Skill Versus Chance


Is poker a game of skill or a game of chance?  This is the question which haunts the legal battles for the right to play poker.

Let’s take a look at some comparisons:

Chess is an obvious game of skill.  The Master player always beats the Amateur.  What makes it so?

1.  The options a player has on his turn are limited to a set selection of moves.

2.  There is no variance in the parameters of choices.

3.  The position of each player is completely transparent to the other player.

4.  It is possible to predict the possible opponent responses to any play.

5.  There is a large database of strategy for the game available for study.

What separates the Master from the Amateur is mainly based on #1, #4 and #5:  the Master can calculate the outcome of all of his choices and can project the probable responses by his opponent out to a significant number of future scenarios; and he has studied and knows the best winning strategies against various types of play.

Now let’s look at another game which is obviously a combination of skill and chance:  Monopoly:

1.  The options a player has on his turn are limited to a set selection, but is largely determined by a random roll of the dice.

2.  There is no variance in the parameters of choices.

3.  The position of each player is completely transparent to the other player.

4.  There really isn’t any “opponent responses” to a play, as their turn is also determined by the dice and is completely separate in action.

5.  There are winning strategies to be applied (such as buy properties early and quickly, save some money to buy key properties, prevent your opponents from making monopolies, etc.), but these aren’t generally available in study forms and are mostly learned from experience.

So here we have a game whose outcome could be said to be largely based on chance – the roll of the dice for each player’s’ turn.  Yet, there are definite levels of skill for the game and a more advanced player will usually win against the less experienced.  How is that possible for a “game of chance”?  #5 is the pivotal issue:  the better player knows the winning strategies and implements them at every opportunity.

What do you think a court jury would say about Monopoly?  Would they call it a game of chance?  Or is enough of the outcome determined by the skill of the player to put it in the realm of a skill game.  Or what about Scrabble – the outcome is to a large degree determined by the random pick of tiles each turn.  But no one would say the game is not a skill game – players who memorize their 2- and 3-letter word lists, and have a larger vocabulary have the big advantage to win.  So where does one draw the line between skill versus chance?

Now let’s look at poker:

1.  The options a player has on his turn are nearly unlimited.  Sure, you have just three or four choices – fold, check, call or bet.  But bet how much?  Whom to bet against?  When to bluff?  When to fold a big hand? Etc.  The options one chooses are to a certain extent determined by the random deal of the cards.  But not exclusively by any means, and not always – one can choose to play the players rather than the cards.

2.  There is huge variance in the parameters of choices.  Which game is one playing?  Which type of strategy?  What is one’s position at the table for the hand being played?  How are the other players playing?  Do you have reads on your opponents’ betting patterns and tells?  And on and on.

3.  The position of each player is not transparent to the other player.  But the skilled player can have reads on the range of hands their opponents are holding based on betting patterns, tells, etc.  The top pros can be quite accurate in this respect – at least to a large degree.

4.  It is difficult to predict the possible opponent responses to any play.  But once again the advanced player uses his skills to make generally accurate predictions.

5.  There is a large database of strategy for the game available for study.

Wow!  That’s a lot of variance.  A lot of choices.  A lot of skills and strategies.  The advanced player will apply various skills such as mathematical probability calculations, behavioral observation and prediction, calculated risks, body language (reading others, hiding one’s own and falsely projecting), game theory, evoking emotional responses in one’s opponents, trapping strategies, and much more.

Interesting…these skills of the advanced player lie in three areas:  behavioral science, mathematical science and military strategy.  Oh my!  Here we have a game, but one could see that the outcome in a game played by advanced players is largely influenced by the sciences!!  Well, duh – what else could you apply to a random series of events to predict and influence outcomes except scientific theory and application?

Where else do we see such scenarios in life.  How about earthquake construction engineering?  The engineers use models and sciences to predict the actions of earthquakes and engineer building strategies which will survive the random occurrences of earthquakes.  How about hurricane warning systems?  The sciences are applied to observe and predict the formation and path of such random storm systems.  Aircraft engineering?  Solar science?  Astronomy?  Atomic physics?  Political science?  Behavior management?  These all utilize the sciences to predict and control randomly occurring phenomenon.

Where does that lead us in regards to poker.  Simple.  The question is simply not accurately stated.  It is not a question of Skill vs. Chance.  It is a question of Science vs. Chance.  The advanced player in poker applies the scientific technologies of poker to minimize the effects of the random deal of the cards.  It is an intense battle of application of science to a rapidly developing random series of events.  The Amateur poker player is playing a game of chance.  The Master poker player is an applied scientist.  Sometimes in the short run the Amateur will get an advantage over the Master through chance.  In the long haul, the Master player will easily gain mastery over the Amateur through scientific application.

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