Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Poker Still “a Game Subject to Chance” (Even for Cheaters)

Poker Still 'a Game Subject to Chance'After the UIGEA was passed and discussions about the possibility of so-called “carve-outs” for poker soon commenced, we began to hear arguments intended to distinguish poker from other forms of gambling -- yet another context, if you will, for the “skill-vs.-luck” debate. The set of proposed regulations put forth by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System earlier this month does not offer any specifics regarding poker (or, indeed, any attempt to define gambling as such), opting instead to leave it to the district courts, states, and “Indian lands” to make such distinctions.

Of course, the UIGEA itself does define a “bet or wager” as “the staking or risking by any person of something of value upon the outcome of a contest of others, a sporting event, or a game subject to chance,” which, as I’ve argued before, would necessarily include poker. I take that position for two reasons: (1) I cannot imagine members of Congress ever finding it politically-profitable to distinguish poker from other forms of gambling when drafting legislation; and (2) poker is “a game subject to chance.” Really. It is.

Like most online poker players, I’ve been fairly preoccupied of late with the Absolute Poker cheating scandal, particularly that brazen display by the player named Potripper at the 9/12/07 $100K Guarantee. One truth about poker that was certainly demonstrated there was how even cheating at poker does require at least some skill, especially if one does not want to be caught. A lot of Potripper’s play during the tournament appeared to indicate either he had little knowledge of the game beyond simple hand rankings, or perhaps did not care about whether the way he was playing might arouse any suspicions.

Take that last hand, the one where Potripper infamously calls CrazyMarco with ten-high on the turn and wins the tourney. Potripper has nearly a 4-to-1 chip advantage when the hand begins (around 760K to 215K). The blinds are only 2,250/4,500 (with a 450 ante), so CrazyMarco shouldn’t have been in any great hurry to be doubling up. Indeed, the fact that he still had plenty of chips with which to play was one reason why CrazyMarco makes his push on the turn. Having sensed weakness, he knew that to commit all of his chips in this situation would have to indicate he had a strong hand. To someone who couldn’t see his hole cards, that is.

Anyhow, Potripper has the button (and thus the small blind) and gets dealt Tc9d. Seeing CrazyMarco has the crummy 9c2h, Potripper just completes from the SB so as to keep his opponent in the hand (I assume). CrazyMarco checks and the flop comes 4hKdKh. CrazyMarco checks, Potripper bets 9,000 (just shy of the size of the pot), and CrazyMarco calls in what appears to be part of his plan to bluff on the next street. The turn is the 7s and CrazyMarco again checks. This time Potripper bets 13,500 (about half the pot) and CrazyMarco check-raises all-in, pushing his remaining 200,000 into the middle. This is where Potripper makes that wild call, knowing that CrazyMarco has only three outs (the remaining deuces) to win the hand, plus a few more cards to chop.

Obviously a more skilled (and/or more self-aware) player would have thought twice about making such a call, since doing so meant showing down his lousy ten-high and thus, perhaps, raising some suspicions about whether or not he might be cheating. But does the hand prove once and for all that poker is, in fact, a game based on skill (and not chance)?

Of course not. In fact, the whole episode clarifies even more vividly how poker is, in fact, “a game subject to chance.” A deuce could have come on the river, and CrazyMarco could still have won the hand. In fact, it is conceivable (though unlikely) that CrazyMarco could still have won the tournament, even though Potripper could see his hole cards. That’s because luck is always going to be a factor in poker.

For me this scenario recalls Annie Duke’s argument that poker is a skill-based game because “you can purposely lose at poker if you choose” (Wall Street Journal, “Harvard Ponders Just What It Takes to Excel at Poker,” 5/3/07). Duke is correct to point out that you cannot purposely lose at chance-based games like roulette or Keno, thereby distinguishing poker somewhat from those games in which skill is a non-factor. However, the observation does not prove that poker is not a “game subject to chance.” (I’m not sure if that was her point, anyway.)

One could argue that all of Potripper’s opponents were, in a way, “purposely” trying to lose to him during that 9/12/07 tourney, although none of them were aware of it at the time. Knowing their hole cards, all of Potripper’s decisions were absolutely “optimal” (pun intended), thus making all of his opponent’s moves the wrong ones. The only purposefully-self-destructive move his opponents didn’t make against him was to fold after putting all of their chips in the middle. And still Potripper could have lost.

Have been hearing and reading about Barry Greenstein’s optimistic report from last week’s PPA fly-in to lobby Congress. Greenstein is saying he firmly believes “it will be less than 6 months before Congress realizes that they need to pass legislation contrary” to the UIGEA.

A nice thought, that. I still cannot imagine, though, Congress ever passing any sort of law that singles out poker as different from other forms of gambling (like Wexler’s “Skill Games Protection Act”). Much more likely to see something passed like Frank’s “Internet Gambling Regulation and Enforcement Act” -- which has gathered 40 co-signers, I believe -- a bill that does not give poker any special mention.

Even that is highly subject to chance, though.



Blogger Steve Hamilton said...

Hi Shamus, Great blog - I read it regularly & it's much appreciated! I'm a professional (jazz) musician who is now playing poker full time too - I document some of my B.S. at www.jazzpokerblog.com, might be of interest to you! All the best, Steve H

10/31/2007 7:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is definitely a good degree of chance in poker. The point of poker is to get as much information as you can get and handle the chance part to the best of your abilities.

If anyone can name me a completely skill-based game or activity, I´d love to know. Football? Weather conditions, injuries, player having a bad day. Chess? The big finale and you have a headache. And it is hardly a complete information game: do you know what your opponent will do?
Of course, the ratio between skill and luck vary. But realize that skill can help you ride the waves of luck. That´s why they tell you to get a good education. Not because we know what will happen but it prepares us and might help us through (might, I said, no guarantees).

By the definition of the UIGEA, life is illegal, for it is subject to chance, maybe even more so than poker. When you sit down at a poker table, at least you know how much you stand to lose, what the rules are and what you can or must wager. And you can choose not to sit down.

10/31/2007 11:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i like the way erwin sums it up here... most things in life have a good degree of chance and when you play online poker it is no different. Playing the game online is probably more subject to luck than the physical equivilant due the extra information a player has at is disposal in the latter (facial expressions, body language etc). But if chance wasn't fun then why is this such a popular activity for so many people.

One of the beauties of internet poker is the community element of it which helps to easily shame people who think they can cheat their way to a quick fortune!

11/01/2007 12:31 PM  

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