Is Poker Gambling? Skill or Chance?
It’s a question asked by many around the world. In order to answer the question in entirety, we need to look at several questions. Does poker player’s decision making significantly influence the result/outcome? How much skill is required to win? How does poker compare to other games of chance? What does the law say? We will look at each question separately before answering the question “is poker gambling?”.
Does poker players decision making significantly influence the result/outcome?
Texas Hold’em requires players to pick from several options at any one time. There’s no question that the decisions they take influence the result of a pot, cash game session or tournament. One can decide whether to check, fold, call or bet. This freedom of control is an important thing to remember and can’t be understated. Not only can a player decide on this, they also have control over the size of the bet. This means they not only exercise control over whether they continue in the hand but also to what extent and for how much. That’s a lot of influence. Poker player’s bets can affect the result/outcome as a bet can directly result in opponents folding or calling, thus, decision making impacts the result, every hand.
How much skill is required to win at poker?
It’s irrefutable that skill is required to win at poker. When I mean “win”, I don’t mean one hand in isolation. I mean a sample size that would satisfy a jury of sufficient volume. The definition of skill is “the ability to do something well; expertise”. Clearly, anyone who has a decent ITM tournament rate, a positive ROI or is a consistent winner at cash games has expertise in that format. With poker getting harder to win every year, one needs to improve and enhance their skills to continue winning. That aside though, let’s break down a Texas Hold’em hand to deduce many of the skills required in decision making.
|Pre-Flop||Choosing what hands to play requires understanding of maths, position, table awareness and an appreciation of starting hands value. There are 169 hand combinations (assuming K7s/K7d are the same). Each hand and in a different position pose the same question. Are you playing and if so, how much for?|
|Flop & Turn||Once you get to the flop, your hand is beginning to come together. Now the game becomes more complex. You need to understand what hand ranges your opponent is likely to have. You also need assess what they perceive of your hand. One needs to quickly identify the relative strength of their hand. Finally, a poker player may also need need to calculate outs – what % you have of hitting your straight.|
|River||If you’ve continued past the turn, you are now at the final round of betting. Now you need to make a decision on whether your hand is best or likely to be best. If you are facing a bet, you need to quickly calculate the pot odds and whether calling is profitable in the long run. Alternatively, you may have missed your draw and consider a bluff. This involves calculating an appropriate bet size, factoring in your opponents’ likely hand and the probability they will fold.|
Clearly there is a lot of complex decision making involved. The more complex an event is – the less impact chance has.
Skills required to play poker well
- Maths (pot odds)
- Psychology (reading opponents)
- Mental toughness (ability to not tilt)
- Budgeting skills (bankroll management)
- Shrewdness/Ruthlessness (game selection)
- Accuracy (knowing how much to value bet or bluff)
- Recall (memorising hands to make informed decisions)
- Attention to detail (watching opponents to pick up patterns)
How does poker compare to other games of chance?
There’s little comparison between poker and the other casino games. Poker and other games of chance involve money being wagered, the house takes a rake and some use a playing deck e.g. blackjack. That’s where the comparisons end. Other casino games involve very little decision making. They are usually limited to 1 or 2 decisions; how much to bet and which number to bet on. To compare games like roulette to poker, is akin to comparing Snakes and Ladders to Risk just because they are both board games.
There is an exception to the other forms of gambling in sports betting. It’s a combination of skill and chance. There is undoubtedly a lot of skill in learning teams form, finding the best odds and picking the best sportsbooks. Whilst very few make a living from casino games, many are professional tipsters and sports betting professionals.
What does the law say about poker?
The UK gambling commission cites poker is a card game which involves elements of both chance and skill and is therefore classified as a game of chance under the Act by virtue of s.6(2). The law is pretty clear it views poker as a combination of skill and chance.
I contend it is a game dominated by skill with elements of chance. UK law answers yes to the question “is poker gambling?”. The selfish benefit of this is that poker winnings in UK are not subject to tax, unlike many other countries. But this judgement is still painful. When a professional poker player wants to buy a house or get a loan, stating “professional poker player” on their application will always be scoffed at.
The problem with legality over poker is that those who judge it seem to understate the complex nature of the game. Mike Sexton famously said “poker is a game that takes five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master”. This is one of the truest poker statements. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can learn the rules in a few minutes (check out our how to play article) and sit and play but in order make consistent winnings, you need to become an expert.
Is Poker Gambling? The Conclusion
I concede poker is gambling when taken in isolation on one tournament or hand. This is the extent of my concession. As with many endeavours, the greater the volume, the less impact chance has. Many sports have elements of chance that can impact one result. It’s one of the reasons we love football’s FA cup. To see a minor team, score an upset as an underdog is thrilling. Who would win if they played 10 or 20 times? We all know the answer. You can apply this thinking to poker.
The experts can have losing sessions, even a losing month. Have a look at their results at the end of the year and you will see a common pattern. They all win. My conclusion on whether poker is gambling is founded in logic and backed up by personal, empirical evidence too. I have never had a losing year.