Is Poker Gambling?

Dice and Chips
Every great player has some gamble in them.

Alright, I know. That's one of the hoariest, most chewed over questions ever asked.

But, well, you know, it's also one that really hasn't received a proper analysis.

It's been written about endlessly of course, argued over angrily and debated till it has been roasted to a crisp and left to die in the desert sun.

A lot of pros who make their living at the game say sage things like, "Well, if it were gambling I couldn't be doing it professionally now, could I?"

But others, notably Saint Doyle of Texas, is on record as saying (paraphrasing now), "Of course it's gambling. Are you some kind of bozo? Although that doesn't mean that some folks aren't better at it than others."

So, what are we supposed to make of all of this? Is the bloody game gambling or not? Let's start with semantics: exactly what does the term gambling mean?

The lexicographer's problem

I penned the Dictionary of Psychology (4th Edition, Penguin Books --- buy many copies, give them to your friends. I can use the royalties) and struggled with the term.

I decided that it only made sense to treat it as a setting where something of value is put at risk for the possibility of ultimate gain.

This seemed fairly straightforward but, alas, this definition turns out to cover just about every interesting thing that people do. Buying stocks is gambling, as is commodities trading, investing in real estate, getting married, planting a tree, going to college, opening a small business.

Every freaking thing is gambling! -- Which, of course, is true; but unbounded truth isn't very useful. To be practical we need to dig deeper.

The legal issue

From a legal perspective the issue turns on the determination of "predominance." That is, a game or enterprise is classified legally as gambling if luck and chance predominate over skill.

Eli Elezra
You mean small businesses can fail?

No one has ever argued that opening a small business is a "gamble" (although it manifestly is) because the standard interpretation is that the business acumen of the proprietor is the key factor and "dominates" any contribution that chance elements might play.

Lotteries and roulette wheels, slot machines and crap tables are all unambiguously classified as "gambles" because the overwhelming determinant of the ultimate outcomes is chance.

For the better part of our history, poker had been viewed by the courts as "gambling" on the grounds that luck was the predominant element.

More than one judge or legislator was heard to utter statements like, "Whoever ultimately wins is the player who shows the best hand, and that is the luck of the draw" -- thereby, of course, showing that he/she didn't know dick about poker.

This legal stance is important because it allows states and nations that have anti-gambling statues to criminalize the game.

Recently a number of important rulings in the US have turned this interpretation around.

In Colorado, Pennsylvania and North Carolina judges and juries have determined that, in fact, the skill elements override the chance factors and that, in legal terms, poker is not gambling.

Confused yet? Let's keep digging.

The pragmatic approach

From a pragmatic perspective it seems fairly clear that neither the lexicographic nor the legal solutions satisfy for a simple reason. They cannot be applied systematically across all forms of human activity.

What's needed is the recognition that there are two underlying dimensions that characterize the vast majority of human enterprises, in particular the "games" we play.

I. The normative expected value (EV) of the game. That is, what is the typical outcome for the average player of any "game?" If the game is roulette or craps or a slot machine we know the EV is negative and often we can calculate it.

In other "games" the EV isn't simple but can be estimated.

For example, going to medical school is a huge gamble (tuition, time, effort) but it has a positive normative EV because the average doctor makes back these expenses plus a lot more.

But it is still a gamble and there are more than a few who have lost big. They never graduate, fail to pass the licensing exams or are just lousy doctors.

Starting a small business is a highly regarded enterprise in our culture but it is a gamble and one with large negative EV; over half fail within five years.

Jennifer Harman
Jen Harman and Marco Traniello are in the lucky 50 per cent.

Marriage is another gamble with significantly negative EV. Like opening a small business, over half end in divorce. 'Nuf said.

Poker also happens to be a "game" with significant negative EV because of the rake. If all poker players were of equivalent skill then all would be losers.

But, this pragmatic stance has another dimension to it:

II. The flexibility of the game. Flexibility refers to the things that the player can do to shift his or her personal EV.

Some games, like roulette, have virtually no flexibility. There is nothing you can do that will modify the EV. Craps has a bit more flexibility in that you can adjust the bets you make to reduce the house edge.

Opening a small business has huge flexibility and the business acumen of the proprietor is critical in determining the outcome.

This is why the legal establishment regards such "games" as lying outside the standard prohibitions that many have against gambling.

In fact, most of the enterprises that people engage in that are marked by high flexibility are virtually never thought of as "gambling" -- but from this pragmatic stance they are.

And so it is with poker. The game is pretty far out there on the "flexibility" dimension.

So, is poker "gambling"?

Semantically, 'yes' because poker, like most other activities involves taking risks for possible ultimate reward.

Legally, the answer used to be 'yes' but slowly it is becoming 'no.'

Pragmatically, 'yes' and 'no' depending on the player's ability to exploit the inherent flexibility in the game.

Will any of this help your game? Maybe, maybe not, but understanding never hurts. And, FWIW, it looks like Doyle got it right, as he so often has.

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semiretired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.


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