Is Poker a Game of Skill? The Great Poker Debate

We’ve all heard people swear poker is a game of skill and others who swear it’s all luck. 

Sometimes we’ve had strong feelings that go both ways. When we just can’t seem to win a hand, it seems like luck is the thing keeping us back. Other times we’re winning every hand and we’re certain it’s most definitely skill. 

Poker players aren’t the only people having this debate. It’s been a huge legal debate because this would completely change how poker is regulated. If poker is deemed a game of luck, then it falls in the same category as casino games, lottery and other forms of gambling. If it’s considered a game of skill, then the game can be regulated independently from gaming. Lawmakers around the world have interpreted this differently, but some players have challenged lawmakers directly. In Norway, one high-stakes pro challenged lawmakers to defeat him in poker.

While we can’t play heads-up for legalization to decide legal matters, courts and others have chimed in on this topic:

A Tale of Two Court Cases

Poker law

Commonwealth v. Watkins

This one had a little bit of whiplash. In December 2008 Walter Watkins was charged with violating Pennsylvania gambling laws on 20 counts after hosting poker games in the garage. 

In the initial court ruling, Judge Thomas A. James Jr. overturned the ruling and said poker was a game of skill. Therefore, it is not considered gambling.  

“The academic studies and the experts generally agree that a player must be skillful to be successful at poker,” James wrote. “At the outset, chance is equally distributed among the players. But the outcome is eventually determined by skill.”

But the commonwealth appealed. In April 2010, the appellate court ruled 2-1 that poker is dominated by luck. This overturned Judge Thomas’ ruling. The two judges, Kate Ford Elliot and Robert Freeberg, said that while there is an element of skill inherent to poker, it is governed mostly by luck. After that, Watkins and Dent had their convictions reinstated under Pennsylvania gambling laws.

The United States vs DiCristina

Lawrence DiCristina was charged with running an illegal gambling business out of a warehouse in New York. He faced up to 10 years in prison. 

The case ended up in a Federal Court in Brooklyn where Judge Jack B. Weinstein decided DiCristina’s fate. DiCristina, they found, was without a doubt running a poker game out of the warehouse. But the judge concluded that poker was a game of skill. That meant the DiCristina couldn’t be charged under federal gambling laws. 

The judge issued a massive 120-page ruling where he stated that “the most skillful [poker] professionals earn the same celestial salaries as professional ballplayers.”

This was a landmark case that opened the doors for states to start legalizing online poker.

The PPA White Paper on Poker Skill versus Chance

The Poker Players Alliance wrote a comprehensive white paper on why poker is a game of skill. 

The paper says that while an accumulation of luck throughout a poker game may affect how players perform, this is also true with golf. Weather conditions, lucky bounces, and other factors come into play with golf.

“The fact that every hand of poker involves multiple decision points (at each of the multiple rounds of betting), multiple decisions at each decision point (bet, call, raise, or fold), and innumerable factors that call for skill to evaluate each of those decisions (for example, the player’s cards, the odds of his hand improving, his sense of the strength of the other player’s hand, his sense of the other players’ perception of him), establishes that poker is a contest of skill,” argues the PPA.

The White Paper says that making correct decisions in poker games requires a diverse array of sophisticated. 

“The importance of decision-making in poker cannot be understated: in a recent statistical analysis of millions of actual poker hands, the players’ decisions alone rather than the cards dealt accounted for the result in 76% of all the hands played.

As the PPA states on its website: “A good litmus test in determining whether a game is predominantly a game of skill or a game of chance is the answer to the question: “Who are the top players of this game in the world?” For poker, someone could name the top five or 10 poker players in the world. But if the question asks for the top roulette players or bingo players, answers would not come as easily because a skilled player and a non-skilled player have the same likelihood of winning those games.”

Poker Stars Studies Poker Skill versus Chance Debate

PokerStars commissioned a report from Cigital Inc and Rational Entertainment Enterprises in April 2010. That report became the “Statistical Analysis of Texas Hold’em.” The study analyzed 103 million hands of poker and found that 75.7% of hands did not go to showdown. This meant that luck was not a factor in the majority of the hands dealt. 

“This study concludes that the outcomes of 103 million observed games of Texas Hold’Em Poker were determined by skill more often than by chance, and by a significant margin,” the report said.

“As a poker player I can tell you that knowing when to hold or fold is not based solely on the cards that are dealt, but a series of decisions based on skill and the actions taken by the other players,”  Alfonse D’Amato, the Chairman of the PPA, said after reading the report. “This study provides the raw data to back up the compelling arguments made by poker players around the world that it’s skill, not pure luck, that determines the outcome of the game.”

The Chess Connection

Chess

Chess is one of the most skilled strategy-based games out there and it’s been around for centuries. There’s no doubt out there that chess is a game of pure skill. Some of the game’s top players have also been successful in poker.

World chess master, Garry Kasparov, said poker involves high elements of skill and risk management that exceed those in chess. Many chess pros have made the move to professional poker to make more money. Jennifer Shade, who won the American Women’s Chess Championship twice, moved to poker. She said both games rely on similar skills.

“The Theory of Poker”

In his book, “The Theory of Poker”, David Sklansky argues that poker players do not rely on luck. Instead, he says, they are “at war with luck.” A skilled player takes advantage of luck when it comes, but steps out of its way when it comes to opponents. 

In games of chance like roulette, Sklansky argues players cannot lose intentionally. In poker, players can easily lose if they chose to. On top of that, Sklansky also says you make money when your opponents make mistakes. 

If a player can make a mistake, that means they lack the skills to play correctly. If your success is directly linked to playing better than those around you, then that’s pure skill.

Conclusion: Poker is a Game of Skill

There’s no doubt that luck is an important element of poker. It’s what makes it fun and why we keep coming back from more. But even as luck comes and goes, it will never be as powerful as a disciplined, skilled player. 

There’s a reason you see the same faces at final tables. There’s a reason you see the same big names winning millions of dollars year after year. It takes skill to do this and players do everything they can to learn more than their opponents. Luck plays a bigger role short term, but over the longterm, only skilled players will stay profitable.

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