Tuesday, October 11, 2011

More on Skill-vs.-Luck

'Luck & Skill' by Michael IrvingIn yesterday’s post I talked about that recent New York Times piece that in my opinion did only a so-so job bringing readers up-to-date regarding the current mess that is online poker in the U.S.

Among the problems I had with the piece was a wildly incomplete presentation of the skill-vs.-luck argument in poker. Actually that was an especially grievous aspect of the article since the author ultimately promoted that very debate to a high level of importance, noting how its resolution “may well set the course of the multibillion-dollar business of online poker.”

In addressing that aspect of the article, I quoted from the author’s own presentation of the debate, pointing out not only that it was lacking, but it appeared to be partly borrowed from an argument made by the Focus on the Family folks. I won’t repeat the passage here, but basically the poker-is-all-luck side of the argument was covered by a statement that since royal flushes and four-of-a-kinds occur very rarely, poker can’t be regarded as a skill game. (Yeah, I know.)

Later on in the article a representative of Focus on the Family, Chad Hills, is quoted making similarly specious statements that supposedly dismiss the skill element in poker. “Not even the best players ‘can tell you what the next card flipped over is going to be,’ Mr. Hills says” (for example) in an effort to debunk the notion that poker involves any skill whatsoever.

I suppose there’s a problem with the NYT writer presenting this as a rational position (there’s no disclaimer or explanation for why Hills isn’t making sense here). But in any case I figured my list of problems in the piece was already long enough to leave this one out.

However, there was one writer who didn’t overlook Hills’ bit of nonsense when responding to the NYT article. The correspondent “J.F.” over at The Economist wrote a brief, thoughtful response to Hills yesterday that I would assume some reading this blog would enjoy.

J.F. quickly points out that since poker players don’t simply play a single hand, talking about the turn of a single card really has little significance when it comes to the debate, one which J.F. helpfully frames as “not whether luck has any role at all, but whether poker itself is principally a game of luck or skill.”

He then alludes both to “common sense” (which notes that there are, indeed, poker pros who win consistently) and to that Steven Levitt/Thomas Miles study from last summer in support of the idea that skill does in fact matter in poker. (I wrote about the Levitt/Miles study here.)

J.F. also brings up that Cigital study from 2009 about how lots of hold’em hands actually get folded before the showdown. I found that study interesting but not entirely persuasive. Still, it helps show that if you want to go on about the turn of a single card, well, sometimes people fold before that card gets turned at all.

He then concludes with that point that you can deliberately lose at poker, an observation often made as proof that it is a game in which skill matters. The idea there is that if a game is wholly subject to chance, you can’t really lose on purpose because there is nothing you can do to affect the outcome. Except not play, I guess.

Anyhow, I thought some might be interested to know about J.F.’s post, and so wanted to pass it along. The comments over there are also above-average interesting, if you’d like to pursue the debate even further.

I guess whatever you want to say about poker, building an effective argument is most certainly a skill game.

(By the way, the image above was made by Michael Irving. Michael has a cool site where he creates and posts similar “ambigrams,” and he graciously allowed me to post this one here. He just posted a bunch of neat horror film-themed ones for Halloween, too -- check ’em out!)

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