ASK FATHER: Playing cards and deception, bluffing, lying

From a reader…


I play board games and card games and some involve

For example, one game called cockroach poker involves different animal suits of cards, and on your turn you place a card facedown in front of someone and declare what type of card it is. You can either tell the truth or lie (e.g. say “this is a frog”, but its really a cockroach card). The person must then respond by either saying “yes it is a frog” or “no its not a frog”. If they are wrong, they are penalized, if they are right you are penalized. If you only told the truth in this game, you would lose and the game would be broken. I have other games that similarly include deception.

Is this a sin against the 8th commandment? Or, like acting, since it is in the context of a game and everyone knows you could be lying is it not a sin?


This is a seemingly simple question, but it calls for a necessarily complicated answer.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us: A lie consists in speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving. The Lord denounces lying as the work of the devil: “You are of your father the devil, . . . there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Lying is the most direct offense against the truth. To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead someone into error. By injuring man’s relation to truth and to his neighbor, a lie offends against the fundamental relation of man and of his word to the Lord. The gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims. If a lie in itself only constitutes a venial sin, it becomes mortal when it does grave injury to the virtues of justice and charity. CCC 2482-2484

In playing a card game, is the falsehood spoken with the intention of deceiving? To some extent, perhaps, but since all players know that deception is part of the game, is there really an intent to deceive? I would argue that, in the circumstances you cite, and many other games besides, there is no sin, especially if all players are given the instructions of the game at the outset.

Janet Smith, one of the finest moral theologians out there, has written some pretty interesting stuff on the question of lying and the sinfulness (or not) thereof in specific situations. It’s a topic worth exploring.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, HONORED GUESTS and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Kent Wendler says:

    I am toying with the idea of taking up “voice-over” work as a retirement hobby. This sounds like I could not “do” a commercial which I thought was deceitful, but one begins to get into some uncertainty with what is known as “puffery” – exaggerating the virtues of the product. Then, and I’m sure this would not be a sin on the account of the voice artist, mis-appropriating the the artist’s words to something else not expected by the artist. Think Thurl Ravenscroft as Tony the Tiger’s “GREAT!” and applying it to a group like Planned Parenthood.

  2. acardnal says:

    I’ve mentioned this before regardings this topic: there are legitimate legal reasons for intentional deception, too, such as under cover intelligence and law enforcement officers and particular military activities. Is that a sin?

    And what about the proverbial “lie” scenario wherein someone tells the Gestapo agents knocking at your front door that there are no Jews here even though you have them hiding in your attic. Is that a sin?

    What about lying in order to save someone’s life? The possible situations are endless.
    (I don’t think so called “mental reservation” applies to the above.)

  3. Anneliese says:

    The person asking the question should be relieved that the card game is just asking the players to lie. The game could be like Cards Against Humanity, which opens up the possibility to saying something blaspheme.

  4. Semper Gumby says:

    Janet Smith is on to something here.

    She quotes Peter Kreeft: “…all decent human beings intuitively know that it is moral to tell falsehoods to protect the lives of the innocent from those threatening serious evil.”

    She writes about Thomas Aquinas’ rigorous view on lying, or “false signification”:

    “The mistake that Aquinas makes is that he analyzes the question of lying with a prelapsarian understanding of the purpose of signification- an understanding that presumes the innocence of man before the Fall.” Indeed.

    “I believe that sound reasoning supports the notion that the preservation of harmony, justice, and truth in a postlapsarian world requires a great deal of judicious false signification, from false missives in warfare to the consolation of children and the mentally deranged.”

    ” Again, the error I believe he [Aquinas] made was not in using the purpose of communication to determine the morality of false signification but in failing to see that the purpose of signification in the postlapsarian world could not remain entirely the same as that in the prelapsarian world.”

    Good comment acardnal. When in doubt go to Confession. Keeps one on the straight and narrow.

    On a lighter note, one wonders what the excellent Aquinas would have thought about usernames and avatars.

