A Royal Flush?

What do you think of online poker? If I don't play with real money, is it OK?
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Q. What do you think of online poker? My youth pastor is against it. I don't always play for money, but I've been to pay sites once in a while. Is it a big deal? If I don't play with real money, is it OK?

A. Gambling is one of the fastest growing addictions in America. Some people will say online poker is different—and less harmful—than other forms of gambling. But I know it can lead to a dangerous path.

When he was 17, a guy I know named Wayne was a leader in his youth group, a successful student and an all-around good guy. He didn't play online poker much, but started to be more drawn to it. Soon, he would go to school, do his homework and then—instead of hanging with friends or family—go straight to the online poker games. He thought about poker all the time. His grades dropped. His friendships slipped. And he found himself losing large sums of money. He lied to his parents and stole money to cover losses. What started as innocent fun was now addictive and intoxicating.

Thankfully, when he got into major debt, Wayne admitted he had a problem. He had to go to Gamblers Anonymous and therapy to work through his broken-down life. The addictive nature of gambling took Wayne by surprise. He says that flirting with gambling—even seemingly innocent online poker—is not worth it.

Of course, not everyone who gambles becomes an addict like Wayne. But there are risks. If you enjoy gambling, ask yourself: Do I find myself gambling daily? Do I think about it a lot? What is healthy and unhealthy about my gambling? As I pray about this, what do I honestly feel God saying? If you don't like your answers to these questions, you need to talk to a trusted adult.

Now, is poker OK if you aren't betting money? While I don't have a problem with playing card games offline, I have two concerns with online poker. One is the potential to gamble that poker poses. Like Wayne, the temptation could start small and grow. Some Christians would advise you to totally stay away from the game in real life or online, but I think you can enjoy poker as a game with friends as long as you don't bet money.

This brings me to my second concern: playing poker online with strangers. Why? It's more tempting to gamble when you're on your own than playing in the living room with some friends. You may also get bored playing without risk; the rush or joy could fade without "money on the table." Taking innocent-seeming little steps could lead to trouble. So be on guard. Sometimes we can think we're walking on solid ground only to realize we're in a mudslide leading us down.

Jim is an author, longtime youth worker and founder of HomeWord, a group seeking to honor God through strong families.

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