Is Poker A Game of Skill or Luck?

By Neuroskeptic | August 17, 2012 8:22 am

Success in poker is all about luck, according to researchers at the University of Bremen, Germany: Is Poker a Game of Skill or Chance? A Quasi-Experimental Study.

I’m not a gambling man, but I’ll bet this is going to be a controversial study.

The authors recruited 300 poker players – half were defined as ‘experts’ and the rest were¬† ‘average’. Players sat at tables of 6, with 3 experts and 3 average per table, and played 60 hands of Texas Hold ’em. On some tables, there was a fixed limit, on others, no limit. The stakes were fairly small, with each player having just 10 euros to start with, but there were also prizes of up to 500 euros (over $600) for the overall winner.

The trick was that the deals were fixed, with some players getting better cards than others. This was to allow the researchers to measure the effects of luck; the players didn’t know this was happening. There were 3 levels of luck, and each table had 2 players of each level: 1 expert and 1 average. Like this:

So what happened? Here’s the key finding: the graph is for Fixed Limit but No Limit was much the same –

Luck, rather than skill, was key in determining final balance, with experts taking no more, on average, than novices. Experts did play differently, on various measures, and seemed better able to cope with bad luck, losing less; but they also won less when given good cards.

The authors conclude:

It can be concluded that chance clearly dominates skill; thus, poker should be classified as gambling

But how expert were these ‘experts’? Players were defined as ‘experts’ if they scored above the median on a questionnaire which asked things like, “How often did you play poker on average per month within the past year?” and “How successful do you regard yourself in terms of poker?” That’s obviously a pretty weak measure of expertise. It’s entirely self-report, and measures subjective enthusiasm and confidence, rather than skill.

On the other hand though… if you’re reading this and thinking “That’s BS – but I really am an expert, I really am good at poker” – then you’re the kind of person who’d have scored highly on that questionnaire.

Previous work on this question has given mixed results; Dedonno and Detterman argued that “Poker Is A Skill” and found that teaching students some basic strategies made them perform better. Fiedler and Wilcke, however, analyzed a large database of online poker games and found that, while playing about 1000 hands of poker did seem to lead to the development of skill, the majority of online players had much less experience than that, so were at the mercy of chance.

Maybe the ‘experts’ in this study had played less than 1000 hands?

ResearchBlogging.orgMeyer G, von Meduna M, Brosowski T, and Hayer T (2012). Is Poker a Game of Skill or Chance? A Quasi-Experimental Study J Gambling Studies DOI: 10.1007/s10899-012-9327-8

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Neuroskeptic

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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