Monday, August 17, 2009

Poker Is Skill, By George

Poker Is Skill, By GeorgeAs this post is being published, FerricRamsium and I are probably in the air on the last leg of our journey, heading from Amsterdam to Kiev, Ukraine to cover the initial stop of Season 6 of the European Poker Tour. Start checking PokerNews’ live reporting page tomorrow (Tuesday) for our first reports.

Am hoping to be able to post this week from Kiev, although can’t promise anything along those lines. Meanwhile, I thought I’d give y’all something to ponder. Saw this op-ed piece in Saturday’s Houston Chronicle by George F. Will which speaks in a somewhat general way about legal battles over online gambling and poker, and thought I would point you to it and make a comment or two.

You might recall Will -- a generally conservative political pundit though never hesitant to criticize either party’s policies if he feels such criticism is warranted -- was an early opponent of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. In fact, Will was probably one of the first to liken the UIGEA to prohibition, writing a Newsweek column about it in October 2006 (shortly after Bush signed it into law) which he titled “Prohibition II: Good Grief.”

Will’s new piece, titled “Internet gambling ban a raw deal for poker players,” also makes the libertarian argument against government restrictions against online gambling. Yet Will additionally makes some effort in the piece to emphasize the “poker is skill” argument, highlighting Howard Lederer as a modern day exemplar of the theory. He also reaches back to the Hungarian mathematician and founder of game theory, John von Neumann, to further Lederer’s case that poker is not strictly gambling, but a genuine test of one’s ability “to apply skill, acquired by experience.”

Incidentally, not all poker theorists blindly accept von Neumann’s poker-related ideas, the most famous of which appear in a chapter called “Poker and Bluffing” that appears in the mathematician’s 1944 book titled Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Arnold Snyder has a lengthy section in his Poker Tournament Formula 2 which (perhaps hyperbolically) suggests “this chapter has resulted in more bad bluffs at the poker tables in the past 65 years than drunkenness, fatigue, and bad-beat tilting combined.” But Will’s use of von Neumann in his editorial seems relevant enough.

George WillThere is one problem, though, with Will’s editorial, I think, in that Will seems to be conflating two distinct issues.

There’s the issue of personal liberty, whereby any restrictions that handicap or prevent individuals’ being able to gamble online are viewed by folks like Will as a threat. Then there’s the issue of poker being different from other forms of gambling, involving a skill component in a way that, say, roulette or playing the lottery does not.

In his new piece, Will doesn’t mention either Barney Frank’s Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection and Enforcement Act (H.R. 2267) -- which seeks to license and regulate online gambling, generally speaking -- or Robert Menendez’s Internet Poker and Games of Skill Regulation, Consumer Protection, and Enforcement Act of 2009 (S. 1597) -- which concentrates on licensing and regulating “games of skill” like poker, chess, bridge, mah-jong, and backgammon.

It appears Will was probably inspired by Menendez’s newly-introduced Senate bill to write the new piece. But the argument he puts forth gets a little fuzzy when, on the one hand, he refers to gambling in general as “a ubiquitous human activity that generally harms nobody,” while on the other hand he highlights poker as a skill-based game that because it requires skill makes it particularly unfair for the government to circumscribe folks’ playing it.

Still, I appreciate Will chiming in, and don’t disagree with his view that Congress should not be restricting “Americans’ freedom to exercise their poker skills online.”

Interesting, I guess, that I’m now heading to Kiev, where the initial EPT stop was moved following Russia’s decision to consider poker gambling (and not a sport) and thus make it impossible for the EPT to have its event in Moscow. We go where the game goes.

In any event, I hope to talk to you soon from the Kiev Sports Palace!

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