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Poker is a Game of Skill... And Chance

By Dave Scharf

Introduction

There has been a great deal of attention lately to the question of whether or not poker is a game of skill. Moreover, there appears to be a lot of poker players who believe that if only we can get legislators to see that poker is a game of skill, all will be well; anti-online gaming laws will be repealed, and poker will be elevated to it rightful place alongside other culturally important games of skill such as hockey, chess, and Jai-Alai. I think this is a losing battle and, at great risk of getting hundreds of angry emails, this column will explain why I think so.

Yes, poker is a game of skill.

I take the phrase "game of skill" to mean that one contestant is able to hold an advantage over another - either by physical or mental ability. I think this roughly fits the definition that most of us would give when asked. In "games of skill," one player can be better at the game than another.

Clearly, then, poker is a game of skill. As Mike Caro so clearly taught me years ago, "In poker, your decisions matter." Your action - check, fold, bet, or raise - will affect your success. The choices you make will affect the amount of money you win or lose. If you make better decisions than your opponents you will tend to win more money. Alternatively, if you make worse decisions, you will lose more money. Poker is, in fact, a game of skill. At least as far as the "common usage" definition is concerned.

But, poker is not like chess.

Accepting that poker is a game of skill, there are many who believe it can be reasonably compared to sports such as football, or games, like chess. The argument goes something like, "Poker is a game of skill. Chess is a game of skill. Hockey is a game of skill. Therefore they are all comparable." In fact, one of the tenets of the Poker Players' Alliance (www.pokerplayersalliance.org) is that, "Poker is a game with a predominance of skill. Like chess, poker is a 'thinking man's' game which relies on mathematics, psychology and money management."

Although it true that poker is a game of skill, an analogy to chess or other games of "pure skill" is very weak indeed.

Let me offer a competing analogy. The Masters of golf will be played this coming April. Tiger Woods, no doubt, is favored to win the event. What percentage chance of winning The Masters do you give Tiger? Pick a number. I have asked a lot of people this question over the last several weeks. The answers range from 10% to 70%. Whatever the actual number, it is significant. Tiger Woods has a very good, measurable, chance of winning The Masters. For the purpose of this analogy, let's assume that Tiger has a 40% chance of winning.

Now, pick whoever you think the best poker player in the world is. Doyle? Negreanu? Chan? Hellmuth? Ferguson? Lederer? Pick the player that you think is the best. What is the chance that he will win the WSOP Championship? Whoever you pick, his likelihood of winning the WSOP will be less than 1%. Much, much less.

You may object, "Dave, Tiger only has to play against a couple of hundred guys whereas Doyle has to play against thousands at the WSOP." Frankly, I think that a fair argument can be made that the winner of The Masters has played against every "serious" golfer in the world, just as the winner of the WSOP has played against every "serious" poker player. But, even if you don't buy that, the comparison is still valid. You can still pick the top poker player in the world, pit him against the other top 200 (instead of 8,000+), and he will still have only a very small likelihood of winning -- probably still less than 1% in a field of 200.

Yes, poker is a game of skill. But, it's ludicrous to compare it to games like golf, chess, and hockey, where the skill overlay is overwhelming in the short run. Not all games of skill are created equally. According to my above definition, Monopoly is a game of skill but you will not find too many people willing to say, "Like chess, monopoly is a 'thinking man's' game which relies on mathematics, psychology and money management." Poker is like chess only insomuch as both games are completely cerebral. There is no physical skill involved but to make them out to be similarly skill based is a big stretch. But, to claim they are comparable as "games of skill" is a stretch of that same common usage.

And, even though it's a game of skill, it's still gambling.

In England, Derek Kelly, the Chairman of Gutshot Private Members Club, was recently convicted of running an illegal poker club. As a defense, he offered that since poker is a game of skill it does not fall under the 1968 Gaming Act in the UK. At least one expert clearly elucidated that poker is, in fact, a game of skill. The act in question applies to "game of chance" and yet Derek was still convicted.

Although it is undoubtedly true that poker is a "game of skill" in the normal use of the phrase, it does not surprise me that the judge in the UK choose to view poker as a game of chance in the legal sense. I will not go into all the reasons that the British Parliament has for regulating games of chance. I will simply note that every government I can think of has some rules that apply to the legality of gambling. I am not here to debate whether government should or should not regulate gambling. I simply point out that just about every government does.

Should poker be exempt because it is a game of skill? The view of the judge in Derek's case was that, although skillful, there is still a powerful influence of chance upon the game. And, more importantly, poker is clearly the sort of activity that Parliament intended to regulate with the 1968 Gaming Act in the UK. Either the government wants its piece of the action or it wants to paternalistically limit exposure to the dangerously addictive habit of gambling.

The point is that in normal parlance poker is a "game of skill," but in legalese it is a game of chance. Judges are not necessarily going to rely on "common usage" to interpret the law. Judges are going to look at the intentions of the legislators,. and, despite using the phrase "games of chance, Parliament clearly intended to regulate gambling. Poker, despite being a game of skill, is definitely gambling.

This doesn't mean we should surrender.

I don't that that we are going to win poker's liberty with a clever lobby based upon the fact that poker is a game of skill. And, I think it's folly to try.

If we are going to win the day I think it will be because of the sheer popularity of the game. I think we will get a lot further if we reshape our argument to be, "Yes, we know that poker is gambling. But it should be treated differently than other forms of gambling because: (1) Of the social benefits of the game; and (2) It's overwhelmingly popular."

In other words, make an exception for poker because it's the right thing to do, not because it's skillful. After all, to most players, poker is a game of chance. That's why 70% of players lose money in a raked game. Those 70% might as well be playing Craps.


About the Author
Dave Scharf has written a poker column since 1997. He is the author of Winning at Poker: Essential Hints and Tips (Acrturus, 2003). The host at www.UnitedPokerForum.com. The Captain of Team Planet for www.PlanetPoker.com and, a proud member of Team Canuck Poker at www.CanadianPoker.com.

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