Scientific American Picks Up Poker’s “Skill Versus Luck” Argument

It is a question that has been debated since probably the dawn of the game of poker (whether you believe it was invented in Turkey, France, Louisiana or on the riverboats of the Mississippi River). What is the skill element of poker versus that of luck? Leave it to a top science magazine to wade into the waters and attempt to answer that age-old debate.

In an article on the Scientific American website, writer Jennifer Ouellette pens an intriguing look at the “skill versus luck” debate, featuring input from a few of poker’s more notable names. In an article entitled “Knowing When To Fold’em: The Science of Poker,” Ouellette begins her piece by discussing the latest ruling in federal court that overturned the conviction of a Staten Island man for running a “game of chance,” in essence saying poker was a game of skill. Ouellette also points out the contradictory stance from the U. S. government in its decision from December 2011 on the Wire Act of 1961 and its crackdown in April 2011 on the three biggest websites servicing American players.

Ouellette then brings up a fascinating study by German researchers that offers a different opinion than the federal court system. The German study rounded up 300 players, with half of the players self-described as “experts” and half as “average,” and set them on six handed tables to play 60 hands of Texas Hold’em. Through fixing the deck, the researchers could, in their opinion, accurately measure whether luck or skill was predominant and the results opened Pandora’s Box once again.

In that study, Ouellette reports that the researchers determined, “Luck, rather than skill, was key in determining final balance, with experts taking no more, on average, that novices. Experts did play differently, on various measures, and seemed better able to cope with bad luck, losing less. But they also won less when given good cards.” The German study does point out some flaws with its study – the limited number of hands and the self-determination by players of their skill levels, to name two – but it stated that poker is, contrary to other studies and court rulings, driven by luck.

In her article, Ouellette cites several other pieces written by her and academics on the issue. Poker professional Michael Binger – who has a degree in particle physics to fall back on in case the poker thing doesn’t work out – is one of the poker playing physicists she consults and he offers the opinion that, studying the game and its mathematics, that poker is a “beatable game.” Ouellette offers Binger’s opinion after dissecting his approach to blackjack, which Binger learned he “wasn’t going to get rich” by playing the game.

Binger also admits that he has an edge in his use of probabilities, equity calculations and statistical analysis, but that he also knows players who play “by feel.” Another poker playing physicist, Marcel Vonk, says to Ouellette, “There are many people who hate math but are great poker players, but there are hardly any players who lack the people reading abilities and still manage to be good poker players. Mathematical knowledge can to a large extent be replaced by intuition and experience. After a player has played a million hands of poker, even if he does not know the math at all, he will have a decent feeling about when it is profitable to draw to a flush and when it is not.”

Ouellette also acknowledges the work done in the field by former World Champion Chris Ferguson, who hasn’t been seen on a poker table in some time (and we know why). He explains the logistics behind the game, his work in game theory on the subject and is cited in the bibliography that concludes the article.

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