Poker Words - A Poker Blog

Mostly a recount of my poker exploits along with a bunch of random other stuff just for fun.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Skill or Chance?

Pokerati recently pointed its readers to a number of articles where the legality of poker is being questioned. In Virginia, a candidate for Lieutenant Governor has promised to introduce a bill legalizing Poker in that state. In Texas, a bar was raided and 83 people were fined or arrested. There has also been articles out of Pennsylvania and South Carolina about the legality of poker tournaments.

I'm not an expert in gambling law, but I do know that each state has its own rules and regulations. Check out this page for a nice overview. One of the issues involved is how much chance is involved versus skill. I think its generally accepted that any game where luck is the most significant factor in determining the result is considered gambling. Bingo, roulette, and craps would all fall into this category. In craps for example, even though there are strategies to maximize your potential winnings, everything is still decided by the results of two random die rolls.

Poker can be a bit trickier to define, although maybe that's just because I'm biased, and would like to see one of my favorite pastimes legalized. In it's simplest form, poker is a game where each player gets five random cards, and the player with the best hand, wins. Sounds completely random huh? Where's the skill in that? This is the perception that we must change if poker is to be taken seriously as skill related game. It's not necessarily the cards that you are given that determines the overall winner, its what you do with those cards. For example, I was recently trying to teach a co-worker to play, and he didn't understand why you would ever fold pre-flop. He kept saying any two cards could win, why not see what comes up on the flop? What we kept trying to explain to him is that while any given hand could win, certain hands are more likely to win than others. Players that can identify those hands, and take advantage of them are ultimately more successful. If the game were played as my coworker though of it, you might as well just make one blind bet each round, and then deal out all the cards and see who one. The skill in poker is reacting to each round of cards, and other player's actions.

Maybe poker needs to be redefined, not as a game where the best hand wins, but as one where the guy with the most chips wins. This changes the game from declaring a winner based on a random set of cards, to the declaring the winner to be the person who can consistently and correctly evaluates their situation to maximize their profit. I think that in that context, poker would be considered a much more skillful game than based only on chance. That's not to say that luck isn't involved, but those with enough skill will eventually overcome any luck that may be involved.

Another problem with labeling games as gambling when an element of chance is involved is that many games involve some level of chance. Take backgammon for example. I don't know too much about backgammon, but I do know that there is a level of chance involved. You could be the best backgammon player in the world, but your moves are still determined on the random results of two dice rolls. If you somehow run into the unluckiest streak of rolls, its possible that you lose to just someone as inexperienced as me. Just as its possible in poker for someone like me win the WSOP. Neither case is likely, as both still require a significant amount of skill to win, in addition to some luck. You could probably argue that backgammon involves more skill than poker, and you'd probably be right, but who defines where the line is drawn between too much luck or not?

Despite all the legal wordings of what defines gambling and what defines games of skill, poker also still has somewhat of an image problem. I think people that don't play still think of old western movies, or smoke filled back rooms or the mob when they think of poker. It's seen as a game of degenerates and lowlifes and a sure way to go broke. The increasing popularity of the game, and especially televised events like ESPN's WSOP coverage, and Bravo's Celebrity Poker are helping to change that image. I think eventually you'll start to see some of these laws loosened up a bit as poker becomes more and more mainstream. I also think you'll start seeing some of the laws like those mentioned in the first paragraph repealed, as people start to realize how outdated those laws are.


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