Poker: Game of Skill or Game of Chance?

The Danish Poker Association is quite disappointed: A lower court had decided that Poker was a game of skill, and hence not subject to gambling laws, but a higher court has now overturned the ruling, deciding that poker is a game of chance (article in Danish). The ruling is likely to continue upwards into the judicial system.

The upshot is that it is illegal to arrange Poker tournaments involving money in Denmark. The underlying legal issue, to the extent of my understanding, is that it is illegal (outside casinos) to play non-skill games for money, so whether a game is considered a game skill is pretty important.

The court even had a mathematician testify that skill is important in Poker, making the ruling even more absurd. I also severely doubt anyone who has actually played poker believes that skill plays no role.

It seems to me that much confusion comes from the dichotomy I used in the headline – skill or chance. In actuality, those are not opposites, but a game can have smaller or bigger amounts of chance, and involve smaller or bigger amounts of skill.

Roger Caillois (who I like to blame) is partially guilty of the same confusion since he has separate categories for agon (contest) and alea (chance).

Here is the interesting logical mind-trick: Chance and skill do not in any way preclude each other, but their absences preclude each other. Games can have any amount of skill and chance at the same time, but you cannot imagine a game with neither skill nor chance, as that would mean the outcome was always the same and hence it would not be a game in any meaningful sense.


The Economist has an article on the rise of Poker, including its status as skill/chance in the US.

 The skill-versus-luck debate has crackled back to life because of the passage of a law last year, sneakily tacked on to a port-security bill, which sought to bolster existing legislation against internet wagering by blocking Americans’ access to accounts that can be used to gamble online. All games that are “predominantly” subject to chance were covered by the ban. Poker was included. For reasons best explained by lobbyists, horse racing, fantasy sports and lotteries were exempted. This discrepancy had already landed America in hot water at the World Trade Organisation, thanks to a case brought by tiny Antigua, home to several online gambling sites.

America’s Department of Labour has given a nod to the element of skill, in some eyes, by last year recognising “professional poker player” as an official occupation. Courts, however, tend to view poker as a game of chance. That, Mr Lederer is convinced, is only because the opposing arguments have been botched at the bench.

13 thoughts on “Poker: Game of Skill or Game of Chance?”

  1. Quite an interesting matter, and a very good segue at the end. So one query important to us is, what ratio of skill to chance produces the most fun. Is there such a “golden” ratio? If there is, it probably depends on the game genre (first-person shooters have started to put in a radar in multiplayer matches, perhaps to reduce the role of chance, increasing involvement of skill, thus increasing the games enjoyment).

  2. Poker is predominantly a game of chance because the skill involved derives from analysis of probabalistic patterns. I think this trend of putting poker on the left side of the Chance line is good because it leaves the market for new skill-games bereft of their greatest competition.

  3. Much of the fun I can enjoy while playing Poker comes from the fact that my skills are used to try to overcome the cards distribution, in other word I have to use my skuls to try to win even if I had no luck when receiving cards.

    So, yes Poker involves both skill and chance, as loads of cards games, but games solely based on chance or skill does exists, and I think that explains why he separated agon from alea.

    By-the-way, don’t you think that the two others categories of Caillois, namely ilynx (vertigo) and mimicry, are related to skill and not to chance ?

    I mean, the ilynx behavior implies oneself to test its own limits, so are related to his skills.
    And a “well-played” mimicry require the player to skillfully reproduce or imitate some social role.

  4. It’s the same situation here in Finland also. Playing poker for money is illegal, unless you do it at a casino.

    But that’s not what I wanted to say. I just wanted to point out Richard Garfield’s Getting Lucky article in Game Developer Nov 06. It really lays it out why poker is a game of skill and luck and I think they should have used that article as evidence in court :)

  5. I’m not sure I understand what you mean by the absence of chance and skill precluding one another.

    A game without skill is LCR (
    A game without chance is anything with perfect information (chess, draughts, most modern abstracts).

    is this a “definition of game vs play” issue?

    I would have said skill and chance are directly related, in a non-linear way.

    @Petri: I’ve visited Finland a couple of times and noticed sometimes there are little casino tables in the corners of bars, tended by a croupier. How does that work? Are fruit/slot machines not popular? Can you play any game? I think I just noticed people playing pontoon/blackjack.

  6. Ben, I mean that I cannot think of anything I would consider “a game” that has neither chance nor skill. If a game has no skill, it has to involve chance. If a game has no chance, it has to involve skill.

  7. Will Claiborne: This is one of my favorite PA moments. Two thumbs up!

    This is utterly fascinating. Jesper, I know you like blaming Caillois (as you did with the rules and fiction thing in Half-Real), but he never posits that skill and chance are mutually exclusive – quite the contrary, in fact, as he could be submitted as proof that poker is a game of skill more than chance. I just happen to have the original french text at hand since my students had to read it this week. I am not using quotation marks since I am translating on the fly, but this is all taken from his description of alea:
    Some pure examples of this category would be dice, roulette, heads or tails, baccara, lottery, etc. The player is entirely passive, and does not deploy his qualities or dispositions, the resources of his motor/reflex/coordination skills (“adresse”), his muscles, or his intelligence.

    He does say that alea relies on a player-attitude exactly at the opposite of that which agôn expects, but then goes on to give examples of games where agon and alea are found together:
    Agon is a taking in charge of personal responsibility, alea is a suspension of will, an abandoning to fate. Some games such as dominoes, “le jacquet” (whatever that is), most card games, combine agon and alea: randomness decides on the distribution of the cards in hands, and each player then exploits, to the best of their abilities, that which blind fate has given them. In a game such as Bridge, it is knowledge and reasoning that constitute the player’s defense and allow him to make the best out of the cards he received: in a game along the lines of poker, it is more qualities of psychological penetration (mind-reading) and character. (the poker-face and physical composition, I assume. the exact nature of the skills required by poker is of course debatable, but that’s not the main point here.)

    The balance between chance and skill can be better explained if we continue a few lines down the text, with:
    alea’s function is not to reward the most intelligent players, but in the contrary to abolish natural or acquired superiorities of individuals in order to put them all on an absolute equal foot in front of the blind verdict of chance.

    Given this definition of chance and skill, I would definitely say that poker belongs more to skill than chance (but then it looks to be common sense around these blogging parts). For all the probabilities and statistics involved in getting a good hand, when one takes a step back from the mathematical microscope and looks at the overall unfolding of a whole game, ultimately it is the player’s decision to raise or match his opponents’ bets and his ability to recognize when it is a good opportunity and when the risk is worth it that determines his “chances”. (pun not intended, but now that I see it I kinda like it.)

  8. Dominic, it was meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, and perhaps that is a bit unfair to Caillois.

    Here is from the English translation:

    “After examining different possibilities, I am proposing a division into four main rubrics, depending on whether, in the games under consideration, the role of competition, change, simulation, or vertigo is dominant.”

    So here he phrases it as a question of each rubric being “dominant”.

  9. You have the control with the outcome of the game tho luck do its part also but only a very slight portion, the rest is your strategy how to win the game. Therefore, a skill for me.

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