Why the Poker Is a Game of Skill debate is misguided

Posted by Steve Ruddock on Aug 21, 2013 Posted in Op-Ed | No Comments »

Poker game of SkillA recent series of columns over at QuadJacks.com (the new and improved QuadJacks.com if you haven’t visited in a while) spurred on by an interview with Ultimate Gaming CEO Tom Breitling has rekindled the “Skill Game” debate in poker, and what, if any, place it has in poker advocacy.

In the original column, Marco “AgentMarco” Valerio brings up several very valid points as to why the skill game argument has for the most part fallen on deaf ears. And in a rebuttal, Mike Stein, did an equally good job explaining why the skill game argument shouldn’t be abandoned. My feeling is they are both right, but also missing the larger point: The argument isn’t about poker’s skillfulness, it’s about gambling.

For Poker’s Opponents Gambling >Skill

When I hear people try to argue that poker isn’t gambling I invariably cringe – just as I do when I hear one of Focus on the Family’s gambling talking points.

Poker may be a game of skill but so is blackjack, and I don’t hear anyone arguing that blackjack isn’t gambling. Any game where your decisions and/or actions impact the eventual outcome should be considered a game of skill. But just because a game is skillful doesn’t mean it’s not gambling –whether it is beatable or not.

For instance, I’m sure there is not a single member of Focus on the Family who is against the playing of Chess. But I will guarantee you that every single one of them would freak out if people were gambling on a Chess match. It’s not the game; it’s the money.

The problem poker has that games like Chess, Backgammon, Darts, Pool, Bridge, and Gin (all games that people often gamble on) don’t have is that poker has to be played for money; it doesn’t work otherwise. You can play a competitive game of backgammon just for bragging rights, but poker is a different animal. You can’t play poker without money because the game doesn’t measure success by how many hands you win, or who was dealt the strongest hand; the whole point of poker is to see how much money you can win, which is why it is the quintessential gambling game. Poker is the only game where the scoring completely depends on gambling.

The problem people like Tony Perkins and other opponents of poker legislation have with the game isn’t whether it’s skillful or not; their problem is that the game requires gambling, it can’t be played otherwise. Playing poker without money is like playing baseball without a ball, whereas playing pool or backgammon without money is like playing baseball without being paid –which happens every single day across the country.

Look at it from this perspective: Suppose Tony Perkins doesn’t believe any of the games/activities I’ve mentioned in this column are games of skill. I would be able to convince him that every single one was in fact a game of skill without having to wager a single dollar with the exception of one of those games: Poker. In order to prove the poker as a game of skill you have to gamble, which is how opponents of the game are able to –justifiably—say that poker is gambling. Without wagering money poker is indeed 100% luck.

So I agree that there is a place for the “Poker is a game of skill” argument (it should be #19 of our 20 talking points though), but I think the idea of convincing the other side of this is pointless and actually sidetracks the entire debate.

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