Friday, July 9, 2010

Is poker a game of skill or chance?

At war with luck
Jul 8th 2010
Suitably inscrutable
IN 1969 Benny Binion, owner of the Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas, attended the Texas Gamblers’ Reunion in Reno, where he played high-stakes poker for several days. His opponents were a group of men—and men only—with the sort of Runyonesque names endemic in poker’s history and lore: Chill, Puggy, Minnesota Fats, Texas Dolly. The following year Mr Binion invited the high-rollers to his casino. After a few days the players elected Johnny Moss the best of their number and awarded him a silver cup. Thus was the World Series of Poker (WSOP) humbly begun.
The next year it evolved into a freeze-out game with a $5,000 buy-in, meaning that once a player lost his $5,000 stake, he could not buy his way back in. In 2006—the WSOP’s peak year—8,773 entrants competed in 45 separate tournaments featuring most of the main varieties of poker for over $100m in prize money.
But the WSOP is not the only game in town. The World Poker Tour (WPT) also hosts a series of international tournaments each year. Millions of dollars, pounds and euros change hands every night at poker tables around the world and on dozens of poker websites. At the time of the Texas Gamblers’ Reunion there were fewer than 50 poker tables in Las Vegas; today the Bellagio alone has 40, and Binion’s Horseshoe holds four no-limit Hold ’em tournaments every day.
Like so many global crazes, this worldwide rise was powered by two engines: television and the internet. Poker has been on television for quite a while; CBS, an American network, broadcast the World Series of Poker in 1978. But the programmes were pretty basic: a camera or two recorded the game and commentators told viewers what they could already see for themselves. Only action on the felt was visible: two cards dealt face down to each player, followed by a round of betting, then three communal cards face down, another round of betting, then a fourth and fifth card, both followed by rounds of betting. But for anyone who was not already a poker fan it seemed boring.
I know something you don’t
However, in 2003 the WPT borrowed a technique from a British poker programme called “Late Night Poker”, showing each player’s two individual cards, thus allowing viewers to see the game from the inside. This proved a great success. WPT also edited ruthlessly. The staple of thrilling televised poker is the showdown, in which players bet against each other all the way and a winner is determined only by turning up all the cards and comparing hands. In practice, this rarely happens.
Most experienced players insist that success at poker is not about luck. David Sklansky, author of “The Theory of Poker”, the best and most thoughtful of the many books on poker strategies, writes that “expert players do not rely on luck. They are at war with luck. They use their skills to minimise luck as much as possible.” In poker, as in life, luck can happen to anyone; it is evenly distributed. Skilled players know how to take advantage of it when it happens to them, and get out of the way when it is someone else’s turn.
This is not a theoretical point; it is at the heart of a dispute about poker’s future in America, the country of its birth and its largest single market. UIGEA (the enforcement mechanisms of which have only just come into effect, even though the act was passed in 2006) bans financial institutions from transferring funds for bets in which “opportunity to win is predominantly subject to chance.” Poker has been judged to fall into that category (though the act exempts stocktrading and horseracing), so sites that offer Americans the opportunity to play online poker have to duck and dive.
Yet the view that poker is indeed a game of skill is gaining traction. A 2009 study carried out by Cigital, a software consultancy, analysed 103m hands of one of the main varieties of poker, Texas Hold ’em, played at, and found that over 75% of them were decided before a showdown. They thus depended far more on the players’ betting decisions than on the cards dealt. The Poker Players’ Alliance, a million-strong group of aficionados, argued in the South Carolina Supreme Court that “the structure and rules allow sufficient room for a player’s exercise of skill to overcome the chance element in the game.” And The Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society, founded by Charles Nesson, a Harvard law professor, takes a similar view. Mr Nesson sees in poker “a language for thinking about and an environment for experiencing the dynamics of strategy in dispute resolution”.
Similarly, Garry Kasparov, a chess grandmaster, argues that poker offers lessons on chance and risk management that even his beloved game cannot. He also notes that many chess professionals are moving into poker, not least because the money is better. Jennifer Shahade, who twice won the American Women’s Chess Championship and is now a semi-professional poker player, thinks that chess and poker rely on similar skills—a sort of calculating game-savviness—and that chess players are likely to succeed at poker because “they focus on finding the right moves, rather than having fun or how their ego feels.”
Yet perhaps the clearest argument in favour of poker being skill- rather than chance-dependent comes from Mr Sklansky, and it has to do with losing rather than winning. Imagine trying intentionally to lose at a game of pure chance, like roulette or baccarat. It would be impossible. At the beginning of a deal or a roll you have to bet on something. You can no more deliberately play badly than you can deliberately play well. The same is not true for poker, which offers multiple opportunities to make sure you lose. Still, America’s Congress seems unconvinced.

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