All In

Posted on November 29, 2010


I’m not a good poker player.  This is not my fault, necessarily.  Much of the blame falls a to genetics- I was tragically born with no math skills.  I’m the only person I know that’s currently receiving abacus catalogs.  When I calculate the tip at a restaurant, I usually just chuck anything I can remember from my math career at it (“….carry the one….as the limit approaches x….then find the slope…and take the absolute value to convert to radians…”), then scribble down a random number and walk out, sweaty and disheveled like a Mafia informant in a roomful of cell phone cameras.  This mathematical disability prevents me from executing complex gambling maneuvers such as counting cards or tabulating odds, as well as less sophisticated endeavors such as navigating the casino buffet.

My other hindrance as a poker player is my inability to read tells.  A tell is when a poker player gives away the strength of their hand through an unknowing physical gesture or movement, such as an eye roll or a cough.  Good poker players can spot even the subtlest of tells and use them to their advantage.  I, on the other hand, read body language with the ease of the Cyrillic alphabet.   A usual hand of poker, for me, involves scrutinizing a player’s potential tell ( such as placing the cards in the middle of the table and asking if anyone else needs a beer), then evaluating whether it is a “bluff”.  This process goes on until I decide to bet heavily, a move known as “raising”, at which point the other players helpfully remind me that that particular hand ended several hours ago, and that since then they have been betting on my behalf, I am now out of money, and they need more beers.  So you have to watch out when looking for tells, because the other players will steal from you.

Still, I enjoy gambling.  I’m especially fascinated with the concept of the riverboat casino.  Although unpopular in states with limited water access, the riverboat casino is very popular in states where logic has not yet been popularized.  How is putting the gambling establishment on the water any different than building it on land?  Do people think that the liquid acts as a moat to prevent sin from getting to the mainland?  I can easily imagine a scenario where a state legislator justifies riverboat casinos by saying that he has found scientific research showing that compulsive gamblers are afraid of water.

In that spirit of enjoyment, I occasionally play poker with my co-workers or friends.  I am always welcome in these games, and my friends love to invite me, because my presence means free money.  It is the equivalent of watching a fresh bag of twenty dollar bills walk into your home and immediately distribute itself to everyone until there is nothing left and a little moth flies out of the bag.  Those of you with teenage daughters will understand the feeling.

Those of you with teenage daughters will also understand that one advantage of poker is that the men playing it as a profession are not what you would call “heartthrobs”, or even “allowed to buy just one seat on a airplane.”  Most other sports are played by highly skilled athletes, and those athletes are required to spend hours in weight rooms working on muscle groups even Renaissance sculptors were unaware of.  By contrast, the most powerful muscles on a poker player tend to be the ones associated with buying hoodies and sunglasses.  As a group, poker players have the raw sexual charisma of a gecko, and similar physical shapes.  So the odds that a professional poker player will end up shirtless on a poster in your daughter’s room are extremely small.

Regardless of skill level, pros and amateurs alike each have had a chance to experience poker’s own unique adrenaline rush, one of the most exciting moments in all of sports: going ‘all in’.

One of the easiest words to define in the Bible is ‘faith’.  We may thrash about attempting definitions of thornier words like ‘sin’ and ‘free will’.  But if the question is ‘What is faith?’, a person need not stagger off to the theological library, resigned to yet another night of angst lost amid dusty tomes of God-speak.  He need only to turn to the book of Hebrews for the answer, in one of the most famous verses in the Bible.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

Jim Elliot understood this assurance.  He took it  and ran with it all the way to the jungles of South America, where he evangelized the Auca Indians and eventually died in the effort.  His most famous quote, no small part of his legend as one of 20th century Christianity’s most dynamic believers, echoes this conviction:  “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Most Christians probably wish their faith experiences were of the ‘He is no fool’ variety.  I can’t name a single Christian that yearns for a faith of a more milquetoast, shrinking-violet variety.  We want to be stronger, not weaker.  Yet I would suggest that for myself and most Christians, our experience falls somewhere short of Jim Elliot’s boldness.  And most of us, if asked, could quote Hebrews 11 by heart.  Jim Elliot was a man who, on the surface, knew what it meant to bet everything he had on God.  He knew how to go all-in, and it sounds so simple to get there.  What are we missing?

We’re missing the full meaning of going all-in.  Hebrews 11 is only half of the story on faith.  The other half is found in 2 Corinthians 4, Paul’s letter to a church in Greece.

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair;  persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.

So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.   It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself.

In this section of his letter, Paul explains to the Corinthian church the different ways that he and his fellow missionaries have suffered for the sake of the Gospel.   But notice the contrast in each explanation:  “hard pressed/not crushed….perplexed/not in despair….persecuted/not abandoned, etc.”  The promise of resilience is paired with a stated hardship.  The static definition of faith, as provided by Hebrews, is here in 2nd Corinthians given a real-life context.  There is no such thing as simple belief, Paul seems to be saying.  It always comes in response to something.  Faith never happens in a vacuum.

The realities of poker bear out this fullness.  In a professional poker game, players typically go all-in after their starting hand has been strengthened by subsequent cards.  They have ‘read’ their opponents tells and their betting patterns, and calculated the likelihood that the other player has the better hand.  Their all-in call is the result of advanced reasoning patterns sometimes associated with chess-playing computers.  By contrast, in the home games I’ve played in, most all-in calls are the result of either extreme luck (“I thought I had a six, but it’s really a nine!  All in!”) or the realization that if that man does not get home in the next ten minutes, their wives, via the miracle of the judicial system, will take half their stuff.

But in both cases, the players have no idea what the other guy has in his hand.  The outcome is uncertain.  They have wagered everything against something unknown.  They have gone all-in.  And they could lose.

This possibility of loss is the source of the ‘all-in’ tension in our faith.  It is the place where the hypothetical hope of Hebrews meets the reality of a 2nd Corinthians world that Paul talked about.   The British philosopher G.K. Chesterton understood this tension:

Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate. It is true that there is a state of hope which belongs to bright prospects and the morning; but that is not the virtue of hope. The virtue of hope exists only in earthquake and, eclipse….For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all, or begins to exist at that moment. Exactly at the instant when hope ceases to be reasonable it begins to be useful.

We have believed in a known God while we live in an unknown world.  And so faith is the act of going all-in with God when we have no idea what the odds are, when we have no clue about the possible outcome.  We rest our elbows on the felt table of our lives, and we push all our chips to the middle.  Our wager is on God, repeatedly, in hopeless circumstances, and the essence of faith is of doing this over and over again, second after second, in all our moments going all-in with every hand.

The “He is no fool” faith of Jim Elliot’s quote and Hebrews 11 eludes us because it simplifies what the life of faith is.  We are in a battle, not to intellectually understand the clear teaching of the Bible, but to see it in the midst of life circumstances like the ones Paul describes.  And so instead we cling to an “all in” faith, one which asks us to practice Godly betting patterns:  play our cards of Hebrews 11 hope in the face of 2nd Corinthians odds.

Poker shows us the dynamic of God’s faith game- no matter the cards, no matter the pot, whether it looks promising or hopeless, bet big.  Go all in on the wager God has promised will always pay off.  I have a musician acquaintance who sings these words: “…hope hears the music of the future before it’s played; faith is the courage to dance to it today”.  I hope he’s okay with the fact that I think it’s about gambling.

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