Hard Evidence: is poker a game of chance or skill?

Poker is a game of skill, as any player worth a pair of deuces can tell you. It’s all about “making the wrong move at the right time,” as Lancey Howard, the unbeatable master in the classic film The Cincinnati Kid, says after defeating the Kid’s full house with a combination of hands with odds. These odds have been calculated to be in excess of 20-million-to-one.

Online poker clubs, which earned an estimated £2.8 billion in gross winnings globally in 2013, attract millions of newbies whose perceptions of their own abilities are far from accurate.

There has never been any doubt that chance plays a role. If it didn’t, the aforementioned greenhorns wouldn’t be there for long. It would also be absurd to deny that at least some degree of skill is involved – otherwise, why would certain competitors continually win more than their competitors?

Chance vs. ability

The main question here is whether one aspect or the other is dominant. The logic is straightforward: if chance outweighs talent, poker is a game of chance; if skill outweighs chance, poker is a game of ability. This is what I set out to find out in a study co-authored by Rogier Potter van Loon of Erasmus University Rotterdam and Martijn van den Assem of VU University Amsterdam, which was recently published in PLOS One.

We first looked at how consistent player performance was using a database of 456 million player-hand observations from a year’s worth of online games. This revealed a lot of evidence for the importance of skill in winning games.

For example, players who were in the top 10% of performers in the first six months of the year were more than twice as likely as others to continue performing well in the following six months. And, in the first half of the year, players who finished in the top 1% were 12 times more likely than others to repeat the achievement in the second half. On the other hand, users who struggled from the outset kept losing and seldom transformed into top performers.

The key is that results can be predicted. In a game of chance, there would be no link between players’ winnings over time, whereas, in a game of talent, there would be. As a result, we know that poker cannot be a pure chance game.

The critical juncture

However, the key question of whether skill or chance prevails remains unanswered. We investigated this by comparing the performance of competent and unskilled players in simulations. After 1,471 hands, we discovered the tipping point: experienced players may expect to outperform their less talented peers at least three-quarters of the time.

In other words, after about 1,500 hands, poker becomes a skill game. To put this in context, most online players will likely play 1,500 hands in 19 to 25 hours and even less if they play numerous tables at once.

Of course, loyal players all across the world may feel compelled to rejoice at this news. They can take comfort in the knowledge that the game they love requires and rewards actual skill, and that in the end, talent and guile typically triumph over luck.

Implications for the law

However, the issue main issue is more than just approval and bragging rights. You may be wondering why scholars are wasting their time constructing equations based on the complexity of Texas Hold ‘Em. What is the explanation for this? The legal ramifications of whether poker is considered a game of chance or a game of skill are potentially significant.

For years, questions over poker’s claim to be a skill game have affected legislation. Players in the UK now pay no tax on their wins, which is excellent highlight for everyone from a smallest online tyro to Victoria Coren Mitchell, a writer and TV personality whose professional earnings surpass £1.5 million.

What are deemed to be games of chance in some nations are subject to far stricter regulation: online poker, for example, has been outlawed in most US states since the law that was introduced in 2006 named as Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.

All of this could change if policymakers pay attention to the contrary findings. Even without them, the American judicial system has already debated the subject multiple times, with rulings sustained, reversed, and upheld again. As is fitting, there is a lot of money on the line, and we can anticipate the discussion to continue as fresh information emerges.

However, there is no doubt that Poker game mostly depends on skills and strategy. If you don’t want to practise, consider yourself lucky and desire to win big, then go for roulette or slot machines. Slots Galore casino, for example, has plenty of options.