Student tackles luck versus skill debate

The Winning Hand

The latest volley in the controversy over whether poker is a game of skill or of luck has been fired from a most unlikely platform: a small college located in Ohio.

Michael DeDonno, a doctoral student in psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, conducted two studies at the university that have caught the attention of the Gaming Law Review. It published an article by DeDonno, coauthored with Case Western psychologist Dr. Douglas Detterman, in which he details the results of the two studies.

His conclusion is likely unsurprising to most poker players, but may come as news to government regulators.

"This article provides empirical evidence that [poker is a game of] skill and not luck," DeDonno indicated.

In the first study, DeDonno took 40 students with little to no poker background and had them play roughly 200 hands among them on the Wilson Turbo Texas Hold'em software.

Half of them were briefed on basic poker strategy, including starting hand charts and the logic of professional players to play only about 15% of their hands. The other half were only told about the history of the game and were not given any of the statistical or analytical information.

At the end of this experiment, the two found that those players who had the strategic lessons performed better at the felt than their uninformed compatriots.

To confirm these findings, DeDonno and Detterman ran the same experiment again, upping the number of hands played to over 700. While all the players steadily improved with the extra practice, noted DeDonno, those who had the strategy background still did better than the players making their decisions in the dark.

"If it had been pure luck in winning, then the strategies would not have made a difference for the two groups," said DeDonno.

DeDonno is convinced the results of his study have applications beyond the felt. He believes his theory can be applied to help people facing real-life situations in which only partial information is available, such as investments and home-buying. He also contends that the poker simulation has applications in psychological testing for decision making and risk taking.

The results of DeDonno and Detterman's study could have an effect on the way the legal system looks at the game of poker. If it could be firmly established that poker is a game of skill, it would remove it from the "games of chance" laws that many areas of the United States have on the books.

For a full look at the PDF file where DeDonno and Detterman report their findings in Gaming Law Review, go to

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