Monday, March 16, 2009

On Something Else That Will Never Happen

What if?On last week’s episode of The Poker Beat (3/12/09), host Scott Huff led another engaging roundtable discussion of a few different pokery topics with B.J. Nemeth (World Poker Tour), Dan Michalski (Pokerati), and Gary Wise (ESPN, Wise Hand Poker). After they were done, Huff had Matthew Parvis (Bluff Magazine) on primarily to talk about that Bluff Online Poker Challenge.

One topic the initial gang of four spent some time examining was this recent “challenge” issued by the online training site BluefirePoker whereby the site is “offering $1,000,000 to President Obama or any member of the U.S. Congress willing to play a poker game against any of their poker pros, and the winnings can go to the charity of choice.” As the site explains (I’m quoting from their presser), BluefirePoker is willing to “put up $1,000,000 against $1 for a chance to play” with either Obama, a House representative, or a senator.

The point, says BluefirePoker, is to address the issue of “whether or not Poker is a game of chance or skill,” since that issue is currently a focus of attention in most legal debates over poker. “No one in their right mind would turn down this challenge if Poker were a game based on luck,” claims Bluefire, “because the odds are so far in their favor -- putting up $1 for a chance to win $1,000,000” for one’s chosen charity. Further details of the contest were left to be determined, although Bluefire stipulates that “the length of the game must... be long enough to demonstrate the advantage of skill because Poker prowess and experience demonstrate themselves over time.”

More than a little bit cheeky, this whole challenge thing. But it did get some national press last week, with even Fox News devoting a minute to reporting it. Fox News also spent some time reporting on dogs learning how to surf, I saw, so take that however you will. In any event, a few more of us have certainly heard of BluefirePoker now.

The discussion of the challenge on The Poker Beat was interesting, though the fellas spent way too long speculating exactly how the event would go down and how it would be viewed by the public. When Parvis came on afterwards, he sensibly noted that the challenge “is just never going to happen” -- that “there is not even a remote chance of it” actually taking place.

Indeed, BluefirePoker seems to be admitting as much when they suggest that “No one in their right mind” would refuse the challenge if it were true that poker is a luck-based game. In other words, according to BluefirePoker, by not accepting the challenge, Obama and Congress implicitly admit that poker is a skill-based game. Which appears to be the whole point here. (Whether or not it is a good point is another question.)

So if even those issuing the challenge do not mean for it actually to be accepted, it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense to discuss it as if it were.

Mark TwainThe challenge reminds me of a short story written by Mark Twain back and published around 1870 called “Science vs. Luck.” Twain was himself a poker player, and often explicitly defended the game as a worthwhile pastime. I suppose you could say the story is in its own way a defense of card-playing, too.

In the story, Twain imagines a trial taking place in Kentucky in which a dozen boys have been arrested for gambling. The boys had been playing a card game called “seven up” and betting on the outcome, and their lawyer decides to defend them by trying to prove that the game is based on skill (or “science”) and not luck, thereby demonstrating that they were not, in fact, gambling.

Both sides argue their respective positions, but no verdict is reached. It is therefore decided (somewhat preposterously) to play it out to settle the issue. Six clergymen, all of whom want to say the game is gambling, sit down to play some “seven up” with six laymen who believe the game is based on skill (or “science”). After several hours of the clergymen getting crushed in the game, they finally return with all in agreement that the game is, indeed, based on science and not luck, and the boys are acquitted. (If you are interested, you can read the story here.)

Twain’s story is obviously a fabulous fiction, and so probably shouldn’t be read as necessarily corresponding to reality in a direct fashion. Even so, I have always found the story problematic, since it seems to me that after losing the clergymen would be more likely to call it a luck-based game than not.

I mean, really, in poker isn’t it the losers who usually call the game luck and winners who call it skill?

In fact, rather than “prove” the card game is skill-based rather than based on chance, Twain’s story seems to me more obviously to prove the futility of “playing it out” to try to determine the question.

As would the BluefirePoker challenge, yes? Not that it will ever happen.

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