Poker vs. purpose

Posted: May 12, 2005 12:00 AM

Earlier this spring, U.S. News & World Report had a front cover headline: "Great Jobs Ahead!" Its subheads were equally exclamatory: "Cool options for college grads," "How to land that great spot now."

 Talk about good news, maybe worth two exclamation points!! USN&WR tells us "workers are suddenly realizing they can demand a little bit more" in salary and amenities: Workers can get jobs in places where "the quality of life" is high, with one indication of that being an "abundance of ski slopes."

 USN&WR performs an additional service by noting occupations "where the hiring is the hottest" -- such as education paraprofessional, forensic scientist, dental hygienist, and biomedical engineer -- and reporting three pieces of information about each: "How hot," "How to land the job" and "How much."

 What's missing from this picture? Before answering that question, consider a second article, a recent New York Times piece about college students who are majoring in poker. The NYT poster boy was Michael Sandberg, 22, a Princeton senior who won $10,000 last summer: "My parents thought I should do something useful. ... I thought that was pretty useful." He has won $120,000 since September in Atlantic City and, according to the NYT, plans to make poker his postgraduate occupation: "I don't think I can make $120,000 doing anything but poker."

 What's missing from both articles is one word, "calling," a word suggesting that God calls people -- sometimes dramatically, often subtly -- into various occupations that productively use their God-given talents. We need money, but money's not the prime reason for working, and by itself does not make a job "useful."

 So don't lower the boom on Sandberg: He's following USW&NR's materialistic way of thinking. Nowhere in its long cover story does the magazine emphasize what people actually do all day on their jobs. Its emphasis is on material rewards and on what a job enables people to do off-the-job.

 Poker is thus one "useful" occupation among others -- and USN&WR list of hot occupations includes "casino cage worker." That's because "there are plenty of applicants for glamorous jobs like poker dealer and big-tip jobs like waitress. Better odds can be had in the 'cage,' where cashiers turn gamblers' bills into chips and supervisors keep watch on the cash."

 The NYT tut-tuts, because of the odds, the choice of poker over study: "While Mr. Sandberg insists that he is not a compulsive gambler, and he seems to bet large amounts only when the odds are heavily in his favor, some experts fear that college-age gamblers are swallowing the hype of big-stakes poker without coming to grips with the dangers of addiction."

 The expert relied on here is Keith S. Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling. He complains that college officials "don't do a good job of telling student (gamblers) how to get help, the same way they're sending the 'prevention and responsibility' messages for alcohol, substance abuse and date rape."

 Students, though, don't make money by using alcohol and drugs or engaging in date rape -- but what if a smart poker player can beat the odds, maintain self-control and make money at gambling? Sure, as Whyte says, that rarely happens: "Most people regress to the mean and wind up with zero or close to it." But what if Sandberg is one of the few, the proud, the poker Marines?

 Only one counter-argument really works, and I hope someone takes it up in a commencement address. It starts this way: The worth of a job is not defined by what it allows you to do when you're not working. A job should employ God-given talents in a way that glorifies Him. Individuals may have to study hard, prepare hard and work hard to get a job like that. But a job like that is worth striving for. Settling for something that just presents material rewards and off-the-job pleasure is trading away our birthright.