  5. And yet Augustine says that lying is always wrong. I don’t believe he admits of any exceptions.

  6. bobbird says:

    I once had a summer job, many decades ago when in college, as a “Mystery Shopper” for a big corporation, posing as a customer. The intent was to discover what outlets were cheating the company of their rightful commission in the renting of equipment. I took on many different personas, accents, phone numbers and addresses. Two negatives make a positive, no? When you are trying to catch a liar (“As an outlet I promise to abide by company rules regarding their property”) and a thief, then … touche! “Thou shalt not steal” needed to be protected. Previous warning letters about policy were ignored and the company would otherwise have gone bankrupt. In fact, when I exposed that fully 1/3 of the rentals (out of about 375) were cheats, they knew of no way to stop the hemorrhaging, so they did, partly as a result of my work. Fortunately, this was merely a side aspect of their larger corporate activities.

    And poker bluffing? C’mon. If I raise and raise against an opponent who has a good hand himself, I am not saying “I have a better hand than you”, I am saying, “You must pay to see if my hand is better than yours.” It is playing “chicken” with risking only (hopefully) expendable and recreational wealth, instead of a head-on collision. If he folds, I take the pot, never show my cards, and keep him and the rest of the table guessing. Risk-taking is an entertaining adrenaline rush, ask any schoolboy who has poked a hornet’s nest on a dare!

  7. Fr. Kelly says:

    I have a great deal of respect for Janet Smith, but this is not her strongest work.

    When one’s position tempts one to dismiss St. Thomas Aquinas in such a facile way, it ought to be taken as an occasion for greater caution than she displays here.

    Janet Smith quotes Peter Kreeft: “…all decent human beings intuitively know that it is moral to tell falsehoods to protect the lives of the innocent from those threatening serious evil.”

    Not so. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, both of whom should count as decent human beings.

    Our Lord says this: Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no. All the rest is from the Evil One.
    He was talking to people who are living after the Fall. (postlapsarian)

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Games, theater, and fiction clearly include actions which are false to facts, but which do not count as lying.

    God commanded the Israelites to do various acts of war trickery (like pretending to be a large army in the dark), and that seems not to have counted as lying.

    I don’t think it is about exceptions, but rather, that there are distinctions between lying and pretend.

  9. Sue in soCal says:

    I have had this conversation a number of times online. I note that the Vatican, under the papacy of Pope Pius XII, issued false identification cards to those targeted by the Nazis for extermination. If issuing false IDs is not a lie, I don’t know what is.
    While Aquinas and Augustine are among the towering intellects and theologians, Doctors of the Church, they are not infallible. The Church does not seem to have fully addressed this issue in doctrine. Given that the Church sees that killing in self-defense is justified while deliberate murder is intrinsically evil, if I am at the door of the house where Jews are hiding when the Nazi knocks, asking if there are Jews present, I will be telling him, “No”, and will trust in God’s mercy to forgive me if it is a sin.

  10. LeeGilbert says:

    Related: St. Thomas Aquinas says that the jocose lie is a sin, but among these are satire and irony. Why is it a sin? Because it breaks down communication between people. When I encounter satire in an article or comment, my immediate question is HOW MUCH of it is satire?

    This gets me in trouble too, for often I will speak ironically. After a long, long drive my wife may turn to me and say “Are you hungry? Do you want to stop some place?

    Me ( famished) ” Oh no, I’m not hungry, not at all. Let’s keep going” thinking that I am being obviously amusing.

    She: “Okay then.”

    Many years ago I knew a priest from Lithuania who often used irony and satire in his ordinary conversation, but the result was devastating. Thinking that his real thoughts were obvious, he would say yes when he meant no, and no when he meant yes. In the end he left the priesthood feeling very misunderstood by his parishioners-and in fact no one knew him, nor could they.

  11. L. says:

    I considered, for a moment, the effect of this question on the legal profession, and decided to think about it tomorrow.

