Is poker a game of skill or chance?

By Seriously Science | September 23, 2013 12:00 pm

Photo: flickr/Ulf Liljankoski

Can you really get better at poker? How much skill does it take to win? In this ‘quasi-experimental’ study, the researchers set out to answer these questions. To do this, they had both expert and novice poker players sit down to fixed games, receiving prearranged card hands. This allowed the authors to test whether skill or chance could predict the outcome of the game. The results revealed that although the cards dealt pretty much predicted the winner, skill was important for reducing losses when players are dealt a bad hand. So, if you are a beginner, you’d better have beginner’s luck or you might be broke by the end of the game.

Is poker a game of skill or chance? A quasi-experimental study.

“Due to intensive marketing and the rapid growth of online gambling, poker currently enjoys great popularity among large sections of the population. Although poker is legally a game of chance in most countries, some (particularly operators of private poker web sites) argue that it should be regarded as a game of skill or sport because the outcome of the game primarily depends on individual aptitude and skill. The available findings indicate that skill plays a meaningful role; however, serious methodological weaknesses and the absence of reliable information regarding the relative importance of chance and skill considerably limit the validity of extant research. Adopting a quasi-experimental approach, the present study examined the extent to which the influence of poker playing skill was more important than card distribution. Three average players and three experts sat down at a six-player table and played 60 computer-based hands of the poker variant “Texas Hold’em” for money. In each hand, one of the average players and one expert received (a) better-than-average cards (winner’s box), (b) average cards (neutral box) and (c) worse-than-average cards (loser’s box). The standardized manipulation of the card distribution controlled the factor of chance to determine differences in performance between the average and expert groups. Overall, 150 individuals participated in a “fixed-limit” game variant, and 150 individuals participated in a “no-limit” game variant. ANOVA results showed that experts did not outperform average players in terms of final cash balance. Rather, card distribution was the decisive factor for successful poker playing. However, expert players were better able to minimize losses when confronted with disadvantageous conditions (i.e., worse-than-average cards). No significant differences were observed between the game variants. Furthermore, supplementary analyses confirm differential game-related actions dependent on the card distribution, player status, and game variant. In conclusion, the study findings indicate that poker should be regarded as a game of chance, at least under certain basic conditions, and suggest new directions for further research.”

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: holy correlation batman!, rated G
  • Tim Converse

    I’m not sure where to start in criticizing this study. :)

    But let’s start here: let’s assume that success at poker is due to a mixture of luck and skill.

    Next, let’s assume that “luck” evens out over time – that is, the more hands that two people play against each other, the less they will have differential luck in terms of the cards they receive.

    This implies that the right way to study the question of whether poker skill exists is to pit players of differential (supposed) skill against each other over many many random hands, where we assume that the advantages of luck will have evened out. If the “skilled” players then outperform the novice players to a statistically significant level, we should assume that that skill exists.

    This paper takes the opposite tack: it gives certain players substantially better hands over a very small number of hands (60 hands), and then asks whether the variance can be mostly explained by the cards. Of course it can, for two reasons:

    1) Better cards lead to better outcomes. The only reason that this doesn’t lead to skill not mattering is that *no* *one* gets better cards, consistently, over the long term, unless they are cheating. The differential impact of “lucky” cards approaches zero as the number of hands approaches infinity.

    2) The number of hands in the experiment is small enough that you would expect luck-of-the-draw to dominate.

    I would like to see a “replication” of this study, in one of two forms:

    a) rather than 60 hands, deal 6000 hands
    b) leave it at 60 hands, but make the luck difference between the different groups arbitrarily slight.

    Better yet, just test experts against average players on hands that are in fact randomly generated.

  • Kyle Heinsch

    This is a bad study. It takes thousands of hands of poker to establish a true win rate. Even under controlled circumstances, 60 hands is nothing.

    Furthermore this study is unnecessary. Internet players have databases of hands numbering in the millions, in some cases with several thousands of hands against a common opponent. Even a cursory analysis of these databases will reveal skill as a factor.

    To keep it short, in the short run luck rules. In the long run a slight skill advantage relative to your opponents will reveal itself as a positive win rate. To repeat, it takes many thousands of hands to filter out variance. What you saw in your study was simply variance due to an insufficent sample size.

  • dorkyman

    Disagree.

    If you know the various probabilities of different hands better than your tablemates, you will win long-term. Poker and Blackjack are the only games where expertise can produce profits. It will take many hundreds of hands to show it, though.

  • https://plus.google.com/115197896619361127605/posts Aaron W

    “In conclusion, the study findings indicate that poker should be regarded as a game of chance, at least under certain basic conditions”

    What conditions are those? Lab conditions that don’t reflect the actual distribution of cards in a real-world game of poker?

    In a real game of poker, players get bad cards as often as they get good cards. This study shows good players lose less money when they’re playing with bad cards. So it’s a game of skill, unless a lab technician (or crooked dealer) is controlling the distribution of cards.

    I don’t see how the authors can conclude poker is a game of chance, when their findings show otherwise.

  • http://www.realmoneycasinousa.com/ Dante Finder

    In no way is this a true scientific study as Kyle said. I wonder why they posted something like this as I came here from an article directory.
    I always like to say, “There’s a chance Poker is a game of skill, but there is no proof.”

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