Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Skill, Luck, and Testimony

James McManus (Positively Fifth Street, Cowboys Full) yesterday contributed a column to the BloombergView website titled “Good Poker Players Aren’t Lucky” in which he shares details of a recently resolved misdemeanor case in Idaho involving two defendants charged with illegal gambling for having played poker.

As McManus explains, the defendants pleaded not guilty on the grounds that poker is a game of skill and therefore not covered by the anti-gambling statute they were charged with violating. A pretrial hearing was held in April to consider the defendants’ motion to dismiss the charges, with McManus himself among the witnesses who testified on their behalf.

McManus summarizes his testimony in the column, including sharing how he introduced a couple of different studies confirming poker’s skill component. I wasn’t familiar with one of them, a 2012 study called the “Economics of Poker: The Effect of Systemic Chance,” although its methodology and conclusions seemed to resemble those of a different study put out by Cigital, Inc. that I wrote about here back in 2009, called “Statistical Analysis of Texas Hold’em.”

The other study McManus shared was one I have read before, the one Freakonomics author Steven Levitt wrote with Thomas Miles titled “The Role of Skill Versus Luck in Poker: Evidence from the World Series of Poker.” Click here for a summary of that one, if you’re curious.

The testimony of McManus and others proved constructive for the defendants, as the judge in the dismissed the charges late last week. Sounded like it wasn't even close, actually, either confirming the skillfulness of the defense or the luck of drawing a receptive judge. “The case nudges Idaho, and perhaps other states, closer to understanding that the skill-to-luck ratio of America’s national card game makes it much more like playing baseball or the markets than like hoping a craps or keno or lottery number comes up,” concludes McManus.

Of course, objections against poker aren’t entirely informed by the hard-to-maintain case that it doesn’t involve skill and/or its affinity to other gambling games requires it be legislated similarly. Many people -- including legislators and other adjudicators -- don’t like poker for other reasons, too.

It’s a game in which money is an essential element, and while most of our lives are determined by the various games we play with each other for money, a lot of people are just too darned uncomfortable with being so explicit about doing so as poker requires us to do.

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