  12. acardnal says:

    Sue in soCal, excellent point regarding Pius XII protecting the Jews using dishonest measures.

  13. As to a card game: the key word is GAME, the point of which is amusement. It is amusing to be the bluffer, and to be bluffed. It is all in fun. In my view, it is not a lie to make pretenses as part of a game.

  14. acardnal says:

    In Janet Smith’s article she mentions the custom of being asked “how are you?” and the response is usually”good” or “fine” even though the person may have a splltting headache! I asked a priest in Opus Dei about this conundrum once and he said it’s not a lie, it’s a convention/manner of speech. But I wasn’t really satisfied with that .

  15. Semper Gumby says:

    Fr. Z: Yes, I think that is the case with Augustine. If I recall, Augustine summed it up “Unto eternal salvation none is to be led by aid of a lie.”

    However, I would note the situations described in the comments by acardnal and Sue in soCal. I would also apply “Janet Smith is on to something here” to both Augustine and Aquinas.

    Fr. Kelly: Thank you for your reply.

    A reading of Janet Smith’s article does not appear to support your assertion of “dismissal in a facile way.” Fr. Ferguson is on to something when he refers to her article as “interesting stuff.”

    Yes, of course, St. Augustine and St. Aquinas were “decent human beings.” But they were not perfect.

    Yes, Our Lord said that, though in the context of Oaths.

    Father, bear with me for two scenarios.

    -A woman is at a bar one night having a drink with a strange man. She agrees to leave the bar with him. As they are walking to the door she suddenly recognizes him as a wanted serial rapist and murderer. Perhaps, under stress and time pressure, an impromptu lie is appropriate. (See St. Augustine in On Lying #10, reasonable people can differ on whether his analysis was comprehensive).

    -A coalition of countries is about to go to war with a rogue regime. Just War criteria have been met. Perhaps, given the psychological volatility, stated intent, and the arsenal under development by the regime, the use of deceptive measures by the coalition is appropriate to: achieve surprise, rapidly achieve several strategic objectives, greatly reduce casualties, and shorten the war.

    Operation Fortitude, to deceive the Nazis about the time and place of the June 1944 Normandy landings, is a classic example of deception.

  16. acardnal says:

    Operation Fortitude. Roger that! I was going to enemurate some military examples of deception from D-Day since we are commemorating the 75th anniversary this week. A simple example: the use of camouflage.

    Now I suppose someone could argue that war is like the acting profesion or playing cards in that all parties know that falsehood is likely BUT isn’t that true about life in general?

    Doesn’t intention and preserving life make the act of lying a good in some circumstances?
    I think Smith is on to something.

  17. acardnal says:

    “enemurate”= enumerate

  18. I teach intelligence at a Catholic University. We have good discussions about the ethics of deception, political influence operations, recruiting an espionage asset, and the use of cover.
    Augustine’s absolutist view on lying is not helpful in these matters. I know, who am I to say that? (Well, I’m Eastern Orthodox….) Neither is Kant’s. On the other hand, St. John Chrysostom praised the deception of Rahab when she protected the Hebrew spies. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, yes, you lie to the Nazis looking for Jews. The purpose of the lie or deception, and its likely result, are paramount. Bluffing at poker or deceiving an opponent in a game should not be issues.

  19. Semper Gumby says:

    acardnal: You’re right, the Allies were clever with camouflage.

    The Allies also had a neat trick to fool the Nazis about where Allied troops were located in England.

    The Allies built hundreds of “landing craft” out of oil drums and lumber, and hundreds of “tanks” from inflatable rubber replicas. Then they would allow (i.e. not shoot down) Luftwaffe photo planes to fly over England and photograph the fake troop concentrations. These fake troop concentrations were located in south-east England, across the Channel from the Pas-de-Calais where Hitler thought the Allies would invade on D-Day.

