Poker: Skill Or Luck?
Monday, 12. July 2010

The 1969 Texas Gambler’s Reunion held in Reno Nevada saw a grouping of some of the greatest old school legends of poker; Chill, Puggy, Minnesota Fats and Doyle Brunson amongst them; battling it out for several days of high stakes poker. Also participating in the event was Benny Binion, the owner of the world renowned Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas. The next year, Binion invited a number of the group from the Texas Gambler’s Reunion to his casino and after a number of days all of the participating players voted Johnny Moss the best performer and he was awarded a silver cup and the World Series of Poker (WSOP) was born. From these humble beginnings, the WSOP grew and grew to it’s peak in 2006 which saw 8,773 participants competing in 45 separate tournaments for a total of over $100 million in prizepools.

While the WSOP is by far the largest poker tournament around, it is certainly not the only one. These days, countless millions of dollars, euros and pounds change hands each and every day on poker tables around the world and, of course, online. In 1969, there were less than 50 poker tables in all of Las Vegas. These days there are single casinos in Las
Vegas with close to 50 tables and most casinos will run a number of No Limit Texas Hold’em tournaments each and every day.

While poker has historically been most popular in the U.S., it’s popularity has spread far beyond its borders. The gambling consultancy firm H2 has estimated that the worldwide online poker industry generates $4.9 billion of which the U.S. accounts for approximately $1.4 billion.

One may say that poker’s worldwide popularity is due to two catalysts; the television and the internet. The American network, CBS, has been broadcasting the WSOP since back in 1978. The early broadcasts were fairly basic with one or two cameras recording the action and commentators just stating the obvious. In those days, neither the viewers nor the commentators were able to see the hole cards so it made for fairly boring viewing. That changed in 2003 when the WPT began showing players’ hole cards which gave viewers a window inside the workings of the hands and players’ strategies. Enabling viewers to see players’ hole cards combined with a higher level of editing and better commentating changed the experience from boring to extremely exciting and incredibly interesting.

Professional poker players insist that being successful at poker in the long run has nothing to do with luck. The author of “The Theory of Poker”, David Sklansky, stated that poker players do not rely on luck, “they are at war with luck”. Obviously, luck does have its place in poker; it is the object of the skilled player to know how to take advantage of luck when it visits them and know when to get out of the way when it visits their opponents.

Whether poker is a game of skill or luck is not simply a theoretical argument, it is at the center of the argument regarding the future of poker in the U.S. The Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act (UIGEA) was passed in 2006 and has just come into effect. The UIGEA has made it illegal for financial institutions to transfer money for bets when the “opportunity to win is predominantly subject to chance.” The UIGEA specifically exempts trading in stocks and horseracing; however, poker is currently categorized as such leaving online poker rooms that cater to American players having to walk a strange dance.

The fight is far from over and the idea that poker is a game of skill is gaining momentum. A study carried out in 2009 by the software consultancy firm Cigital analyzed 103 million hands of Texas Hold’em that played out on Pokerstars.com. The study found that over 75% of the hands dealt never made it to the showdown. The significance of this finding is that success depended more players’ betting and posturing rather than on the cards that they were dealt. The Poker Player’s Alliance (PPA) is a non-profit membership organization that is made up of over 1 million online and live poker enthusiasts. In a case that recently came before the South Carolina Supreme Court, the PPA argued that “structure and rules” of poker allow for a player to “overcome the chance element of the game.”

The world renowned chess grand master, Garry Kasparov, makes the argument that the game of poker involves elements of chance and risk management that even chess cannot. He also went on to note that a good number of professional chess players are making the move to poker for, amongst other reasons, the money. The two time American Women’s Chess Champion, Jennifer Shade, is just one of these professional chess players that made the move to poker. Shahade notes that both chess and poker rely on a similar set of skills and that successful chess players will generally be successful in poker as they will focus on making the right moves rather than having fun and be less vulnerable to ego.

Undoubtedly the best argument made in favor of poker being considered a game of skill rather than a game of chance was made by Sklansky. Sklansky’s point has more to do with losing than it does with winning. With a pure game of chance such as baccarat or roulette, it is impossible for one to intentionally lose. Not that anyone would intentionally would but it is still impossible. One places a bet before anything is dealt or rolled and whatever hits, hits. One can not deliberately play poorly much in the same way that they cannot play well. This is not true in the case of poker. Poker offers the player plenty of opportunities to lose if they would so wish. The truth is that most would argue that poker is very much a game of skill; however, the U.S. Congress appears to remain unmoved.

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