The Poker Players Alliance has cautioned against complacency in the important skill vs. chance debate on poker – a critical element in working toward the legalization of poker as a game of skill rather than chance, therefore placing it beyond the reach of anti-gambling laws.
The caution comes in the wake of favourable results from courts in Pennsylvania, Colorado and South Carolina that have all ruled this year that poker is a game of skill.
Darse Billings, a former poker pro who co-founded the Computer Poker Research Group at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada has no doubts that it is skill and not chance that predominates in the game. "I depended solely on that skill for my food and rent," he told ABC News.
The aticle covers previous research efforts aimed at quantifying the relationship between skill and chance by building theoretical models or playing software bots against each other.
Ingo Fiedler and Jan-Philipp Rock at the University of Hamburg's Institute of Law and Economics in Germany argue that these methods fail to reflect real games, and this may explain why some courts and lawmakers have yet to be swayed by them.
Over three months, the pair recorded the outcomes of 55 000 online players playing millions of hands of poker's most popular variant, "no-limit Texas hold 'em", choosing two factors to define the threshold between skill and chance.
Firstly, they measured how much each player's winnings and losses fluctuated: the higher this variance, the greater the role of chance. Secondly, they measured the average value of a player's winnings or losses: highly skilled or terrible players would do noticeably better or worse than would be expected by chance alone.
Based on these factors, they found that the threshold at which the effects of skill start to dominate over chance is typically about 1 000 hands, equivalent to about 33 hours of playing in person or 13 hours online, where the rate of play is faster.
They suggest that their results show that skill dominates, because most players easily play this many hands in a lifetime, and poker is therefore more a game of skill.
Sean McCulloch, a computer scientist at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, has a different opinion, claiming that the results may fail to sway a judge or jury.
"If you want to use a mathematical argument as the basis for legalization or court decisions, it has to be easy to explain, easy to follow and intuitive," he says.
McCulloch used an alternative method to explore skill and chance in poker, also based on real games.
Together with Paco Hope of the software consultancy Cigital of Washington DC, he looked at 103 million hands of Texas hold 'em played at the PokerStars online site and calculated how many were won as the result of a "showdown" – in which players win thanks to their cards beating their opponents' cards – versus those that were won because all the other players folded.
They argue that the latter hands must be pure skill, because no one shows their cards. Their analysis, released on 27 March 2009, revealed that 76 percent of games did not end in a showdown, suggesting that skill is the dominant factor.
John Pappas of the Poker Players Alliance (PPA) in Washington DC says both studies are badly needed to help properly define the law. In many US states, judges and juries use a so-called "predominance test" to gauge skill and chance, based on the opinions of expert witnesses.
Although courts in Pennsylvania, Colorado and South Carolina have all ruled this year that poker is a game of skill, not all courts do. "It would not be wise for any of us to rest on our laurels," Pappas says. The PPA expects the Cigital study will now be used as evidence to fight court cases.
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