A research paper I wrote last year for a college class.
Poker superstar Phil Ivey sits two seats to the left of the Dealer with twenty big blinds left in his stack, an overly aggressive played under the gun raises to three times the big blind, the table folds around to the small blind who re-raises to nine times the big blind, Ivey looks down to find a monster, pocket aces, he quickly shoves his twenty big blind stack into the middle. The original raiser gets out of the way, and the small blind calls the bet, flipping over big slick off-suit. Ivey is surely excited as a pair of aces wins nearly ninety-three percent of the time against an ace and a king of different suits. However this time it was not to be, the flop brings the player in the small blind a straight when it falls ten, jack, queen. Ivey fails to improve on the turn and river and suddenly he is eliminated from the tournament. Hands such as the one mentioned above are an all too common part of televised tournament poker. The message these programs show their viewer’s is that poker must certainly be a game of primarily luck. This however is simply not true. Poker-specifically Texas Hold’em is a game of skill, not of chance.
Many people, especially those who have no first hand experience in playing Texas Hold ‘em in a serious setting are unlikely to see poker, at least initially, as anything other then pure gambling. They will likely argue that since each person at any given poker table are given a random two card starting hand, which is supplemented by a random five card community board, in which every player at the table uses in combination with their two hole cards to make the best possible five card poker hand; then surely luck determines the winner of every hand. On the surface this may seem to be the case, and surely if every player involved in the hand was forced to put a pre-determined amount of chips into the pot before they were given any cards; then the hands were dealt, community cards were shown, and whoever had the best hand won, then that would certainly be a pure gamble. However that is not the way Texas Hold 'em works. Only the two players to the immediate left of the dealer are forced to put any money into the pot before seeing their hand, and these forced bets known as blinds are generally very small compared to the person’s total amount of chips. No other player is forced to put money into the pot unless they feel their hand is strong enough to be a favorite against the others in the hand. This initial hand selection is the first aspect of skill good poker players utilize.
Good Texas Hold 'em players make use of various psychological skills while playing. Successful online player DreadX explains that the skills needed to play Texas Hold 'em go much deeper then a primitive understanding of the basic rules. He argues that the psychological skills of being able to disrupt your opponent and prevent them from playing their best game, as well as the skill needed to keep yourself from having your best game disrupted are huge aspects of poker (2). Fellow online player K-Boy makes an interesting connection stating that when an opponent makes a mathematically incorrect call, and he happens to hit - that is luck. However when you are able to control your emotions, and continue playing mathematically solid poker, and you eventually get that player all in again, and this time your hand holds up, that is skill-psychological skill (4). Poker theorist Megenoita chooses to look at poker on a much grander scale, he speaks about poker as being a game of one hundred percent skill, which simply needs time to reach a theoretical long run(5). What he means by that statement is that a made hand which is mathematically a seventy percent favorite to hold up against a hand drawing to improve, might not win a specific showdown. It may fail to hold up in three out of four showdowns in a given one day session. On the other hand it may hold up five times out of five in another session. The point is that if over the course of a life time, if you hold a hand which is a seventy percent favorite to win in a showdown ten thousand times, the math will even it’self out. In the long run you will win seventy percent of all those hands, and those thirty percent of the hands, you will be a long term winner.
Patrick Fleming, the Litigation Support Director for the Poker Players Alliance is the man currently in charge of convincing juries in various states that poker primarily exists as a game of skill. He can certainly admit that a degree of variance exists in poker, however he explains it well with the following analogy; Imagine a chess match consisting of eight individual chess games where the winner of each game is given a point. Then after the eight games the players flip two coins and call heads or tails, the winner of each flip is given a point. Does flipping of the two coins make the games of chess less skill driven? No, it simply adds a level of variance to the match; the same is true for a session of poker (5).
In the above analogy if one of the chess players had an obvious skill advantage over the other player, then the coin flips at the end of the chess games would be unlikely to affect the overall match. The variance in a game of poker in which one player has an obvious advantage over another has a small effect on who will ultimately prevail. However if the two chess players are nearly evenly matched, the coin flips could very well be the deciding factor in who wins. Likewise in a game between two skilled poker players variance has a much larger effect on the outcome.
