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Obviously, when gambling with Ferengi or other aliens, the stakes are usually latinum. But on the Enterprise (or in Federation space in general), are they still playing for latinum, or are they betting chores (as seen in Firefly) or maybe holodeck time or replicator credits? I did a quick check on Memory Alpha, but it's not really spelled out what the poker players on the Enterprise-D are betting. I'm fairly sure they're not just playing for fun.

I'm asking about Star Trek in general, not just the poker games we see on TNG.

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<comments removed> Take the tangential discussion on the nature of poker to chat, please. –  Keen Aug 29 at 15:44

3 Answers 3

up vote 28 down vote accepted

In-Universe :

Since the Federation doesn't do money, the wagers are essentially meaningless. Play seems to be for the bragging rights as to who won or lost, the fun element of the game and the psychological focus on strategic thinking.

The exception to this in TNG is from the episode Quality of Life where Beverley Crusher taunts Will Riker into wagering his beard on the final outcome:

BEVERLY : Okay... what do you say we up the stakes a little? If I win this hand... you all shave off your beards [and] if one of you wins -- I become a brunette. Are we on?

GEORDI : We'll take that bet.

n.b. script edited for brevity

And in the Voyager episode Collective :

NEELIX: I don't know what you're talking about. I've, I've, this is the first time I've played. What is it called?

ALL: Poker.

PARIS: Look, why don't we make things a little more interesting. Forget the chips. Let's bet on tomorrow's work detail, all right? Whoever wins this hand gets the morning off.

CHAKOTAY: I'm in.

Mirroring Crusher in TNG, Paris says to forget the chips (which obviously have no worth) and offers a physical wager instead.


Out of universe

It's pretty clear that the actors and writers had no idea either. Despite the script constantly referencing Gene Roddenberry's assertion that the Federation is a 'post-scarcity' society with no money, the actress playing Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) clearly felt differently:

Generally, with most beings, I could just sense what they were feeling, so I was empathic.

Why I was in the poker game, I will never know, because poker's about sensing when people are bluffing, and there I was in a poker game every week. I don't think you ever actually saw me win bundles of money but I'm sure, off screen, at some point that was what I did.

as did showrunner Ronald D. Moore:

It is a strange platitude that we used on the show, the need for money was gone and everything was about bettering yourself. It was no longer about any kind of material gain or personal gain, everyone was just trying to be a better person So none of us could understand what that mean or how that society functioned. It all seemed very vague. None of the writers took it seriously. We all kind of laughed about it and joked about it. We all had to pay homage to it because that was something that was built into the structure of the show. At every opportunity we tried to sneak in ways. How do you play poker if you don’t have currency? Again The Original Series had credits and currency and we never understood why they could do all these great things and we couldn’t. It was very odd.

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There's also the line from "Lower Decks" to the effect of, "I just cleaned out some junior officers and thought I'd do the same up here," but there's no clear indication of what he cleaned them out of (except maybe their pride). –  Roger Aug 27 at 20:59
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That's one of the things that makes me think they're betting something tangible, not just "bragging rights". Also, I just can't see Riker gambling for fun - there has to be something on the line. –  Joe L. Aug 27 at 21:17
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Many phrases we used in the past linger on in current usage even though their original meaning is no longer valid - "cleaning out" the junior officers could simply mean he took all the chips. –  HorusKol Aug 27 at 22:37
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Your answer is dead-on (as always), at least regarding in TNG. In VOY, however, we see Paris run a gambling thing, where people can bet their replicator rations and (I believe) duty time. Until Janeway and Chakotey close it down. [Disclaimer: Comment because not double-checked on M.A., ymmv] –  bitmask Aug 27 at 23:57
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@bitmask - I've deliberately excluded Voyager and TOS because the questions was about Enterprise-D. In Voyager, they basically reinvented money because they were no longer a post-scarcity society and in TOS the crew still used credits for external activities. –  Richard Aug 27 at 23:59

Pride, favors, but mostly as fun or a mental/social exercise. We see when Picard joins the game in "All Good Things" pt2 they just hand him a stack of chips with no discussion of buy in. There also seems to be cross pollination of chips between games on the ship during "The Lower Decks" s7e15 when Ben takes his winnings from the Ensigns game to the Command Staff game. It is implied that such "officers" games are common on Starfleet Vessels as Riker used it as a way to access the command staff socially on the "USS Potemkin". We also have references of "favors" owed by other Federation Officers earned during card games peppered throughout the show. Items like Romulan Ale, minor favors (covering shifts or doing undesirable duties), information, or favorable crew allotments are all things that Starfleet Officers will play for, including the shaving of beards (s6e09).

We can assume there is some sort of Starfleet Regulation on gambling it's stakes, as gambling for too high stakes or with the wrong people can create security risks or threats to crew cohesion. Within those limits groups of crew self organize pickup games or potentially shipwide competitions. It seems that on the Enterprise-D Riker is the main instigator of Poker (five card stud) and probably indirectly influences how the crew plays it and their standards for rules and fairness.

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Victory Points.

Imagine you have a box on your desk that you can punch some buttons, pick from a menu, give voice commands; that can convert energy into matter. You can ask for a gold ingot, steak fajitas, a 16 oz. mojito, a stack of silver dollars, gold Krugerrands, whatever you want.

So what can you do with those silver dollars? You could buy something, but anyone else with a similar box isn't going to find your silver dollars compelling because they could just get some from their box.

Consider other games, like Ticket to Ride. You don't (usually) play this for money. The goal is to score the most points.

So the chips in poker merely represent your score for the game.

Even though Ticket to Ride is not a 'gambling' game you could still play it for prizes (money, favors, challenges [beards vs. hair coloring]).

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I don't understand why this answer was at -1. It is essentially correct, even if it is less well-referenced than the answers above. –  Jules Aug 29 at 2:24
    
@jules - Given the very strong body of canon work related to star trek, unreferenced "I think..." answers will always attract down votes. –  Richard Aug 29 at 9:27

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