There has been quite a flurry of reporting in the poker community and elsewhere (the Wall Street Journal had coverage) of the findings of a study by Cigital, a consulting firm in Washington, DC.
The report presents what some are calling "definitive" data that "proves" that poker is a game of skill.
Now, poker is a game of skill. Luck plays a role, of course, in the impact of the random turn of a card, the flukiness of the flop, the unlikely river card. That's not only the nature of the game; it's an inherent feature of every interesting thing that people do.
But the Cigital data do not support the conclusion reached. Let me explain why.
In scientific research we hold dear to a singular principle: you have to control alternative possibilities that might be causing the effects seen. The Cigital study does not do this. In fact, it has a large logical flaw in its design.
They analyzed 103 million Hold'em hands (every one played at the micro-level games offered on Poker Stars in December, 2008). They found that fully 75.7% of them never went to showdown.
In fact, in only some 12% of the hands was the pot shipped to the player who actually showed the best hand. Given the size of the data base, these numbers are virtually certain to be accurate estimates.
Definitive Poker Study Will Track Players
Magazines, web sites (including this one) and, of course, the Poker Players Alliance (of which I am a proud card-carrying member!), greeted them with the claim that they show that the game must be one of skill.
If the cards are irrelevant fully three-quarters of the time, then, heralded one publication:
"The player could be holding two pieces of blank paper and it would make no difference."
This conclusion is not warranted.
Those players who acted sufficiently strongly to force their opponents out of hands, persuaded them to muck their cards or lay down perhaps the stronger hand, may have done so only because they started with good cards, in which case cards do matter.
The Cigital data base came entirely from micro-level games (10¢, 25¢ and 50¢ blinds). At these levels it is rare to find players will be make big bluffs with junk or reraise with air. Most play their cards in a fairly straightforward manner.
Hence, when they win an uncontested pot, it is likely because they have a hand that they believe is the best hand right now or can easily become the best by the time all the cards have been dealt and their opponents don't.
The definitive study will not be one that tracks hands, it will track players. The really convincing data would be those that followed individuals in a variety of games over an extended period of time and found that some had consistently better results than others.
Unfortunately, it isn't going to be easy to do this, as another study of online poker by Ingo Fielder and Jan-Philipp Rock at the University of Hamburg discovered.
Most Play Less Than 100 Hands, Lose and Quit
They examined the results of over 51,000 online players and found, to their (and my) surprise, that the majority of them play fewer than 100 hands, lose their bankroll and quit.
Importantly, what this implies is that there may be a higher percentage of winning players online than previously suspected because of the vast sea of the wildly incompetent who buy in, get crushed by the knowledgeable, go broke and vanish.
The Fielder and Rock study deserves wider distribution, which I'll give it in a future column. They conclude, if you're concerned, that poker is overwhelmingly a game of skill.
Mark Twain had it right more than a few years ago. Commenting on a dispute between a two men about whether poker was a game of luck or skill, he quipped, "Well, why not just let 'em go in the back room and play for a couple of hours. Whoever comes out with money is right."
It's important that we get this right. We are in a war, a test of will with legislators and the legal establishment to show that poker is not gambling, in the usual sense as an enterprise dominated by luck and chancy events.
We do not want to go into court or into a hearing equipped with illogical arguments that will crumble under scrutiny.
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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