Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Poker and Other Gambling Games

Recent developments with online poker have inspired conversations (again) about poker’s relationship to other gambling games, especially other casino games.

When I first became serious about poker and broadened my knowledge enough to appreciate first-hand its strategic complexity, it wasn’t long before I found myself becoming similarly serious about wanting to distinguish poker from other types of gambling which I was much less inspired to pursue. Most who come to poker not via those other gambling games but by other routes (as I did) probably experience something similar, if they become at all serious about the game.

I have to admit I feel differently today, though -- still convinced of why poker is distinct from those games, but much less energized by any special need to point out the significance of that difference.

When the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was suddenly sprung upon us a little over eight years ago, responses from the poker community included a lot of hopeful talk about “carve outs” and how poker somehow shouldn’t be considered “a game subject to chance” (to quote the UIGEA) -- even if, of course, it is. That “skill argument” continues to invigorate some including the Poker Players Alliance, the lobbying group created in response to the UIGEA, despite the fact that legally speaking the argument that poker isn’t entirely “subject to chance” hasn’t really had any major influence.

Sure, there have been occasional rulings by judges sympathetic to poker’s skill component, including that one from August 2012 in which a federal judge maintained poker “is not predominantly a game of chance” while throwing out a conviction for illegal gambling of someone who’d run a poker game out of a Staten Island warehouse. But a year later the ruling in that case was reversed, and it doesn’t seem any occasional declarations in courts acknowledging that it takes a little more know-how to win a hand of poker than to hit your number in roulette has ever mattered all that much as far as the law is concerned.

Meanwhile in Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware came the passage of online gambling laws that have made it possible for players within those states to play poker against each other (“intrastate”) while allowing for casino games, too. We in the poker community focus more on the poker side of things, but just like in live casinos, online poker is operating right alongside online slots, online craps, online blackjack, and so on. And relatively speaking -- also like in live casinos -- those other games are earning significantly more revenue than poker, to no one’s surprise.

Other recent developments with regard to online poker sites operating outside the U.S. have perhaps served to emphasize further poker’s connection to other gambling games, and I’m not just alluding to PokerStars recently following other poker sites to offer other casino games.

Games like the Jackpot Sit & Go tournaments on Full Tilt Poker and the Spin & Gos on Stars are still poker, of course, though incorporate elements from elsewhere in the casino like slots or the “wheel of fortune.” (Wrote a little about Spin & Gos here last month.) There are plenty of examples of video poker available online, too, a game that might be considered even more of a hybrid of poker and slots. Meanwhile something like live dealer casino holdem at Paddy Power actually changes poker into more of a blackjack-type game -- still incorporating some strategy, though it’s a game fairly distinct from traditional poker.

Makes me think a little of how you’ll often find dice wedged in there next to decks of cards inside a poker chip set. What are they doing there? Well, for one thing, they’re reminding you of traditional notions of poker being just another gambling game.

I still think it’s worth pointing out (when relevant) that poker is different from most gambling games, especially those in which you’re playing against the house rather than other players. But the game’s place in various cultures -- in the U.S., in other countries, and online -- has always been very closely aligned with other forms of gambling. And whenever poker gets pulled away from those games, it seems like it can never be for long before it gravitates back toward them again.

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