Sean Carroll (the physicist, not the paleontologist) calls attention to an absolutely ridiculous study on whether poker is a game of skill. It was published in the Journal of Gambling Studies, which apparently doesn’t bother with that pesky peer review stuff. I’m not paying $39.95 for the whole study, but the abstract alone tells you how absurd the methodology is:
Due to intensive marketing and the rapid growth of online gambling, poker currently enjoys great popularity among large sections of the population. Although poker is legally a game of chance in most countries, some (particularly operators of private poker web sites) argue that it should be regarded as a game of skill or sport because the outcome of the game primarily depends on individual aptitude and skill. The available findings indicate that skill plays a meaningful role; however, serious methodological weaknesses and the absence of reliable information regarding the relative importance of chance and skill considerably limit the validity of extant research. Adopting a quasi-experimental approach, the present study examined the extent to which the influence of poker playing skill was more important than card distribution. Three average players and three experts sat down at a six-player table and played 60 computer-based hands of the poker variant “Texas Hold’em” for money. In each hand, one of the average players and one expert received (a) better-than-average cards (winner’s box), (b) average cards (neutral box) and (c) worse-than-average cards (loser’s box). The standardized manipulation of the card distribution controlled the factor of chance to determine differences in performance between the average and expert groups. Overall, 150 individuals participated in a “fixed-limit” game variant, and 150 individuals participated in a “no-limit” game variant. ANOVA results showed that experts did not outperform average players in terms of final cash balance. Rather, card distribution was the decisive factor for successful poker playing. However, expert players were better able to minimize losses when confronted with disadvantageous conditions (i.e., worse-than-average cards). No significant differences were observed between the game variants. Furthermore, supplementary analyses confirm differential game-related actions dependent on the card distribution, player status, and game variant. In conclusion, the study findings indicate that poker should be regarded as a game of chance, at least under certain basic conditions, and suggest new directions for further research.
Uh, yeah. Let me suggest one “new direction” for further research: Play more than 60 hands, for crying out loud. And don’t “manipulate the card distribution” to “control the factor of chance.” Understanding the factor of chance is one of the key elements that allows more skilled players to win over less skilled players. Bad players don’t understand probability or they ignore it to “go with their gut.” And in the short run — like 60 hands — doing so can still be profitable. Over the long run, say 6000 hands, it won’t be. Sean has some additional analysis:
So let’s confine our attention to “decision games,” where all you do is sit down and make decisions about one thing or another. This includes games without a probabilistic component, like chess or go, but here we’re interested in games in which chance definitely enters, like poker or blackjack or Monopoly. Call these “probabilistic decision games.” (Presumably there is some accepted terminology for all these things, but I’m just making these terms up.)
So, when does a probabilistic decision game qualify as a “game of skill”? I suggest it does when the following criteria are met:
1. There are different possible strategies a player could choose.
2. Some strategies do better than others.
3. The ideal “dominant strategy” is not known.
I might quibble with that last one a bit. I’d put it differently: Where the ideal strategy changes constantly, allowing the more skilled players — those who can adjust to changing conditions — to win over time. I have a friend I’ve played poker with for more than a decade and he truly thinks that there is a single right way to play poker, that it’s all strictly about probability. He’s wrong. The right way to play is going to change every time you sit down at the table, it’s going to change every time a new player joins the table, and it’s going to change multiple times over the course of a few hours even if you’re playing with all the same players. There’s a right way to play every hand depending on a dozen or more factors and the more accurately a player analyzes those factors hand after hand, the more likely he is to win over time.
Poker is really about good decisionmaking and the player who makes the right decision the most often wins in the long run. In the short run, even making the perfect decision under the circumstances doesn’t mean you’re going to win. If you get a guy to put all his money in as a 4-1 underdog, you played it right and he played it wrong even if he hits the card he needs to win that pot. And if you do that consistently, you’re going to win and he’s going to lose. That’s why it’s a game of skill.