These series of articles were written by the controversial Howard Lederer for GPSTS.
For years poker players have tried to craft a proof that poker is a game of skill. We knew “deep down inside” that poker is a game of skill, but unless we could make a compelling argument that was simple to understand and could stand up to legal scrutiny, we would be doomed to suffering the same legal status of sports betting and games of chance.
The legal test in most states is simple but ambiguous. A game is considered to be a skill game if skill predominates over chance in determining the outcome of the game. Before we can apply this test to poker we must define a number of terms as they relate specifically to poker. These terms are: skill, chance, outcome, predominance, and game (what constitutes a game of poker?).
The central line of reasoning I will use to prove that poker is a game of skill, will allow for the narrowest definitions of these terms; definitions that, in the past, have seemingly doomed those on the skill side of the argument to try to overcome impossible obstacles.
2. Outcomes and Games
Those that have argued that poker is a game whose outcomes are predominantly determined by chance have always held that the outcome of a poker hand is simply who wins the hand. Since, the cards often do determine the winner of a poker hand this is their best definition of the term. I strongly disagree with this definition as “outcome” is really a synonym for “result” . The result of a hand is clearly who won the hand, how much was won by the winner and how much was lost by all the losers of the hand.
If poker were a game where the result of the hand was simply who won the hand, then the players who win the highest percentage of hands they are dealt in, would be the biggest winners. Actually, quite the opposite is true. The better a player becomes at the game, the more selective that player becomes in the hands to play. Winning poker players tend to play fewer hands, but they win a greater percentage of hands where they make a significant investment. They also win bigger pots when they win a hand, because they are skillful in their betting.
But, poker players must be prepared to win this potential legal case even if a judge were to rule that the outcome of a poker hand was simply who won the hand. And my main argument here will accept that the outcome of a poker hand is defined as who wins the hand.
The definition of a “game” of poker has been another point of important contention. Poker players have always argued that poker players are measured over months, years and careers. If we allow for enough of an interval, say a year, truly great players are almost certain to win. Moderate advantages over short periods of time repeated night after night, will add up to an unbeatable edge. One must remember that casinos tend to have only a 1 to 2% advantage on each bet made on their gambling floors, yet over the course of weeks and months their positive revenues are guaranteed, allowing them to build multi-billion dollar hotels to attract more customers.
People on the chance side of the argument have argued that the interval should only be one hand. I again think this is unfair and does not account for the way the game is played. Baseball is not played over the course of one pitch or one at-bat. Golf is not played over one swing or one hole. Likewise, poker is almost always played for at least an hour and usually for a few hours. However, for the main part of my argument I will accept that skill in poker can be proven over the course of one hand. In fact, the line of reasoning will not gain much by looking over a longer period of time.
3. Chance and Skill
The question at hand is whether “chance” or “skill” predominates in determining the outcomes of poker hands. We must clearly define these two terms before we can gather any evidence to settle the question. There has been little controversy in the definition of chance in poker. Both sides of the argument seem to agree on this one. The chance elements that contribute to the outcome of a poker hand are simply the cards and how they are dealt. The cards introduce a chance element into the game and sometimes the dealing of the cards will clearly determine the winner of a hand. Sometimes when a hand is over two or more players will then compare their cards, which were randomly dealt, to determine who wins the hand.
Skill has been a bit more difficult to define in poker. For years, poker players have made a fundamental mistake. They have confused skill with advantage. We know that certain poker players apply the skill of the game better than others. This leads to an advantage, which leads to profit over reasonable periods of time. But, how does one’s edge determine the outcome of a poker hand? It is hard to say, and as long as we make this error, will be doomed to losing this argument in court.
Skill is not about one’s advantage or even a player’s skillful play. It should simply be defined as the elements of the game that can be applied skillfully. The skill elements in poker are the actions that are completely in the control of the players; the bets, calls and folds. Every time a player acts in a hand, they must either check, bet, call or fold. There is no chance element that forces a player to take any of these actions. A player reads the actions of his opponents (the skill elements) and the cards (the chance elements) and then tries to apply skill to making his own action (another skill element).
It might help to look at skill in another game to understand this concept better. When a golfer hits his drive 50 yards into the water, his skill (or lack of skill) did that. There is chance in golf (imperfections on the green and gusts of wind), but this particular swing was all about a lack of skill leading to a bad result. The skill elements in golf are the elements that are completely in the control of the players; swings, club selection, aim. Skill elements don’t have to be applied skillfully to be skill elements. They simply must be the part of any game to which the players try to apply their skill. It would be absurd to say that Tiger Woods is playing a skill game, but a duffer playing at the country club is not. Tiger Woods is simply better at applying the skill elements of the game than the duffer.
Likewise, we have professionals in poker who apply skill extremely well and casual amateurs who don’t. But they are playing the same skill game and apply the same skill elements in an effort to play skillfully. What the law asks is do the elements of skill or the elements of chance predominate in determining the outcomes of poker hands? With these definitions of skill and chance, I think we can actually answer that question.
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