The Art of the Cards

Philosophical musings on poker and life

  1. 2009-02-23 20:05:18

    Is Poker a Game of Skill?

    Thankfully, a man whose opinion matters found that poker should be considered a game of skill. This puts a bit of a dent in the laws surrounding online gaming, but, as Techdirt notices, no one is really sure how big of a dent. Somehow this ruling didn't help five men who the judge found guilty of running a gambling house. Without knowing the specifics of the case, it's hard to speculate, but if state law doesn't prohibit betting on games of skill... who knows.

    I'm sure this is going to fan the flames of debate on the skill vs. luck topic, so I might as well provide some kindling. Everyone who has played a decent amount of poker would agree that it's largely a game of skill. Problem is we all know that there is a certain percentage of luck involved, too. The question is, where does the line have to fall to call it a game of skill? If I play tennis against Federererer or chess against Kasparov, I lose 100% of the time. No question.


    Poker against Phil Ivey and the number goes down ever so slightly. I don't think anyone could persuade me that poker is over half luck, but all it would take is the wrong judge looking at the wrong few games instead of the aggregate and we're back to square one.

    When it comes to legal wranglings, it's nice to have that first ruling on our side.

    May the malevolent poker gods become disoriented on their way to your table.

    Posted by Graham at 2009-02-23 20:05:18

Comments on “Is Poker a Game of Skill?”

    • avatar for Jason M
    • I agree, Craig. I prefer to use the phrase "statistically improbably" instead of "luck" because of the superstitious connotations that surround the word "luck". I believe statistically improbably things happen in the game of poker. Anybody winning the main event (or any tournament that includes 2 or more players), regardless of their skill, is statistically improbable (less than 100%).

      I think the real question (from the legal standpoint) is whether poker a skill game or gambling. What makes something gambling? It's obvious that blackjack or craps is gambling, but you can make better decisions to increase your odds of winning...

    • avatar for Ethan
    • I'm going to go out on a limb and posit that, in the long run, there is no such thing as luck in poker. Or rather that the word "luck" is ambiguous and misleading.

      Let's say, for example, your aces get cracked by . Unlucky, right? But only in that instance. Play that hand a thousand times, and the aces will hold up a wonderfully predictable number of times. In this context, "luck" would mean betting your against aces and coming out ahead in the long run. Which won't happen.

      So I think the answer to whether or not poker is a game of luck is the wrong question. The real question is this: are you going to play one hand or a thousand?

    • avatar for Craig
    • I think the term "luck" wasn't well defined. I'm saying, for a single hand that if you make a decision mathematically based on the hand-strength, pot-odds, and factor in correct opponent reads but you still end-up loosing, that's un-lucky. You made the right decision, the odds were in your favor but you still lost (got rivered). The other guy got lucky.

      I guess that's why its important not to get too caught up on a single-hand or even a single tourney analysis when trying to evaluate your skill level. A proper evaluation should be done over a large sample and long time period.

      "Luck" isn't something that you have. People get lucky when they DIDN'T have the proper odds yet still won.

      For example, remember when Jammie Gold won the WSOP a few years ago? Not to take anything away from him but OMG, he caught some incredibly great hands and flops in that tourney. Probably could say the same thing about Jerry Yang. Jammie and Jerry won the world championships but were they thee best players in the main event? Depends how you define it.

    • avatar for Tony Gags
    • LOL PARAG. Oh and Kyle......Well you know :)

    • avatar for Svidri
    • It's really nice to get your money in good, but looking at getting your hand in good vs a specific hand is a little results oriented.

    • avatar for FREMONTkyle
    • GOOD ol Gordo
      Since when did he become a trend setter

      Screw the Book

    • avatar for Mr. Segan
    • I think it depends on the player. Tony makes the right decision 99.9% of the times, for him its a game of skill. I make the the right decision 0.1% of the times, so its all luck for me with pinch of skill.

      Kyle - Read a book!

    • avatar for Jason M
    • hey man, that was a compliment ;)

    • avatar for Tony Gags
    • Fack everyone! arg lol :)

    • avatar for Jason M
    • Like I said in my final answer above, it's all skill, baby. Just because Tony only makes the right decision 99.9% of the time, it is not 0.1% luck. It's still 100% skill--he's just not good enough to take advantage of all 100%! :p

    • avatar for Tony Gags
    • IN the long run, I think is the key comment here Kyle. Read a book

    • avatar for FREMONTkyle
    • but i can up it to 93-95%

    • avatar for FREMONTkyle
    • 100 percent Not even You can make the right play 100% of the time tony

    • avatar for Tony Gags
    • I am going to go oput on a limb and say in the long run it is 100 percent skill.

    • avatar for FREMONTkyle
    • every thing in this comversation has to be taken for the long haul
      and predomintaly luck should be looked at as in when all the money goes in and someone drawing really thin
      not someone getting a good run of cards the luck factor is only a big deal in all n situations
      because any skill full player in the long run is not going to allow himself to get mixed up where he needs alot of luck
      id say in the long run its 85-90 percent skill

    • avatar for Jason M
    • Good point. Just because we can not definitely prove what the right move is, there is a right move for every situation. The best player will eventually win. No luck!

      However, the outcome of a complete game/tourney could be based solely on the turn of a card once players are all in. No skill at that point...

      I suppose it depends at which point we try to measure this "luck factor".