Despite a fairly overwhelming amount of evidence supporting poker as a game of skill, the Poker Players Alliance still faces quite a challenge in changing the view of poker under the law. This is because it the duty of each individual state to determine if poker is a game of skill-and can therefore be legally played in their state. The PPA’s task of proving poker is a game of skill under the law is made even more difficult since most states rely on vague statutes penned back in the gold rush days to determine the legality of poker (Rose 35). For example in the state of California, draw-poker variants are completely legal, but playing forms of stud-poker or Texas Hold ‘em can result in a large fine and time in jail (Rose 39). This legal divide is created as a result of California’s Attorney General Nancy Sweet who in 1983 misinterpreted a line in an 1849 statute which banned stud-horse poker in California. Stud-horse poker was specifically one variant of five card stud. Seven card stud games, as well as a game called spit-in-the-ocean, an ancestor to Texas Hold ‘em, existed at the time of the statute being originally passed, and were specifically not added to the list of banned games, as is the case with draw-poker. However Sweet incorrectly believed the term stud-horse poker to be synonymous with stud-poker, and outright banned all stud-poker games. She also issued a memorandum regarding a game she called 'five card hold em’(this alone shows her lack of research on the topic as Texas Hold 'em is a seven card game) declaring it too was a variant of stud-poker, and was therefore banned in California (Rose 40-43).
Many states have however found that poker, and specifically Texas Hold 'em are skill games and therefore legal to be played. For example in Illinois where the state supreme court ruled that “anyone with even the barest rudimentary knowledge of poker understands it is a game of skill”(Heiple, People v Mitchell). Justice Heiple goes on to state that an element of luck does exist in poker, but concludes his opinion stating his belief that everything in life contains an element of luck, and everything that contains an element of luck is not gambling (People v Mitchell). Illinois is not the only state to declare poker officially a game of skill, Pennsylvania came to the same conclusion following testimony from a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Denver who argued that through experience players can learn and exploit the idiosyncracies of opposing players. These unintentional motions known in the poker world as 'tells’ includes players rubbing their face or instantly looking down at their chips after seeing a flop which improves their hand (Pierce). Professor of Law and licensed attorney I. Nelson Rose compiled a list of criteria used in various court cases to differentiate between games of skill and those of chance. Included in his 1986 book Gambling and the Law some of these criteria include; skill in the game can be learned from experience, and play subsequently improves with experience, skill games require a knowledge of mathematics, and player participation in a skill game can change the results of the game (80). Rose goes further stating that perhaps the two most important criteria for separating games of skill and those of chance are that in games of skill a player can improve through reading and a factor he referred to as ‘the opinion of the community’. The criteria regarding reading affecting your play positively in a skill game stems from a 1962 court case disputing whether the game of Bridge was that of skill or luck. In that case the judge found that the existence of such a large amount of literature designed with the sole purpose of improving one’s play in the game of Bridge was an indication that Bridge is not predominantly a game of chance. When compared to that of Bridge their is an exponentially greater amount of literature currently wrote with the purpose of improving one’s poker game. The community opinion criteria can be explained by comparing a communities reaction to a player who decides to buy lottery tickets every day, compared to a person who with no knowledge of the game, risks the same amount of money playing various professional poker players. Nothing would be said to the individual who wishes to buy lottery tickets, however the man choosing to waste his money playing poker professionals would likely be ridiculed (81-82).
Those who believe poker is a game of chance often bring up the case that if poker is truly a game of skill, then how come unknown amateurs win more major poker tournaments then well known poker pros most years. There are actually a few reasons this occurs. First and foremost, the vast quantity of amateurs who enter many of the larger poker events. With live fields as large as eight thousand players (such as often the case with the main event of the World Series of Poker) the field consists of only about twenty percent known professional players. These players certainly have an advantage over the amateurs but their advantage often cannot make up for being outnumbered four to one. To put it into perspective estimate that Phil Ivey is twenty-five times more likely to win a World Series of Poker Main Event then any random amateur. However with amateurs outnumbering Ivey five thousand to one in the event it is still much more likely a random amateur will win the event. Another factor to take into account is with the proliferance of online poker tournament professionals who are only known by a screen name, one can never tell if an unknown player at a major tournament is truly new to the game, or a veteran seasoned through online tournaments under the veil of a screen name. Any number of unknown live players at these major tournaments could have a million hands under their belt online (Hannum).
