Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Poker’s Not-So-Square Deal

Theodore Roosevelt promises a square dealPresident Barack Obama yesterday delivered an address on the economy in Osawatomie, Kansas. Or campaign speech, if you like. We are, after all, already amid another presidential campaign, even if the election is nearly a year away.

This isn’t a political blog and so I’m not alluding to Obama’s speech for any reason other than to evoke an idea about poker -- specifically about the “skill-vs.-luck” argument that often comes up in discussions about legislating the game.

Much of the reporting on the speech today is pointing to parallels between a few of Obama’s talking points and ideas advanced by Theodore Roosevelt in a famous speech also delivered in Osawatomie in 1910.

Roosevelt became president when William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901, just a few months into McKinley’s second term. TR was reelected in 1904, then chose not to run again in 1908. However, TR came back to compete for the 1912 election, and the Osawatomie speech was part of that effort. (TR would not be elected again, as Woodrow Wilson became the nation’s 28th president.)

This was the speech in which TR argued that government needed first and foremost to protect American workers’ ability to earn a living and make their own way without being exploited by corrupt business practices. The speech is known especially for introducing TR’s “New Nationalism” idea which dovetailed with the “Square Deal” agenda he had pursued when president.

It was that assurance of a “Square Deal” -- a term borrowed from poker -- that most commenting on Obama’s speech are highlighting today. One sound bite from Obama’s speech getting a lot of play goes as follows:

“I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1 percent values or 99 percent values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them.”

There are a lot of ways we could talk about this idea of everyone getting “a fair shot” and “play[ing] by the same rules” in the context of poker. But I have just one thought in mind I wanted to throw out that kind of connects with this “square deal” talk.

TR promises a square deal all aroundMany of those who defend poker do so by highlighting its skill component, something that is said to distinguish the game in a meaningful way from other purely chance-based gambles like the lottery or roulette or what have you. For some, this makes poker worthy of being legalized as a game not unlike sports or other competitions in which players test their skills against one another.

A few who make this argument get carried away and try to minimize or ignore entirely the fact that chance does play a role in poker. Poker is certainly a form of gambling, but one in which various skills can be employed which often help one overcome the game’s chance element and promote the more-skilled players ahead of those with less ability.

It occurred to me recently how the very fact that poker does reward the skillful -- that it isn’t like just picking a number and hoping it hits -- might make some people less comfortable with it than they are with pure chance games like the lottery.

With the lottery, there’s no disputing that everyone has a “fair shot” (relative to one another, anyway). And unless the operation of the lottery is crooked, everyone “plays by the same rules,” too. But in poker, some really are better equipped than others to succeed. It’s a game that divides us, that highlights our differences. The fact is, whenever we sit down at a table it is very likely some are going to have an advantage over others.

Those of us who play poker understand how players come to gain that advantage -- i.e., by study, by experience, by work. Sure, you could say we all had a “fair shot” at some previous point, but once we’ve taken a seat it soon becomes clear that some have an edge over others.

That’s never the case with the lottery. We’re all equally equipped there.

I wonder if perhaps some percentage of non-players who are made uncomfortable by poker dislike it even more because it requires skill -- that it isn’t a game in which anyone can play and have a “fair shot.” And since it involves money and players betting on themselves and against others -- and, well, that chance element in there complicating things, too -- poker thus becomes all the more difficult for some to tolerate.

I’ve probably unnecessarily complicated my point with the Obama/Roosevelt references, but I hope the idea is coming through. Obviously some oppose poker because they view it as gambling -- they object to poker just as they object to roulette or slots or other gambling games (on moral grounds, or for other reasons).

Dealing with Theodore RooseveltBut could it be there are others who object to poker because it isn’t enough like those other games? People to whom talk of poker’s skill component in fact makes them less comfortable with the idea of legally allowing the game? People who fear poker because, well, they realize it isn’t necessarily a “square deal” in the way the lottery is (even if the “deal” the lottery offers is equally bad to all)?

Seems like this could be an issue -- not the biggest one, but an issue -- with which proponents of poker might have to... erm... deal.

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Blogger Buz said...

The "Skill vs luck" argument misses the important point about incentives. Banked games such as Lotto, Blackjack, Roulette, etc. give the house incentive to cheat the players because each individual is playing vs the house. Poker, because players win and lose versus each other, provides the house an incentive to assure the games are fair.

1/23/2012 8:12 AM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Good point, Buz, although I wasn't really talking about the house spreading games honestly, but rather the idea that since poker does reward more-skilled players, not everyone has an equal chance of winning when sitting down.

The idea here was suggested to me by some of the discussions in those House hearings about online gambling and poker in particular. A few of the legislators seem genuinely uncomfortable with the idea of allowing constituents to play a game (like poker) in which not everyone has an equal shot of winning (like the lottery).

You're probably right about the house having an incentive to cheat or not cheat their customers, but I was talking about the players' incentive and whether or not some might shy away from poker because they realize they are at a disadvantage skill-wise.

1/23/2012 8:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an interesting point of view that again points to poker's similarities to capitalism. One of capitalism's virtues is that its origins can be said to give everyone a fair shake (or square deal..) But like poker, there are those in the free market who inevitably have an advantage. Something your article didn't really address "squarely" is that some people are just more talented or intelligent (you did mention skill). And frequently capitalist's take advantage of their knowledge to gain from the less equipped. While there are some that see the dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism as deplorable, it is widely considered to be the most fair system by Americans, virtuous even. I can't believe a comparison can be made to poker in that regard.

Further, it's interesting how you've cast an eye on that minority of people who might find the skill gap in poker to be unsettling, and how those people may be in stark opposition to those that find the skill gap that exists in capitalism to be equally unsettling.

8/02/2012 8:00 PM  

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