A Game of Skill or A Game of Luck: What’s Your Opinion?

by Lou on May 30, 2005

The following article was originally posted to my good firend Dave Scharf’s blog, and I wanted to bring it to your attention, allong with my (short) comments on the court’s ruling in this case. I’d alo like to hear from you, to get player and reader opinions about this issue.

DURHAM — The expert witnesses came from Las Vegas, the Bahamas and Florida to testify that poker is chiefly a game of skill.But Durham’s senior judge wasn’t willing to take the gamble.Poker is a game of chance, he ruled, that can get betting players locked up in North Carolina.Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson’s decision Monday stymied The Joker Club, which had hoped to open a poker-betting establishment here. A club lawyer indicated that Hudson’s decision might be appealed.Hudson said later he is not a poker player himself, but has no moral or religious scruples about the game. He also said a state law against poker betting dates to the 19th century and might be antiquated.

“The culture is different now,” he said. “Society is different. The law is ambiguous in a number of different ways.”The law says it is illegal to bet on games in which chance “predominates” over skill, Hudson said.”[But] how do you measure that?” he asked rhetorically. “If the legislature told us what they had in mind, I’d understand. But they didn’t tell us what it means.”Still, Hudson said, he was bound to follow the law as it was written.

The Joker Club leased a building on Ferrell Road in November, indicating it wished to open “a business that allows adult persons to play poker against one another and whereby [the club] will retain a portion of funds which are wagered by the players.”In its effort to make that happen, the club sued former District Attorney Jim Hardin Jr. after he wrote that poker betting “does not comply with the law.” Hardin said he would order police and sheriff’s deputies to crack down on any perceived violations.After at least two postponements, the case belatedly found its way into court on Monday. Hardin, now a judge, was not there.

Lawyer Marcus Hill, one of three attorneys representing The Joker Club, argued that 37 states have “some form of” legalized poker.”Of course, there is an element of luck in all games,” Hill acknowledged. “There is an element of luck in poker. But skill will prevail.”Assistant Attorney General David J. Adinolfi II countered that “there are no cases whatsoever that state or imply that poker is anything but illegal” in North Carolina.”We’re not talking about shuffleboard here,” Adinolfi said. “We’re not talking about archery. Poker is simply not legal. … The turn of a card is what settles it all. The best player in the world can get beat by an amateur. Chance predominates. Chance overwhelms skill.”The cards are dealt face down. You can be as skilled as possible. You can do all the statistical analyses. But chance predominates when you flip the card over. It’s just that simple. You can’t will the card to be an ace when it’s a deuce.”

Adinolfi also said the state Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court previously declared poker betting to be illegal in North Carolina.”This court doesn’t pass legislation,” Adinolfi said of Hudson. “This court can’t overrule the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals.”In branding poker betting as illegal, the Legislature apparently wanted to protect low- and middle-income players “from getting beaten out of their paychecks every week,” Adinolfi added.

The Joker Club pulled some human aces from its sleeve during its unsuccessful court bid on Monday.One of them was Roy Cooke of Las Vegas, a 16-year professional poker player and lead columnist for Card Player Magazine.He said the skills involved in poker include emotional fortitude, statistical expertise and the ability to “read” the minds and mannerisms of opponents.”Unskilled players tend to lose their money,” Cooke said. “Luck is a neutral factor over the course of time. The person who says he is unlucky year in and year out really doesn’t play well and is in denial.”

Anthony Lee, vice president of a casino in the Bahamas, also came to Durham to testify on Monday. He acknowledged that he is not a skilled poker player and, as a result, not a good one.”I can’t bluff,” Lee added. “In poker, you need certain skills which I haven’t worked on.”Frank Martin, a Florida poker consultant and tournament organizer, agreed in testimony that poker “is definitely” a game of skill.”Sure, there is an element of chance,” he said. “But that’s part of the beauty of it. You’re using chance to your benefit by understanding what you’re dealing with. The chance part of it can be overcome by the fact that you can induce people to fold.”

MY COMMENTS: It’s easy to argue that poker is a gmae of luck instead of skill, but the error made in doing so is that those who mount this kind of argument are placing poker in a time frame that’s far too narrow. It should be abundantly clear to anyone who thinks about it, that the way one bounds or defines a problem goes a long way toward specifing the kind of solution that’s developed.

The same is true when one examines poker. Examine one deal, one orbit around the table, one evening’s play, or even a month’s play (or longer) and it’s easy to mount a compelling argument that poker is a game of luck, and that’s why amateurs can beat pros on any given night, and do so in a way they never could if they were competing at chess, golf, one-on-one basketball, or trying to hit a major league fastball.

But if you look at poker in the long run, and examine a year’s results, or two years, or a lifetime of play, it’s very difficult to make the case that guys like Doyle Brunson survived this long only because of a massive run of good fortune. When you look at a career in poker, there’s only one possible conclusion to come up with: Poker, in the long run, is a game of skill, just as Roy Cooke said in his testimony.

When courts look at poker with an eye to deciding whether it is a game of luck or a game of skill, they inevitably take too short a look at the game whenever they conclude that luck is the controlling element in the results poker players generally achieve.

What are your thoughts and feelings? Please let me know.

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