An argument can also be made that many top professional tournament poker players are still winning many major tournament every year despite the gigantic starting fields most of these tournaments have today. Take for example Carlos Mortenson. Mortenson has entered fifty-eight World Poker Tour events, of those he has finished in the money at fourteen events, he has made the final table in four events, and went on to win three of those events. More amazingly Mortenson won $5.8 million in these 58 tournaments. With an average buy in per World Poker Tour event of $10,000 and an average cash of $100,000 per event, Mortenson as of May 2010 retains a return on investment of 1000%, a simply remarkable figure. In the 2009 World Series of Poker, a series of fifty-five events spread out over the month of July, Phil Ivey was able to overcome large fields to win two WSoP bracelets as well as finish in seventh place at the Main Event, which had 6494 competitors. In the same series Jeffrey Lisandro managed to win three WSoP bracelets, something done in the past only by Ivey who won three in 2005.
Many of those opposed to the outright legalization of poker throughout the nation such as International Cyber Criminology Journalist Laura Woods Fidelie believe our adolescents would be negatively impacted if gambling was completely legalized. Fidelie in a 2008 article entitled “Internet Gambling : Innocent Activity or Cybercrime” states that ;
“Adolescents are particularly suseptible to the lure of internet gambling because they do not understand that gambling involves games of random chance. Many minors believe they will improve with practice, which leads them to continue participating with the belief they will be able to control the random events of the game(476).”
In the above quoted opinion Fidelie vastly underestimates the intelligence of youth today, or at the very least is seriously misinformed about the reasons consistent practice at the poker table does improve one’s game. Skilled poker players today, even the younger players, certainly realize that no matter how often they play poker the odds of completing hands in individual deals remain exactly the same. Whether it is a players first hand or his millionth if the player holds two hearts in his hand and the flop (the first three of five community cards) also contains two hearts, the chances of another heart coming on the turn or river is exactly 31%, this figure does not change. What can be learned from experience is the fact that with a 31% chance of ending up with the best hand, it is mathematically correct to call a wager on the flop if one is getting a price of at least 2.2-1 on his money. Experience teaches players that if another players wager exceeds 2/5ths of the pot the correct play is to fold, if the wager is less then 2/5ths of the pot the correct play is to call. Experience may also teach players who end up not catching the cards needed to complete their flush, in what cases it may be profitable for them to attempt to bluff at the pot.
To the majority of those individuals who have experienced even a limited amount of competitive Texas Hold 'em it is obvious the importance of skill outweighs that of luck in the game of poker. Many court’s however have been unable to come to that conclusion since hard evidence validating poker as a game of skill is scarce. Professor Robert C. Hannum and Anythony Cabot set out to conduct an experiment which would once and for all prove beyond any shadow of doubt that poker was mainly a game of skill. In order to conduct this experiment Hannum and Cabot used Wilson’s Turbo Texas Hold 'em software to simulate two different ten handed poker tables. The first table consisted of ten “skilled” players,while the second consisted of nine “skilled” players, and one “unskilled” player.
After simulating one million hands of Texas Hold 'em with blinds of twenty and forty dollars, the results, published in March 2009 in Volume 13, Issue 1 of “The UNLV Gaming Research & Review Journal”, were mind blowing. At the table with ten “skilled” players differences among final win figures were relatively small. The largest loser in the game finished at a loss of $132,047 while the largest winner in the game finished at a profit of $116,400. At the table with 9 “skilled” players an 1 “unskilled” player the unskilled player finished at a loss of $38.8 million, while the largest winner finished at a profit of 4.7 million. Profit for the skilled players ranged from 3.7 million to 4.7 million (12).
Daniel Kimberg perhaps sums the entire skill vs luck debate up best in a 2007 Cardplayer article. Kimberg compares poker and baseball. In both games generally the more skilled competitor will emerge victorious on any given day, but it is hardly a certainty. However in both poker and baseball time sorts matters out. One hundred and sixty-two MLB games tend to separate the best teams from the worst, just as six months of poker separates the consistent winners from consistent losers (Kimber). A single hand of poker, like a single game of baseball, can be greatly influenced by the element of luck, however as more hands are dealt and more games are played skill clearly becomes of the utmost importance.
[Poker] A Game of Skill -- Not Luck
Posted 11 February 2011 - 12:12 AM
A research paper I wrote last year for a college class.
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