Two words that may seem a little odd together are “poker” and “pastor.” But for Gilbert Thurston, this is a way of life.
By day, the 47-year-old preaches at Exponential Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. But in his free time Thurston plays online poker – certainly a unique lifestyle for a grinders.
“We are a very contemporary church with rock music, casual dress, and messages that provide both Biblical wisdom and practical advice for navigating through this journey we call life,” he says.
This poker-playing pastor evidently has some skills away from the pulpit as well.
Deep thoughts on his calling
Thurston grew up playing cards with family members. As he grew older he began playing in home games and on free money poker sites like Zynga.
He eventually found PokerStars before Black Friday and began grinding even more. Currently, Thurston has over $367,000 in online reported tournament earnings.
In Atlantic City for a week and @PokerStarsUSA is wrapping up their SCOOP series in NJ. After not getting a title in the PA version I won the 1st I played here for my 1st career SCOOP title. Late regged after dinner & had to fire 5 bullets but got it done! #SCOOPChamp #ThinkBink pic.twitter.com/h0y9nzpjf9
— Gilbert Thurston (@YourPokerPastor) May 24, 2021
The card-playing clergyman drew a line in the sand at one point and stopped playing altogether. He had some moral reservations about gambling. During a night out at a movie theater, Thurston began thinking deeper on the subject.
“When I first became a Christian in 1993, I did stop playing poker for a while because I just assumed it’s gambling and it must be wrong,” says Thurston, who has degrees in Biblical preaching and business admin degree from Hagerstown Community College. “A few years later though my wife and I were sitting at a movie theater watching a movie when it hit me.
“We had just spent $40 on tickets, drinks, popcorn, and candy and called it ‘entertainment.’ Yet if someone spent that same $40 at a casino I was calling it sin. So this led me to do an in-depth study of scripture to see what the Bible actually had to say about this topic.”
Thurston concluded some key differences among gambling, entertainment, and business.
“So based on that, my personal conviction is that Christians should only gamble with money that’s been marked aside as entertainment dollars,” he says, “and those entertainment dollars can only be spent once all other financial obligations have been met.
“In this way, playing poker is no different than someone playing a round of golf or spending money for their gardening hobby or whatever else they may be into.”
Thurston says poker pros buying into larger buy-in events are an exception. He sees them more as businessmen using their skills and buy-ins to earn a living.
Poker remains his game of choice and he doesn’t play casino games. He feels if someone else wants to use some entertainment dollars for slots, craps, blackjack, that’s their decision.
For Thurston however, he doesn’t find the fun in knowing the house has the edge.
Church is still his Ace
Even though Thurston enjoys playing poker online, he makes it clear that his church is his priority. COVID increased his responsibilities over the last year, which led to a decrease in time playing online. He’s also involved with mission work in various parts of the world.
“The last 11 years have been very challenging, yet we’re still going at it – making a difference in Harrisburg as well as internationally in Haiti, Kenya, and India,” Thurston says.
Over the last year, Thurston couldn’t spread the word and help parishioners first-hand. Instead he recorded, edited, and uploaded church services online.
Besides trying to win tournaments, the pastor found another benefit from playing poker. He shares his faith and life as a pastor with those who are interested, sometimes with positive results.
“Through the years I’ve been able to befriend many poker players from all around the world and show them a different side of Christianity, Jesus, and the church than what they may have encountered in the past or had a perception of,” he says.
“This has led to helping players overcome addiction, mend broken marriages, discover good money management, and more.”
Helping others discover their own paths in life is also one of the main reasons Thurston loves his calling. He’s active on Twitter, fittingly at @YourPokerPastor, and is always available to help poker players needing to talk.
Considering this poker player has such a unique job, the situation begs the question: would Jesus have been a good poker player?
“The answer is yes,” he says. “Jesus is God in the flesh and knows all things, so he’d be unbeatable. Perhaps only Mike Postle could give him a run for his money.”