Sunday, December 20, 2009


One of my readers has been playing in the same weekly poker game for more than 10 years - "same guys, same place, same middling stakes," he writes - but these days it isn't the same. One of his poker buddies is showing signs of mental confusion, and his game has deteriorated.

"It was never good," my reader writes, asking that his name not be used to protect "the sanctity of the table." "Now it's worse."

The other player is losing money every week, a couple of hundred dollars each time.

"When I suggested to the guy who runs the game, an old friend of his, that perhaps we shouldn't be playing with him," my reader reports, "I was told that he enjoyed the game and who was I, or anyone, to deprive him of that?"

The whole thing makes my reader queasy, but he doesn't want to give up the game, which he also enjoys.

"So what's the ethical thing to do?," he asks.

It can be harrowing, of course, to watch a friend's mental health deteriorate. My reader's plight is compounded by the fact that he may be taking advantage of his friend's diminished faculties at the poker table. It's one thing to realize that a friend can't think as sharply as before, quite another to be pocketing a few bucks as a result.

Given the hand he's been dealt, my reader did the right thing by expressing his concerns to the game organizer, especially since he's an old friend of the player in question. When faced with a tough ethical choice, it's usually a good idea to consult with others who might be closer to the situation or who might be able to suggest alternative ways to respond.

But now that the organizer has made clear that he has no plans to cut off his weakened friend, my reader has a new choice to make. Should he continue on in the game, knowing that he might win a hand or two at the expense of a guy who's no longer at his best, or should he walk away?

So long as the aging player is aware enough of his surroundings to understand that he's losing consistently, there's no obligation for my reader to protect him. If he chooses to continue to play in a game in which he's no longer able to compete, that's his decision.

Therefore, at the moment, the question is simply one of my reader's feelings: Does the joy he gets from playing with his longtime poker buddies outweigh the uneasiness he feels about one player's situation? If the answer is yes, he should continue to play with a clear conscience. If the answer is no, he should withdraw from the game, also with a clear conscience.

Even if he continues in the game, however, this isn't a one-time decision. If the other player's capabilities continue to deteriorate, at some point my reader may want to reopen the issue with the game's host or to talk to some of the other players to get their sense of whether it's time to cut the fellow off.

For now, my reader reports, he has decided that, having spoken his piece, he will continue playing because the game brings joy to him and apparently also to his struggling friend.

In fact, shortly after our initial e-mail exchange, I heard from my reader again.

"Last night," he wrote, "my `diminished' player went on an insane rush - full houses, flushes, trips and quads falling into his fist with astounding regularity - and he won a couple of hundred bucks. Sure, he called his full houses `straights' and he gibbered, but he still won."

As it turns out, a good chunk of his winnings came from my friend's pocket.

"Sharp old me managed to lose about $160," he writes. "But that's poker."

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)


Sean O'Leary said...

I'm bewildered that you posed the writer's problem as an either/or -- win at the expense of the weakened player or walk away from the game altogether. This is not only a false dilemma, but neither of these options compassionately addresses the more important underlying problem. That problem is that a friend is suffering from diminished faculties and he may not be aware of it. He may attribute his losses at poker to simple bad luck. As the writer says, "That's poker."

The player's friends who see his deterioration owe it to him to bring their concerns to his attention so that, if he is not already aware, he has the opportunity to make his own choices, not only about staying in the poker game, but about the more fundamental life issues such as seeking treatment, discussing the problem with his family, and so on.

Of course, anyone who approaches the man about his deteriorating condition risks giving offense. Feelings may be hurt and relationships severed, but isn't that a risk worth taking if doing so has the potential to help the man deal with a serious problem whose severity he may not realize and of which his losses at poker may be only a minor consequence compared to others?

The writer needs to summon up the courage to approach the man directly and discreetly. If the man is already aware of his condition, he will probably respond by assuring the writer of his awareness and thanking him for his concern. If he is not aware of the condition, he may thank the writer or may angrily dismiss him, but either way the man will have been given a chance to recognize and deal with his problem. That is far more important than a poker game.

Sean O'Leary

Bill Jacobson said...

I thoroughly second Sean's comments but there is another option. If your writer and/or his friends enjoy this guy's company and the game but feel that they are taking advantage of their friend who also appears to be enjoying the game, couldn't the writer and/or his friends give back some of what they see as 'ill-gotten gains', that is if their friend will take it.

Consider that your friend gets entertainment value out of this also and that may well be worth the losses, even if he is at a disadvantage... and of course he may well win sometimes.

Bill Jacobson
Cypress, CA