Is poker gambling or not? It’s a debate that has been raging ever since the Americans passed the UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act) in 2006, forcing some of the biggest operators in the online Poker industry to stop accepting players from the US, including PartyGaming, SportingBet, 888 and bwin.
As public companies their appetite for risk was clearly tempered by their long-term fiduciary duty to their shareholders and I guess they had no choice but to withdraw from the American market despite the catastrophic short-term effect on their share prices.
Here’s what I think. Lumping poker into the scope of the UIGEA is harsh because I don’t consider poker to be a form of gambling. Bingo is proper gambling. Scratch cards and lottery tickets are proper gambling. Slot machines, roulette and other casino games – proper gambling. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, chance is the only determinant.
The Oxford English Dictionary simply defines ‘gambling’ as “playing games of chance for money”.
To the uninitiated it’s easy to see why you may think poker is a game of chance. The best cards will always win and you cannot control which cards you are dealt right?
Wrong. OK, it’s true that the best cards at the end of any given round will always win. However, in online poker over 75% of hands don’t end in a showdown, so the cards you are dealt are largely irrelevant, because over 75% of the time no-one gets to see them.
What counts in poker is not what cards the dealer gives you, but what you do with them. The quality of the decisions you make based on your table position, the size of your chip stack, the betting behaviour of those around you, your ability to read ‘tells’ accurately, your understanding and application of pot odds – all will play a much more important role in your success than the cards you are dealt.
There is a massive market for poker books, periodicals and instructional websites. None focus on luck as being an important component in your poker game play. And come to think of it, I don’t recall seeing a huge selection of bingo or lottery winning strategy books in my local library.
As a keen amateur player myself, I find luck does creep in, but more bad luck than good luck. If you play the game well every time you go into a showdown you should hold the strongest hand. If you then get beaten, that is bad luck. However, mathematically you have played correctly and in the long term you will win more than you lose in that situation. If you go into a showdown with the weakest hand and you win, you have played badly and got lucky – and mathematically in the long term you will lose more than you win in that situation.
Respected journalist, author and poker ninja Victoria Coren knows her stuff. In her excellent For Richer For Poorer: A love affair with Poker she dismisses Roulette as a mug’s game: “Thank God, my old roulette habit has been channelled into poker, which offers the same adrenaline but can, slowly and gradually if I study the game, be controlled by skill and judgement”.
Charles Nesson, a Harvard law professor and founder of The Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society, takes a similar albeit less instinctive view. Nesson sees in poker “a language for thinking about and an environment for experiencing the dynamics of strategy in dispute resolution”.
Garry Kasparov, a chess grandmaster, argues that poker offers lessons on chance and risk management that even his own beloved game can’t. Many chess professionals are moving into poker, not least because the money is better.
I don’t think many right minded person would consider chess to be a game of chance.
Earlier this year a Dutch Court ruled that poker is a game of skill not chance and there is an interesting case currently being deliberated on by the South Carolina Supreme Court, the outcome of which will be interesting.
Above all, there is one very simple, glaringly obvious fact that proves beyond all reasonable doubt in my simple mind that poker has to be a game of skill.
Just take a look at the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Hall of Fame. The top three players, who have all won more than 10 WSOP bracelets over careers spanning 20 years, have accumulated poker winnings in excess of $13m having cashed on over 150 occasions.
Nobody can possibly get lucky that many times! It’s as ridiculous as claiming that golf is a game of chance and Tiger Woods just got lucky.
What I cannot quite get my head around is why anyone, most of all the law makers of the world’s greatest superpower would consider poker to be a game of chance?
Have they never played the game?