Is Poker Skill or Luck?

by Lou on May 4, 2007

Is poker a game of skill or a game of luck? That’s not as esoteric a question as one might think, and a number of court cases — most notable one in North Carolina and another in across the ocean in London — hinged on that very question.

Most of the legal wrangling centered on determining the preponderance of skill or luck in poker. In my opinion, determining skill versus luck is not a function of looking at any given hand, but one of bounding the issue. In other words, how long does a game of poker take?

If you were to conclude that each hand constitutes a “game,” then poker is surely a game where luck predominates. But if a “game” is construed as lasting a year, or five years, or ten years, or even a lifetime, then skill prevails. In the long run, a player’s results tend to mirror his or her expectation — for better or for worse.

In other words, if you play poker long enough, you figure to reap what you sow. In the short run, anything can happen.

I can’t prove that for you, but there are a few people who would like to try. Jay Kadane, a statistician at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, believes that statistics can be used to show what makes some players better than others. Kadane, in fact, is seeking potential sponsors to fund a project that would mine data — and he’s talking about huge databases of hand histories that online poker providers have available — to prove that poker is a game of skill.

University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, who co-wrote the best-selling book Freakonomics, is touting a project he calls, Pokernomics. Levitt wants to analyze a few million hands of Texas hold’em in order to assess what makes a person a good or bad poker player. Levitt, who is working without any assistance from the poker industry, invites players to email in their own hand histories but requires a minimum of 10,000 hands per player.

And if you can’t prove that poker is a game of skill, you can always legislate it. Representative Robert Wexler (D-FL) says he has drafted, though not yet introduced, a more specific bill that Barney Frank’s. “My bill will say that poker is a skill,” he says.

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