UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

April 5, 2009

TWO STUDIES FIND SKILL KEY IN POKER

New Scientist - Two studies that tapped the vast amounts of data available from online casinos have provided some of the best evidence yet that poker is skill-based. Many hope that the results will help to roll back laws and court decisions that consider poker gambling, and therefore illegal in certain contexts. . .

Previous attempts to quantify the relationship between skill and chance have involved building theoretical models or playing software bots against each other. However, 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. So 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".

They reasoned that if skill dominated, this would eventually show itself over many hands, so they chose two factors to define this threshold. 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 1000 hands, equivalent to about 33 hours of playing in person or 13 hours online, where the rate of play is brisker. So although chance plays a role, they suggest that because most players easily play this many hands in a lifetime, poker is more a game of skill (. . .

However, Sean McCulloch, a computer scientist at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, says the results may fail to sway a judge or jury. "If you want to use a mathematical argument as the basis for legislation 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, revealed that 76 per cent of games did not end in a showdown, suggesting that skill is the dominant factor.

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