaches an approach to poker that is remarkably Buddhist-like is Tommy Angelo. He recently published an eight part series on learning poker that mirrors the Buddhist Eightfold Path and at the end, tried to deal with the question of Buddhists playing poker.
These questions have been bouncing around in my head for some time. Would a Buddhist play poker? Would they bluff? Would they sit in a game with someone who clearly had a gambling addiction? Ultimately, I do not think that the Dalai Lama, or any other really mindful Buddhist would start playing poker. However if you are committed to playing poker, Buddhism suggests some specific ways to comport yourself at the table.
1: Abstain from taking life.
I don't think this is going to be a problem for you at the poker table, unless you know there is something you can do that will cause someone to be grievously injured. At the Palms $4/$8 game in Vegas I once saw a man have an epileptic seizure upon making the best hand, but his opponents neither knew that fact about his medical history, nor did they have an ability to cause it.
Conclusion: You can play poker without worrying about taking life.
2: Abstain from taking what is not given
This one is trickier. Assuming that you play for table stakes (what's on the table is the only thing you can bet) then you can assume that whatever chips a player buys in for are "what is given". If you buy the chips, you are making a conscious decision to offer them. In fact this means you can only play for table stakes, since if you were not, you might be in a hand and find yourself encouraging or asking an opponent to offer you something (his car, his girlfriend, that iPhone) as an asset to complete a bet.
Though I've just said it's kosher, you probably also don't want to encourage someone to bet, raise, or call while they're considering their decision. Though they've already put their chips on the table, encouraging them to put more in the middle if they're considering not to would err on the wrong side of "taking what is not given". It's also easier if you just don't talk during the hand.
Even when playing for table stakes, you might find your opponent considering a decision of whether or not to purchase more chips, or even to sit down. You must not influence this decision by encouraging him. (You are free to discourage him, especially if you think he has a gambling problem, but that's poor poker if you think you're the better player and not likely to help someone who's already standing in a casino.)
Conclusion: Do not encourage a player to play, put chips in the pot, or to buy more chips or you will be taking what is not given.
3: Abstain from sexual misconduct
Conclusion: You're not more likely to do this at the poker table than anywhere else.
4: Abstain from false speech
This is the thing you are most likely to do. Bluffing is not the issue. When you're in a hand, nobody expects you to only bet the best hand. However you can avoid talking at all and also avoid giving away any information. It's probably best to avoid lying about what you have ("Oh you better fold, I've got the nuts!")
Outside the hand you shouldn't lie. I've seen people deal with this in different ways, such as Tommy Angelo's trick of saying, "I never tell the truth when I talk about what I had". I often say absolutely nothing when asked.
There are also situations where I've seen people play the "opposite game" (I'm looking at you Chris H.), where they give bad strategy tips to novices to further impair their game. This is definitely false speech and should be avoided.
Conclusion: This is the most likely mistake, and governs everything you say outside a hand. Do not lie outside the hand.
5: Abstain from fermented drink
Conclusion: Being intoxicated isn't very good for your poker game, as it dulls your intellectual capacities. If you play a lot of poker, this is an excuse not to drink.
What's not covered?
An interesting question comes to mind: "What about berating other players for their bad play?" None of the five precepts seem to discourage you from being a jerk. And yet how could Buddhism be silent on the act of speaking in a demeaning manner about others that makes them feel unhappy?
I don't know Buddhism well enough to answer that with a reference to the dhamma (teachings of the Buddha). But I do know enough about poker to fling this truism at you, "Don't tap on the glass, it disturbs the fish". If a player is playing badly and you berate him, one of the following things will happen:
- You will become over confident and play badly against him. Bad players are dealt the same number of awesome hands as good players, and when he catches one and takes your money, you'll be on tilt.
- The act of complaining will make you more upset about his play as you spiral into tilt.
- He will notice he is playing badly (thanks to you) and play better, depriving you of equity.
- He will get up and leave altogether, depriving you of equity.
There's really no reason to berate a bad player from a poker point of view, and I doubt the Buddha would justify one, so don't do it.
If you have other suggestions about how to play poker as a Buddhist, post them in the comments!