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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jacob 2012-07-17 11:46:44

Do you consider owning a casino to be gambling? They are taking all the bets, when someone hits blackjack they casino loses. But it's not gambling because over time the casino knows they will come out ahead 100% of the time.
The same can be said of poker. A good poker player might lose a hand or a game or have a losing day, week or even month. But a true pro will never lose for an entire year.
A pro doesn't see it as gambling because they know they are going to win, much the same as the casino owner knows he is going to win.

Simple 2012-02-21 18:47:22

What the article alludes to, but doesn't say outright is this:

It's only gambling if you are not very good at it.

Aml 2011-06-17 01:18:56

The key test of whether a betting game is gambling or not should be 'can you substantially influence the result of the game through your skill repeatedly over many games'.

If the answer is yes (as with poker and blackjack; but not sports betting, most casino games, lotteries and bingo) then irrespective of whether chance plays a part in the running of the game - even if for an unskilled player luck is the overriding factor determining success - it is incorrect to consider it gambling.

Arty Smokes 2011-06-07 18:47:15

Betting on an odd-on favourite in a horse race is gambling, as you can still lose your stake.
Betting pre-flop with pocket aces is gambling, as you can still lose your stake.

Poker is obviously gambling. It's different to other forms of gambling such as sports betting or roulette, however, because you have a chance to manipulate the odds of winning, by choosing when to call, raise, fold, bluff etc. Once the horses have left the starting boxes, or the two teams in the Superbowl have run on to the field, you cannot affect the outcome. You made your bet and then you are stuck with it. In hold 'em, a player can affect the outcome before the flop, and after the flop, turn and river. In a way, this means that each hand of poker can have more gambling on it than any single event. Add up all the hands played in a lifetime and a poker player has gambled much more than he possibly could if he bet on every horse race he ever saw.

lol 2011-06-02 11:23:16

Um... I'm guessing your statistics certifications are comprised of reading Poker for Complete and Total Morons several times to help you grind microstakes. Saying more than half of small businesses fail = negative EV is fallacious. If you pull in $50k/yr working for something else, and your odds of making a $5M dollar business with a $100k investment and 5 years of work is 30%, then your EV is ($5M * .3) - ($50k * 5 + $100k) = +$1,150,000, even when you invest $100k of your own money and take no salary for 5 years, and fail 70% of the time. To put it in poker moron terms you'd understand, EV is a measure of "equity", not just probability. And so on for your other examples. You are correct in saying EV for cash games is (your edge vs other players) - rake. Short term variance is high, making it a "gamble"... over X number of hands, variance is typically washed out. Taking it back to the small business example, your best bet is building up the skills required to maximize your odds of success & potential payout, and then continuing on until variance is washed out and you claim you $1M equity / 5 years in the example above.

Curtis 2011-05-19 05:27:47

Poker is only gambling over short periods of time. In the long term if your a good player and understand the odds you will win. If it really was gambling then how come there are so many players won consistently win and have made millions of dollars playing poker.

Mick 2011-04-21 21:04:00

Well the fact here is that the same faces appear on the last tables of the WSOP every year. Some players have 5, 10,15, 20 bracelets... Thats not only unlikely, its darn well near impossible to happen with one person unless they were cheating, let alone happen as the 'norm'

If we were to hold with the 'starting a business is gambling' analogy then these players have started 20 successful businesses for next to nothing and eventually sold out for millions up to 20 times in a row! Even Donald Trump isn't that good!

In many games of chance this would be almost impossible. It might happen...very rarely but it would not be the norm. In poker the norm is for professional players to 'cash out' in professional tournaments time and again earning their living from it. Many know full well what they are doing and several notable ones are MIT graduates who attained their degrees or doctorates in math! Such people would know full well if they are gambling.

The problem is that we do not put 'seed' positions on these guys. If we did then it would be pretty clear that the 'skill' level in poker makes the chance almost totally defunct.

Vrvben74 2011-04-10 13:28:54

I know this comment is WAY late, but I can't help but respond to "jason jones" who sounds like a pretty black and white kinda guy with his "official definitions" and what not.

No "jason jones", you do not become good at poker by being a "con, cheat, liar, or worse."

You become good at poker by understanding how the numbers work, and then by being better at understanding human nature than the other players, and then by having the courage to make proper decisions based said understandings.

This is a far cry from your "game [that] is based on deceit."

Perhaps "jason jones" should get out of the books and legal dictionaries and actually EXPERIENCE poker. There is a world of difference between reading a sonnet and actually being in love, ya know...

Besides, laws rarely, if ever, reflect reality...

jason jones 2010-11-17 01:17:21

Poker: Any of various card games in which players BET that they hold the highest-ranking hand.

BET: 1) The money risked on a gamble
2) The act of gambling

Gambling: 1) Take a risk in the hope of a favorable outcome
2) Play games for money
3) The act of playing for stakes in the hope of winning (including the payment of a price for a chance to win a prize)

So... No matter how ANYBODY tries to twist it, turn it or convince themselves that poker is NOT gambling.... IT ABSOLUTELY IS.

You people playing cards try so hard to bluff yourselves into thinking or wanting poker to not be gambling for legal purposes that you completely miss the facts... Poker is now and always will be gambling.

The biggest problem with trying to convince the law is that your entire game of poker is based on deceit. The only way to be good at poker is to be a con, cheat, liar or worse.. I'm just saying.

Poker 2010-09-13 05:28:58

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