Many people associate gambling with partying. Casinos are a go-to destination for weekend partygoers, as they often supply free alcohol, entertainment, and music to keep patrons happy. Hollywood historically reinforced that stereotype by pairing gambling with excessive drinking and other unsavory characteristics on TV and film. There are plenty of real-world examples of poker players who struggled with substance abuse too, most notably Stu Ungar who sadly lost his battle to addiction at the young age of 45. Although the stereotype of a poker player has changed drastically over the past two decades, many people still associate poker with partying. Others see it as a healthy hobby for some.
But what about people in recovery? Should recovering addicts and alcoholics swear off any gambling and stay away from poker rooms? Many people, both in recovery and not, will say yes. I disagree.
At 19 years old, I checked into rehab for the third time. Getting clean right before your 20th birthday may sound young, but my drug of choice was heroin, so my options were sobriety, prison, or death. I narrowly escaped handcuffs many times, and am incredibly lucky that my family was willing to do whatever it took to help me get sober. At 26 years old, I now have over six years sober, a loving wife, a 14-month-old daughter, and a second child on the way. I received far more help than I deserved and could never have done this alone. I am incredibly lucky and grateful.
Despite warnings from numerous friends and family members both in recovery and not, poker was something I turned to during my recovery. I’ve since met countless people in recovery around a poker table, and many of them are as obsessed with the game as myself. So, what is it about poker that draws recovering addicts and alcoholics? The attraction can be summed up by three things: competition, time, and passion.
Recovering addicts and alcoholics are often incredibly competitive. Some of my peers in rehab were Division I athletes, musicians, artists, and even an Ivy League chess team captain. Despite Hollywood depictions of addicts as lazy bums, many are incredibly competitive people. I was a captain and 3-year varsity starter for my high school football team and thrived in the competitive nature of the sport. Much like retired athletes, many recovering addicts need a competitive outlet. Poker allows people to compete with other players, as well as compete with themselves to get better at the game. Due to the competitive nature of poker, the game is a favorite among recovering addicts.
Idle time and an empty mind give addiction room to manifest. Life in active addiction is spent dedicated to getting and doing drugs, which can often be a full-day affair. Newly sober addicts and alcoholics are advised to fill their day as much as they can to avoid cravings brought on by boredom. The need to fill time makes poker a great game for people in recovery. Both cash game and tournament players invest a lot of time into poker, not just when sitting at the table, but also studying and watching the game. The large time investment it takes to play poker also makes the game a favorite for many recovering addicts and alcoholics.
When in recovery, you are advised to find your passions and dive in. When I first got clean, my sponsor asked me what I enjoyed doing. I couldn’t answer. Since the age of 13, my days were filled with playing football and getting high. Suddenly at 20 years old, I put down the drugs and alcohol, and my football career was over. During active addiction, it is impossible to truly find and immerse yourself in something you are passionate about. Because of this, people in early recovery often feel a sense of emptiness. Poker is a great game to fill that void, as it ignites such a strong passion. We in the poker community are obsessed with the game. How else do we have the patience to study for hours and fold napkins preflop all day? Recovering addicts feel this passion when they enter the game, cementing poker as a staple in our lives. People with many years of sobriety tell the newly recovering to find their passions, and the passionate nature of poker makes the game a healthy outlet for people in sobriety.
People in early sobriety are warned to stay away from vices, and most of the world sees poker as a vice akin to drugs and alcohol. Based on my own personal experience, the categorization of poker as a vice couldn’t be more wrong. Poker is a game of skill and strategy. It is much closer to chess or football than it is to a slot machine or bottle of cheap vodka. The competitive and time-consuming nature of poker ignites a passion in its players, and these aspects of the game make it perfect for recovering addicts and alcoholics. Poker has been a positive force for many recovering people, and I hope to see the understanding of the correlation between poker and sobriety grow.