A recent Wisconsin ruling upheld a decades old law that poker was illegal gambling. Players had been arguing that poker was a skill game and thus were hoping that the judge would declare it legal. While the judge did give a favorable opinion on the long-term skillfulness of poker, he stopped short of declaring it a skill game.
While it may not be a popular opinion, his lack of ruling poker a skill is the correct ruling. Poker players know that poker is a skill game over the long term but we also know that luck factors into the equation. If it weren’t for luck, many of the fish wouldn’t play or wouldn’t stick with the game for as long as they do. Not ruling poker as a skill game is actually the correct decision.
Every Hand of Poker Involves an Element of Chance
Players continually argue that poker is a game of skill, and while we know this is true, every hand that you play does have an element of chance. The best pre-flop hand does not always win. Hands that are ahead on the flop or turn can be ruined on the river by a lucky turn of the card.
The element of chance changes depending on what style of poker you play. In poker tournaments, luck plays a larger factor than in cash games. A player can go lucky at the right time in a poker tournament and make a run at the final table and even the title. While a player can go on a run in cash game, this luck is always balanced out long-term.
In many true skill games, you can typically determine at the beginning of a match who is going to win provided they don’t make any mistakes. An amateur chess player will not beat a Grandmaster. A weekend bar league champion will not defeat the two-time U.S. Open billiards champion. However, a rank amateur can beat a poker pro in an individual poker game if he or she is lucky enough.
This element of chance is one reason why some judges are unwilling to rule poker a pure skill game. While some will admit that it is skillful long-term, there is enough luck involved in the short term to put it on the same footing as traditional gambling.
Online Poker Industry Targeting Casual Players Doesn’t Help Argument
Anyone that has been following online poker industry news in the last couple of years knows that there has been a massive push to cater to casual online poker players. Some sites have introduced anonymous tables while others have introduced “lottery style” poker games such as the PokerStars Spin & Go poker tournaments.
This push doesn’t help the argument for luck vs. skill. Making games more enticing for casual players while making it tougher for pros and grinders to make a living takes away from the skill in online poker.
One cannot deny the impact that lottery style Sit & Go tournaments have had on cash game traffic. Players looking to make that massive score are willing to give up edges they would normally enjoy.
If you can potentially turn $1 into $3,000 or $10 into $30,000 by beating two players in less than 30 minutes, why not take that chance? Yes, there may be some players that claim to be ahead playing these lottery style games but the majority are losing money.
Luck vs. Skill Isn’t the Answer to Legalizing Poker
Poker players and analysts have contended that having poker ruled as a skill game will legalize live and online poker. While this is a solid argument, again the fact remains that our “skill game” involves a solid percentage of luck.
At what point does luck switch over to skill in poker? The problem with answering this question is that it’s different for each player. There’s no standard answer. One player may be an expert player in a few months where another plays for 10 years and never masters the nuances of the game.
Is Daniel Negreanu a more skillful player than Mike Matusow? Why? What determines his level of skillfulness over Matusow? One could argue his accomplishments but Doyle Brunson is considered the greatest of all-time and his lifetime tournament accomplishments don’t stack up to Jamie Gold who is considered a flash in the pan.
Simply, luck vs. skill is too subjective. While you can try to rank players as they do in Chess or other skill games, a bad run of cards can still put even the best players on an extended losing streak. The element of chance coupled with the subjective nature of luck vs. skill is why it will be next to impossible to get a judge legalize poker by ruling it a skill game.