Evidence in: Poker game of skill

Justice scales

Part of the defendants' argument in the online gambling domain name seizure case pending in Kentucky hinged on distinguishing poker as a game of skill.

But the lower court judge concluded that poker was a game of luck, summarizing it simplistically: "In the end, no matter how skillful or cunning the player, who wins and who loses is determined by the hands the players hold."

Anyone who plays poker seriously knows this is not the case at all. While three of a kind is certainly a better hand than two pair, it does not always beat two pair.

Why is that? Because betting, bluffing and a keen understanding of statistics and human nature elevate what some think of as a game of chance into a sophisticated game of skill.

Considering all of the calculations and evaluations that take place during a poker game, it's hard to imagine anyone would think the game can be summed up as one where "the best hand wins."

If every poker hand ended in a showdown with all the players at the table turning over their cards and the best hand taking the pot, then, yes, poker would be a game of luck. But then poker would be about as interesting as coin flipping.

Instead, poker is about decisions that are influenced by statistics, old-fashioned math and psychology. And it is about outsmarting your opponent and not being outsmarted yourself.

A hand played on Day 1d of the 2008 Michael Binger received a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Stanford University.

Bracelet winner Jerry Yang is a psychologist.

Yang has admitted using some of his knowledge of psychology in how he played the final table. "I study my opponents very carefully," he was quoted as saying after his victory, "and when I sensed something, when I sensed some weakness, I took a chance. Even if I had nothing, I decided to raise, reraise, push all-in or make a call."

Howard Lederer
The Professor knows that most hands don't make it to a showdown, so the best player wins, not the best cards.

According to Howard Lederer, approximately 60% of poker hands end without a showdown when all but one player fold. The pot goes "to that player for one reason and one reason only; the skill elements as applied by the players in the hand led to an outcome where only one player stayed in thus producing a winner."

There is no question that in those cases, it is an examination of a number of factors in addition to the cards one holds that results in the ultimate decision. And the winner of the hand is not who held the best hand, but who convinced the others that they could not win.

Michael DeDonno, a doctoral student from Case Western Reserve University, conducted two poker-related studies with college students and published the results in an article entitled "Poker Is a Skill," cowritten with psychologist Douglas Detterman, also of Case Western Reserve. The article was later picked up by the Gaming Law Review journal, which had been looking into the luck versus skill argument for some time.

"This article provides empirical evidence that it is skill and not luck," concluded DeDonno based on his two studies, which demonstrated different outcomes after novice poker players received some strategy lessons. Simply put, those who learned poker strategy made better decisions and were more successful than those who were not taught strategy.

Harvard Law professor Charles Nesson created the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society as a "powerful teaching tool" to teach many skills that can be used not only at a poker table, but anywhere in life, including decision making, risk assessment and money management. He is on record as having said that poker is "among the most sophisticated of strategic games."

Game theory, the mathematical study of the strategies used to win games, was developed in part by studying the game of poker, which theorists called "a game of incomplete information."

Because players cannot see each other's cards (as opposed to in games such as chess or backgammon, where you can see each other's position), subtle elements such as bluffing and understanding your opponent come into the analysis.

There are dozens of books on game theory as well as various other strategies that skilled poker players use in making their decisions at the table. You can read up on the mathematics of poker from Ph.D.s, or learn about reading tells from a former FBI profiler. You can learn about odds and probabilities and poker as a zero-sum game.

But nowhere will you find a book about how luck - and not skill - is the reason for long-term poker success.

Many people think that the magician who pulls a rabbit out of a hat is lucky. But no one has ever pulled a rabbit out of a hat who did not first put the rabbit into the hat. That is skill - even if the audience thinks it was luck.

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