      Final answer: no luck in a perfectly theoretical game of poker, where defining perfectly theoretical involves mathematical analysis that removes variance and all that jazz. I'm not prepared to make that analysis at this point in time.

    • avatar for Svidri
    • I mentioned a luck factor in chess to open a discussion as to "what is this abstract thing we call luck." Because, sometimes, I think people use the term "luck" to describe something very statistically math based, which in my mind isn't "luck" at all.

      For instance, I could argue that there is no luck in poker (though it might be a bad one), in saying that there is only one move with the most expected value and you must be skilled and experienced to take advantage of this play.

      If you didn't take advantage of this play, you didn't have enough skill.

      I'm not arguing either side, I'm just playing devil's advocate here :)

    • avatar for Tony Gags
    • Zero luck in chess BTW. Opponent makes a move you are unfamiliar with you didn't have enough skill.

    • avatar for Tony Gags
    • So Apple has a great quarter, you studied the odds due to sales forcasts market conditions blah blah, you bought the stock it goes up 1000 percent. All skill! Steve Jobs dies the next day. Stock goes to zero. All luck!. People make millions weighing the odds in the market, just like weighing the odds in poker. If poker is a game of luck than I am one lucky S.O.B. :) (Oh and this evidence can be refuted by any number of people that play tournies with me) Wait I changed my mind. This game is all luck! :)

    • avatar for Jason M
    • Thanks for resurrecting this blog post. I wish I had more time to contribute to it, but I like what I see. Thanks to all the contributors :)

      I very much like the fact that Svidri mentioned "perfect information". That is definitely the distinguishing characteristic of chess. Now let's talk about the "luck" part. True, you can be "unlucky" at chess - your opponents opening, the fact that you slept poorly last night, or whatever method is used to decide who is white. However, aside from that last one, I don't think it's luck. Not being familiar with an opening is skill. Not sleeping well could be due to an unlucky event at your neighbors, and it could affect the game, but when considering the game in perfect theory, there is no luck. Hey, having big breasts to distract your opponent and choosing to wear a low-cut shirt is a skill, in my book. So, I submit we remove external environment from the discussion.

      Now, back on topic: how much skill is involved? Where is the line? Who knows. I'm sure you could argue craps has some skill - those dice aren't perfectly random, baby! Again, though, in theory, it is completely random. Hmm...

      So poker has elements of the game that are based on pure chance. But how do you measure it and how can you figure out what is gambling/luck/skill when almost everything has some of each? Insane!

    • avatar for Svidri
    • I'm posting to contribute to the discussion.

      Luck and skill, as Craig mentioned, are not mutually exclusive.

      But I do challenge the idea that "chess has no luck." I would like to argue that chess does have many aspects of luck to it. What if a weaker skilled opponent plays an opening line you are unfamiliar with? Yes, you are generally more skilled than he is, but he has a shot at winning the game.

      The true difference is that chess is a game of perfect information, but mainly this "skill" analogy doesn't quite work because chess is not a gambling game. Playing poker is gambling. That doesn't mean there isn't skill involved--but if you make the best move (meaning the move with the most expected value), you don't always get immediate positive results. That is the nature of statics and gambling in general.

      The human mind experiences patterns when sometimes there actually aren't any. This is why people dump tons of cash at casinos, whose house games always have some +ev, even if you play optimally.

      If you are skilled at poker, then it's your house game, the fish are your customers. You are the casino.

    • avatar for Craig
    • I look at it this way:

      I classify games into 3 categories:
      Games of skill
      Games of luck
      Games with both

      For example:

      Skill game: Best example is chess. No random elements (such as dice or cards) involved. Pure mental know-how and opponent reading.

      Luck game: craps. I don't think there's any skill in this game because the outcome is complete determined by the roll of the dice (random). Only strategic advantage seems to be betting on the #'s with the best payout vs. odds ratio. (I admit I don't know the game that well so maybe there's more to it)

      Both skill and luck: blackjack, some board games, and our favorite, poker! There's a definite skill element: weighing odds of improving your hand vs. pot odds, reading your opponent, etc, etc, etc. But, those cards come out of the deck randomly so there's a luck factor too. We've all been rivered.

      So what percentage of poker do you feel poker is skill and what percentage luck? 75:25? 60:40? 50:50? What do you think?
      Where do you draw the line? Can it be measured?

      Consider this:
      If you are playing poker against people with about the same skill level, the skill element is diminished because everyone's level is about equal. So any skill advantage is marginalized unless you look over a very long period and big sample. So in this case I would argue that the luck element becomes a more dominant factor.

      And as more people become interested in poker, the skill level, on the whole, is getting higher and the range is narrowing. So...are ya feel'n lucky?

    • avatar for Ethan
    • I submit that you can determine if a game is objectively skill based by answering the following question:

      In a random population of, say, 500 players, do certain individuals tend to do better on average than others, and is this information predictive of how they will do against another random individual outside the initial population?

      The answer for poker is obvious (ahem, Phil Ivey). And while it's true that counting cards will get you ahead in Blackjack, you will only do marginally better. If the house is counting cards too, your advantage is erased.

    • avatar for Jason M
    • Thanks for the post. I don't know where you draw the line. What does it mean to be a game of skill? You can play different strategies and/or count cards at blackjack to increase your chances of winning. Does that make it a game of skill?

      I think you could beat Federererer or Kasparov. You could beat 'em with bat!