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Skill Vs. Chance Poker Debate Gets More Coverage

April 7, 2009 (CAP Newswire) — As the nationwide movement to fully legalize poker in all its shapes and forms picks up steam in the United States, more and more top-tier media outlets are carrying the story.

Writing for, Celeste Biever offers a new take on the situation, and where this movement may be headed on a national scale.

As we all know, many U.S. states and sub-state jurisdictions have criminalized poker (in either land-based or online forms, or both), based on the assumption that it’s gambling, a historically touchy subject matter for American lawmakers. So, as Biever reminds us, the goal of the movement to exempt poker from these archaic laws is to prove that it’s not gambling, but a game of skill.

“Now two studies that tapped the vast amounts of data available from online casinos have provided some of the best evidence yet that poker is skill-based,” Biever writes. “Many hope that the results will help to roll back laws and court decisions that consider poker gambling, and therefore illegal in certain contexts.

“Previous attempts to quantify the relationship between skill and chance have involved building theoretical models or playing software bots against each other. However, Ingo Fiedler and Jan-Philipp Rock at the University of Hamburg's Institute of Law and Economics in Germany argue that these methods fail to reflect real games, and this may explain why some courts and lawmakers have yet to be swayed by them.”

Over a span of three months, according to the article, this pair of researchers in Germany meticulously tracked the results of 55,000 online poker players “playing millions of hands of poker's most popular variant, ‘no-limit Texas hold 'em’.”

To give meaning to this research, they laid down two factors by which to judge whether the results would indicate that poker was a game of skill, or chance. First, they measured the fluctuation of each player's wins and losses: “the higher this variance, the greater the role of chance”. Then, they measured “the average value of a player's winnings or losses: highly skilled or terrible players would do noticeably better or worse than would be expected by chance alone.”

When looking at the data with these two factors in mind, the researchers concluded that the effects of skill start to dominate over chance after about 1,000 hands have been played. That amount, they state, is more or less equal to about 33 hours of playing in person or 13 hours online, "where the rate of play is brisker".

The article goes on to examine another case, with a much smaller field of study and a much simpler hypothesis: The Cigital study sponsored by PokerStars, which analyzed how many games ended with a “showdown”. Read about that study here.

The problem with these studies — and with all such studies — is that, no matter how much data one accumulates, it’s difficult to state authoritatively that your conclusions prove that the game is one of skill or chance. So, when these studies conclude that poker is “more a game of skill”, that's certainly helpful to the cause, but it doesn't exactly equal the kind of ironclad proof needed to sway grandstanding lawmakers.

So, the next best thing to incontrovertible evidence would be a body of research that leans heavily on one side of the skill vs. chance equation. And that is what is being built here: A variety of smaller cases that all point in the same direction. These studies, combined with recent pro-poker rulings in individual U.S. states like Pennsylvania, Colorado, and South Carolina, can have a cumulative effect that may be the deciding factor in whether a judge rules poker to be game of skill or chance — even if actual scientific proof is never documented.  

To that end, "John Pappas of the Poker Players Alliance (PPA) in Washington DC says both studies are badly needed to help properly define the law,” writes Biever. “In many US states, judges and juries use a so-called ‘predominance test’ to gauge skill and chance, based on the opinions of expert witnesses.”

"The PPA expects the Cigital study will now be used as evidence to fight appeals against court rulings that decided poker is a skill game.”

Ultimately, though, the story’s biggest hint that the public may be starting to consider poker a game of skill is that the story was filed under ABCNews’ “Technology & Science” section. Click here to read it.