Monday, April 19, 2010

The Skill of the Players, the Skill of the Game

Girls Like Guys With SkillsPlayed in the first of those invitationals in the Battle of the Bloggers Tournament 5 last night. There were 79 runners in this one I believe, and the top 15 spots paid. Thanks again to Sir AlCantHang for pulling the sucker together!

After a couple of hours and around 150 hands, I hadn’t been running particularly well though I felt okay about how things were shaping up. I sat with a little over 4,000 chips, which was below the average (about 5,000) with 47 players left. Blinds were 100/200, and I had just been moved to a new table that had several short stacks, plus a couple of folks in the top ten with about 10,000 each.

Soon I picked up pocket kings in the small blind, and it folded around to one of the big stacks who raised to 450 from the cutoff. The button folded, and I decided to put in a hefty reraise to 2,850, essentially saying I was ready to put the rest of my stack in here. The big blind folded and the LP player called.

Flop looked all right to me -- Q-7-7. My opponent had just called off nearly a third of his stack preflop, so for him to hold a seven felt unlikely. A queen seemed very possible, and as I went ahead and stuck the rest of my chips in the middle it occurred to me he’d probably have to call with a lesser pair or maybe even worse. He did call.

Alas, he did have a seven. Actually, he had two of them.

“Oof,” I typed, seeing he’d flopped quads. “Rigged,” he responded sympathetically. Two community cards later I was on the rail.

The hand made me think of a few weeks ago when I managed to flop quads a few times in short stretch while playing limit hold’em (wrote about that here). I remember looking around then to see the chances of doing so was something like 1 in 408 or something. The Poker Grump had calculated this once.

The hand also made me think about an exchange on The Poker Beat from a couple of episodes ago that I had meant to write about but forgot to -- one concerning that age-old “skill-vs.-luck” debate in poker. It was on the 4/8/10 episode, during the panel’s discussion of that recent ruling in a Pennsylvania appeals court that poker was “predominantly a game of chance.”

Host Scott Huff came up with what I thought was an interesting approach to the topic, even if it didn’t sound quite right when he proposed it. “Is it possible,” asked Huff, “that the way these courts are looking at it is that ‘Yes, while poker may be a game of skill, most people -- and I think we can all agree on this -- most people play poker as if it is a game of chance?”

Huff suggested going down to Hollywood Park Casino at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning to see how much “skill” was being employed in the games. Huff wondered if this state of affairs helped create the impression to non-players that poker really was “predominantly” luck-based. “Because in order for poker to be a game of skill,” concluded Huff, “you must be skillful at it. You must study the game.”

Like I say, it sounded like an interesting approach, although I remember at the time sensing there was something a little off about it. Gary Wise brought up one of those studies that shows most hands aren’t shown down -- not quite answering the question. B.J. Nemeth said it was a good point and jokingly wished Huff wouldn’t give poker’s opponents ammunition like this. Finally, Dan Michalski said that while he agreed poker was a game of skill we nevertheless “have to acknowledge that there’s so much chance involved, and when it comes to the politics of it, they are always going to be looking at it as gambling because it is something that is run by casinos.”

I didn’t think too much more about it, but then was reminded of Huff’s question again a couple of days later when I looked at the PokerRoad forums and saw that a poster had challenged his thesis that “in order for poker to be a game of skill, you must be skillful at it.”

You see the logical fallacy there, yes? A game can require skill regardless of how people play it. Indeed, how can one be skillful at a game if it does not require skill?

Such was the 6th Wilbury’s point on the forums, which included his noting that the presence of bad players in fact “supports the argument that poker is a game of skill” insofar as the difference between them and the skillful players is discernible.

Even so, I do think that when it comes to considering how non-players sometimes perceive poker, Huff probably has a point. Heck, even a game like golf can look mostly chance-based to the non-player. Makes sense to suggest that to those who don’t play the game -- who are often the ones drafting legislation or presiding over cases in which the question comes up -- poker sure can look like luck sometimes.

Especially when dudes are flopping quads on you.

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Blogger Spaceman said...

Michalski's comment from that Poker Beat episode that "when it comes to the politics of it, they are always going to be looking at it as gambling because it is something that is run by casinos" is something that Harvard Law professor Charles Nesson mentioned when I interviewed him last week about using poker as a teaching tool in universities.

"(T)his whole idea of seeing (poker) as something that is a very useful thing to teach to young people who want to gain control over their feelings of risk and aggression just seems to get swamped in the talk of casinos and gambling more broadly," Nesson told me. (You can check the full article out here.)

I think he and Dan are both correct (which may be the only time I ever lump Dan into any category with a Harvard professor). I've always liked that there are some jurisdictions in America where gambling is illegal but poker is perfectly acceptable, which allows the game to be spread in establishments whose sole purpose is to allow people to play this game of skill. More of that would be bad for gigantic tournaments, which is what the casinos are really good for, but I think it might actually be better for the game in the long run.

4/19/2010 9:48 AM  

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