The problem with poker
There's a theory about the rise in popularity of televised poker; according to Marvin Ryder, a professor at McMaster University, it's all ice hockey's fault. In 2004, North America's National Hockey League was put on ice for a whole season (ice, geddit? ...nevermind) after a dispute over pay between the player's association and league officials. Television stations were left with a fairly gaping hole in their schedules that they needed to fill quickly. Enter Texas Hold'em poker. As a watchable game, poker traditionally couldn't be considered to be the most engaging thing to watch, but it was a UK Channel 4 programme called 'Late Night Poker' that revolutionised the way in which viewers could engage with it, simply by introducing under-the-table cameras so that the audience could see the cards. All of sudden, it became a drama - watching players psych each other out, knowing that they didn't hold a decent hand, or watching in agony as you could see someone walking into a trap. It made for brilliant TV, but with the associated rise in popularity of poker websites, legal issues came up about whether it should be classified as a game of chance, or a game of skill. This wasn't a new issue, as the debate about the status of poker has been going on as long as the game's been around. But it's an interesting issue - in many countries, games of chance are either illegal or regulated, whereas the rules are more relaxed for games of skill, and certainly in the case of online poker, it can be easy to abuse the system if it's left unchecked.
Why the sudden interest in poker? Well, according to a new study in the Journal of Gambling Studies, poker isn't the game of skill that it's made out to be. The researchers took 300 students who had said that they were interested in the game, split them into 'expert' vs 'non expert' groups, and got them to play 60 hands in which the card deals were fixed so that players could get consistently good hands, bad hands, or neutral ones. Neuroskeptic had a good run-down of the main findings, but in a nutshell, the researchers found that there wasn't much difference in the final amounts of money that the experts had compared to the non-experts, implying that skill level wasn't having much effect on the outcome.
Neuroskeptic points out - quite rightly - that their measure of expertise in this study is a pretty flimsy one. Basically, the authors developed a self-report questionnaire that asked questions like "How often do you mentally deal with poker, even if you do not play?", "How successful do you regard yourself in terms of poker?", and "How successful have you been in playing poker for real money in total?". They're pretty subjective questions - I could think that I'm the best thing to ever happen to poker, but that doesn't mean that I'm actually any good at it. But there are a couple of deeper issue with this study.
One is nicely summed up in one of the paper's own conclusions: "Contrary to the self-interested and economically motivated claims of private suppliers of poker services, the influence of skill plays a minor role, at least for short game sequences." Poker is rarely played as a short-term game - anyone who's ever had even a semi-serious attempt at trying to make money out of it knows that if you want to make a return, you have to grind. Is there a random factor to poker? Absolutely - you don't have any say whatsoever in the cards you get. What you can do though, is minimise your losses on bad hands, and maximise them on good hands. It's partly down to mathematical expectation, and David Slansky's book on the Theory of Poker is a great primer if you're interested in reading further. To borrow an example from Slansky's book and modify it slightly, consider a game in which I bet £1 on the outcome of a coin toss. If I get it right, I get £2 in winnings, and say I just bet heads every time. Over the course of, say, 1000 fair coin tosses, I lose 500 times and win 500 times. That means that I lose £1 500 times, and I get £2 500 times, giving a total net winning of £500, or in other words, I'm winning 50p for every £1 I bet. But it will take a while for those winnings to build up - it might be the case that I actually lose the first 50 coin tosses, so I'm down £50. And if I were to stop there, I might come to the conclusion that the coin is loaded. So simply put, 60 hands of poker is probably not enough to see what's actually going on.
But it's not all maths - there's a human element to poker too, and again this is something that the authors miss in this paper. I once really got into the whole theory behind poker, and how to figure what the best plays would be in different sorts of situations. A lot of it involves reading the other players at the table - do they play conservatively, or fairly loose? Do they 'bully' the pot, or only ever make small bets? Over time, if you play with someone long enough, you can build up a profile of them, and that helps to inform when you should and should not make bets. Then, I went into an online poker room, and all of that theory got completely blown away. When you're playing online for very small amounts of money - 1p or 2p bets - no one really cares about theory. If someone's got what they think is a good hand, it doesn't matter how you've been trying to present yourself at the table, they will just call your bets all the way. Because if they lose, it's only a few pence, right? Poker no longer becomes about playing the person, it simply becomes a boring game of playing the hand that you're dealt with. And that's the trouble with this current study - players were given money to play with, and the bets were small. There was no ownership of the stakes, because they didn't have to commit anything that was theirs. And when the bets are small anyway, you might as well call anything, because, who knows, you might just get lucky on the last card. If you want to get a bit more of an idea of the human element to the game, you could do worse than to watch Rounders. Here's a clip, complete with John Malkovitch's comically bad Russian accent:
The authors conclude by saying "The idea of legally reclassifying poker as a game of skill or a sport—and the inevitable opening of the market to commercial operators that this would produce—should be expressly rejected and abandoned in favor of strict regulation."
I agree that we should be concerned about the impact that gambling in poker can have on behaviour and addiction, and that we should seriously be looking at how it should be regulated and how to support players who get into problems. But this sort of statement makes me feel uneasy - it's a pretty strong one to make off the back of a single study that has so many flaws.