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A game of cards after dinner offers the perfect opportunity for quality family time. But should you teach your children to play a game that involves a level of gambling? Do the positives of what children can learn from matchstick poker outweigh the risks?

My dad was an ace poker player and taught us how to play it. However, he was adamant that winning the game was mainly about working with statistics. So what can children learn from matchstick poker? How to size up your chances of winning when you are considering different options.

Matchstick poker can teach children the relationship between risk and returns, and where they like to position themselves on the low-risk/high-risk continuum.

What children can learn from matchstick poker

Poker is also about skills. Bluffing may be the best known (or most notorious) of these. However, while bluffing does play a part in any game, just as valuable is being able to recognise the situations you shouldn’t try to bluff your way through. Also important is learning how to be a good loser. And even more important is knowing how to quash the desire to gloat once you have won.

Then there is the “poker face” which my longstanding friend Marcus Coetzee could never master. When playing with our family, young Marcus preferred to turn his back to the game, but we still speculated aloud about his cards and learnt to tell by his giggles whether we were right or not. Since then Marcus (now 36) has become a successful businessman, albeit a straight-talking one. Would a poker face have helped him in his career? I suspect it could come in handy in some situations.

Poker is also a mine of sensible proverbs, for example: “Don’t throw good money after bad”. If you have been betting money on a particular hand, don’t be too stubborn to quit.

Gambling pitfalls

Some might say that a youth spent playing poker with matchsticks, Smarties or spiral pasta will lead to a gambling problem in later life, which involves real money. In my case it hasn’t; the only time I have entered our local casino is to go ice-skating. As far as I can tell, gamblers believe in luck. They go to a casino and hope fortune will smile upon them. But the very existence of the casino, its glossy exterior and luxury detailing, should tell them that fortune is smiling on the establishment and not its patrons. It has been said that gambling (with real money) is a tax on stupidity.

My childhood of matchstick poker did not lead me to believe in luck. However, some people clearly do have a gambling problem, and in some cases this can ruin their lives and those of their loved ones. Some of those people must have learnt gambling at a young age. Did their youthful experience of playing poker with their parents lead to their later problems?

Dr Alissa Sklar of Canada’s International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems and High-Risk Behaviors thinks that parents should be careful about the messages sent out by their own behaviour. She believes: “If children see [parents] playing occasionally for fun, and with nothing of real value, it can send a positive message. Children who see parents gamble excessively learn something different altogether and it can lead to problems for them later on.”

Read our other articles on games children play and other family favourites.

Teaching children about skill vs chance

According to Sklar’s organisation, “Children need to be taught to recognise the difference between skill and chance. Most importantly, they need to understand that if they do gamble (even with matchsticks), they need to ‘know their limit and play within it’. Playing matchstick poker with children can be one way to teach them these things, but it should be done in an open way, with discussion about risk.”

She also adds a cautionary note, reminding parents that “the younger children are when they start gambling, the more they are at risk for developing problems later on”. She warns that a big win early on can be a risk factor, because it makes children feel like they are particularly lucky or skilled at games of chance.

Raj Govender, a director of the South African organisation Gamhelp, advises parents not to expose children to gambling. And, he adds, parents should not make gambling gambling (even with matchsticks) acceptable to children.  “The seeds can be planted at a very young age, and parents don’t really realise what they are doing.” Research from his organisation suggests that 90 per cent of the people it helps started gambling before adulthood.

This zero-tolerance approach to children and poker is shared by Rayda Jacobs, author of the novel Confessions of a Gambler. She says: “Knowing what I know now, I would never teach my children how to play poker. The reality is that Gamblers Anonymous is full of addicts who have learnt the game from parents or friends. Do you know whether your child has an addictive nature? And would you take the chance?”

Gambling life lessons

Will I teach poker to my daughter? I am sure I will, because I believe that in most situations education and moderation are a more effective combination than outright prohibition, which can leave children (and later the adult they become) quite naive and susceptible to life’s scamsters.

However, I will teach her not to play with money, because the thought of winning and losing mine and others’ hard-earned money makes me feel ill. I will teach her matchstick poker because it provides an entertaining springboard for discussions about the unavoidable choices of ordinary adult life, such as whether to invest in the stock market or the property market. But I would be more reticent to teach the game to other people’s children.

Jeanne Maclay-Mayers