Self-Mastery: Poker and the Holy Life

I’ll never forget the first time I dropped $500 in an underground game. I lost it all in about a half hour. I was 18 years old, ambitious and crazy addicted to the game of poker.

Imagine a time when you knew you were in deep sh*t and you continued on like nothing was wrong. Imagine if you knew exactly what you were doing, and knew that it was part of the game to continue as if losing $500 as an 18 year old kid had no affect on you.

You don’t forget those kinds of feelings. It was precisely the game of poker that suppressed these feelings, because that’s what the game demanded. You lose a big pot, you forget it and bulldoze your way through to the next hand. I found out that concupiscence, conversion, and the confessional operated similarly to how I played poker.

Some consider winning in a game of poker as an exhibit of one’s luck. I, on the other hand and many like myself, know it as a skill game. I remember some days, if I wanted to go home a winner, I would do nothing but bluff my way into winning pots; that’s if the cards weren’t falling for me. Don’t get me wrong, the cards definitely factor in, and it sure made for some eventful sessions when they fell in my favor. But when they didn’t, I had to make my own luck. Not “luck” in the traditional way we all know it, but “luck” insofar as making things happen on my own. Knowing that at a precise moment in the hand, I needed to raise and push some guy off his hand; because if I didn’t it was my @ss that would take the hit.

The game itself was addicting. The feeling one experiences when he can manipulate another person’s decision with a wrist-flick of chips into a pot was exhilarating. While I acknowledged that the game was addicting, I would have never admitted to having a gambling problem. Is it a gambling problem if you’re winning? I associated a gambling problem as a disordered and reckless approach to handling money in a game that relied solely on luck; such as, roulette or craps. Poker did not fit that criteria. Poker was all about self-mastery to me.

Sure, it was about the money too, but a large component was the ability to compose myself at will. Being able to conceal physical reactions, intentionally behave in certain ways, express interest, disinterest, or perhaps play up that kid at the table who had no idea what he was doing, and pounce when the opportunity arose. Poker required complete and utter control of self.

Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion.
— CCC 1809

This sort of self-mastery was eventually demanded of me in an entirely different way. I stopped playing poker when I decided to serve as a missionary with NET Ministries. I simply couldn’t drive to a casino for a normal six hour session, or make my way to one of the local underground games. I stopped playing poker because it wasn’t accessible to me anymore. I remember my NET Team once hosted a retreat in South Carolina, and word got out that I used to be this “quasi-poker pro.” Naturally my small group on the retreat wouldn’t shut up about it until I shared some stories.

I shared how often I played, how much money I played with, my biggest tournament win, my biggest cash game win, the scariest moments I ever had, etc.  These middle schoolers were ogling over my stories, so I decided to turn it into a teaching moment. I pulled a “Fr. Larry Richards move” and turned to one of the kids and asked,

Me: “Hey, do you love God?”
Kid: “Yeah…”
Me: “Oh, awesome. Have you prayed today?”
Kid: “Uhh...no I forgot.”
Me: “Well, that stinks. Have you eaten today?”
Kid: “Duh, of course I have.”
Me: “Sounds like you love food more than you love God.”

I turned to a few more kids and did the same thing. One kid in the small group then said…

Kid: “Hey, Nic! Do you love God?”
Me: “Of course.”
Kid: “Have you prayed today?”
Me: “Duh, I’m a Netter right now.”
Kid: “Have you played poker today?”
Me: (with a perplexed look) “...No.”
Kid: “Wow, you love God a lot.”

This was by far the most memorable moment on the road for me. I was 7 months into a new life in Christ and it took a twelve year old kid to make me realize the radical change I had gone through and where my self-mastery was oriented.

Growing up, I was very, very poorly catechized. I went to NET training completely ignorant of some basic and fundamental doctrines of the Church; how I was accepted into NET Ministries was beyond me. I was quickly introduced to a daily habit of prayer. Though, my flesh wanted otherwise, it took the same skill at the poker table to orient my ways to the ways of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

To me, the fused words of “self-mastery”, implies that one is Lord over oneself. I had trained myself to be in complete control and was capable of making something out of nothing at the poker table. Just because I wasn’t holding the best cards didn’t mean I couldn’t win the hand. While desperately trying to wean away this dependence I had upon myself, Jesus Christ made it known to me that true self-mastery can only be attained if submitted to His Lordship.

Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.
— CCC 1804

I played a lot. I was good. I won a lot of money and as a result maintained a pretty significant bankroll as a teenager playing a man’s game. I don’t play like that anymore though. I stopped playing at that intensity for many reasons, Just because someone’s got talent doesn’t mean he can’t be beat. Barry Greenstein, a long-time poker pro once said, “Math is idiotic”. We consider mathematics to be precise and to-the-point, because numbers don’t lie. Just because Barry Greenstein was a large underdog to win that pot didn’t mean he had no percentage to win. Math is idiotic because it doesn’t matter how improbable the situation is at the table, your opponent’s 1% chance of catching his card on the river, or hitting runner-runner to beat you is still a possibility.

I had every opportunity to return to the game when I left NET Ministries; but my newly reformed self-mastery enabled me to choose otherwise. I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t gone back a few times. I like to indulge every now and again. I remember one time in college, around the Spring of 2014, I couldn’t shake the urge to go play. I tried everything from playing online for funny-money to watching it on Youtube. Finally, it got to the point when I called Emily (my fiance at the time) and asked her permission to go play; I had already considered my money to be her money, so I needed her approval. She approved so long as I made enough to buy her some new shoes. She knew my past in the game all too well.

It was already 10 P.M. and I had an 8 A.M. class the next morning, but I had to go. I hadn’t played live in a while and only loaded up for $200 at a $1/$3 Pot Limit Hold ‘em game at Running Aces in Minnesota. For the next three hours, I shook off pots, made some moves, and was all-in-all rusty as hell. I was up to $300 at one point, down to $55 at another. I managed to climb my way back to ~$140 and thought to myself “I’ve had my fun.” With my itch seemingly scratched, I tried to pull away from the table but my pride got the best of me. I decided to stick around a while longer and see if I still had it in me to make things happen like I used to.

I ended up getting back to my dorm the next morning around 6 A.M., took a two hour nap and zombied my way to my 8 A.M. class. I haven’t played like that again since. It was awesome. I felt like an ex-athlete who proved to the world that he still had it. When I went through my years on NET I made it a point to distract myself from that game. I’ll indulge every once in awhile, but the occurrences come few and far in between. I had bought in for $200 and walked out with a little over $900 that night. I texted Emily with a picture of the cash asking, “Is this enough?”

While nights like those used to be a regular occurrence for me, I now take pride in the nights I spend with Jesus instead. We all know it’s not easy staying disciplined. Staying near to Jesus is probably one of the most difficult things one could undertake. All it takes is just one slip-up and we’re back in the confessional. There were four things I constantly had to ask myself when playing poker:

1) What do I have?
2) What don’t I have?
3) What do I need to do?
4) How do I need to do it?

I now find myself asking the same questions every day in prayer as I strive to orient myself back to Jesus. The will is an amazing faculty. One of my professors in Rome, who happened to also be the Pope’s Moral Theologian, once said, “The will goes beyond it’s limits to attain a good, but we need to form the will by training the virtues of fortitude and temperance.” One shouldn’t willingly allow disorder in his life. It took a lot of fortitude and temperance to master myself at the poker table, and I’m going all-in to say that those virtues are absolutely necessary to sustain a holy life.

To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only [God] (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence).
— St. Augustine of Hippo


Nic Gutierrez works for a parish in Grapevine, Texas as the Coordinator of Music and Middle School Ministry. He is a husband, father, and a graduate of the University of St. Thomas (MN) where he earned a Bachelor of Arts iin both Catholic Studies and Theology. He loves some Jesus, music, thrift shopping, and can play a mean game of poker. Nic also started a Psalm Resource called “The Psalm Project”; you can find out more about that at www.ngutierrez.com