    Meanwhile, the actual Allied assault forces (with the real tanks and landing craft which were in short supply) were stashed in southwest England, across the Channel from the Normandy beaches.

  20. acardnal says:

    And Gen Patton was in charge of the deception operation.

  21. Rob in Maine says:

    Well, I play Texas Hold’em once a month with the neighborhood guys and I’m net $20 ahead! In poker one doesn’t lie as much as not reveal what is in your hand. Bluffing isn’t lying, but is a calculated risk so your opponent folds instead of taking on that risk.

  22. Rob in Maine says:

    One more thought from Wrath of Khan.
    Kirk: “By the book! Regulation 46A: “If transmissions are being monitored during battle –”
    Saavik: “You lied.”
    Spock: “I exaggerated.”

  23. Semper Gumby says:

    acardnal: You are correct, sir. Maybe that’s why that part of Fortitude was code-named Quicksilver. As you know, the Nazis were convinced that Patton would lead the invasion, thus he was assigned to south-east England.

    He had very few troops: a detachment to move the rubber tanks around for the Luftwaffe photographers so the Nazis would believe his vast army was moving about the countryside every few days on training exercises.

    And a detachment of radio operators to simulate a huge army with numerous radio networks. The Nazis would eavesdrop and occasionally break the low-grade ciphers intentionally used on the Quicksilver radios.

    So the Nazis would hear on the Command Net: “Hey, the general’s jeep is in a ditch” and on the Logistics Net: “Hey, we need 25,000 more cots next week for the troop convoy arriving from the States.” The Quicksilver radio operators (I think there were less than a 100 working in shifts) literally had scripts written for them to generate all that radio traffic.

    Rob in Maine: Ah, Texas Hold Em

  24. Semper Gumby says:

    Deacon Nicholas: Interesting field of study. In keeping with acardnal’s comments there is an interesting and rather exotic espionage angle to the overall Fortitude deception plan. You probably are aware of the Double-cross System, also known as the XX Committee or the Twenty Committee. JC Masterman ran the show and later wrote a book about it. I think he ended up at Oxford.

  25. Semper Gumby says:

    While we’re on the subject of deception here is a classic of espionage cinema: The Turning of Grigoriev scene from the BBC series Smiley’s People.

    Grigoriev (a superb performance by Michael Lonsdale) is a Soviet diplomat stationed in Switzerland during the Cold War.

    George Smiley of MI-6 (the “Circus”) played by Alec Guiness, is also in Switzerland attempting to discover what his old nemesis “Karla” of the KGB (or “Moscow Centre”) is up to.

    As this clip begins, Grigoriev is in a Swiss park watching a chess match. Smiley is in a safehouse and sent his team to the park to quietly yet firmly persuade Grigoriev to meet with Smiley for a little chat. It has been noticed by Smiley that Grigoriev occasionally makes an unusual deposit in a Swiss bank, Smiley would like to know why.

    Eventually in this scene Smiley realizes that Grigoriev knows something quite personal about Karla. Smiley will later use that information to gain leverage over Karla. Deception and subterfuge abound.

    A masterpiece of espionage cinema, this scene is 26 minutes long, The Turning of Grigoriev:

  26. While the matter of a card game is trivial, I thought of a scenario that would not be. What about a government recruiting spies? I can think of two scenarios right away. The first is the classic situation: you seek someone in the government of an enemy, or with similar access to useful information, and that person is “turned.” A second scenario would be seeking information, not from a citizen of an enemy nation, but from a nation that is friendly to that nation, because that third nation might also gain information that would be useful. I hasten to add that these spies might be recruited in various ways, including with threats or blackmail.

    But my main point was, these individuals would almost certainly be expected to lie, to pretend to be loyal to their government, to engage in ongoing deception. Our government surely does this, right? How is this moral?

  27. That Guy says:

    Perhaps I can convince my poker night friends of the virtue of such rigid honesty so that I may liberate them from the root of all evil! This will surely make me a great saint!

Comments are closed.