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Poker: Skill vs. Chance

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while, and especially those of you who play poker, may remember a research project called Pokernomics, which is meant to determine what makes a person a good (or bad) poker player.

Lately, the question has become more than an academic one. As explained in this morning’s Wall Street Journal:

The skill debate has been a preoccupation in poker circles since September, when Congress barred the use of credit cards for online wagers. Horse racing and stock trading were exempt, but otherwise the new law hit any “game predominantly subject to chance.” Included among such games was poker, which is increasingly played on Internet sites hosting players from all over the world.

There has since been a strong pushback from a group called the Poker Players Alliance, which recently held an exploratory conference at the Harvard Faculty Club — replete with Harvard faculty like law professor Charles Nesson, who hopes to, as he puts it, “legitimate poker.”

The article, written by Neil King Jr., is a very interesting one — although I do wish it explained the real dynamics of the online poker debate, which, as I understand it, primarily concern the lack of taxation and regulation. The luck vs. skill thing, in other words, is more of a fancy fig leaf than anything.

Anyhow, the article is well worth a read, even if you don’t know a thing about poker. In fact, the article assumes that you may not know a thing about poker:

Poker is at heart a betting game in which players compete against one another for a growing pot of money. Players win either by getting the others to fold their cards or by having the best hand, ranked according to a hierarchy.

(If I were a betting man, I would bet that those sentences were added or requested by King’s editor.)

King’s article also links to the blog written by Annie Duke, a poker champion and, let’s not forget, a rock-paper-scissors champion, too. Duke offers a simple but compelling argument (attributed to David Sklansky and Duke’s brother Howard Lederer) for poker as a game of skill and not purely chance.

The gist is this: forget about winning at poker, and think for a moment about losing. Is it possible to intentionally lose a poker game?

The answer is yes, of course. Is it possible, meanwhile, to intentionally lose a game like Baccarat or roulette or craps?

No, it’s not — which means that you have no control over the outcome, which means that they are entirely games of chance. And which means, in Duke’s argument, that poker, therefore, is not.