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Is Poker Skill or Luck?

May 11, 2022

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If you had to define the game of poker, would you refer to it as a game of skill or one of luck? Both are important, and runs of good luck can often overtake a lack of skill at least for a few hands. There’s definitely something that keeps the top ranking players in the top ranks, though!

Different states in the United States have varying opinions on whether poker is skill or luck. This reflects in the gambling laws for the state. A state is more likely to declare poker gambling for money illegal if it believes that poker is purely luck. States that claim it is a game of skill are more likely to keep it legal. Those in favor of regulation believe that poker is luck-based, and therefore should be regulated like roulette or baccarat. States in favor of legalization say that poker is skill-based, like golf or tennis, and therefore regulation is not necessary. So which is it? Is poker a game of skill or luck?

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act evaluates legality by asking whether a game is dominated by skill or by luck. Whether the UIGEA applies to poker hinges on whether a state declares poker to be luck-based or skill-based.

In the first federal hearing of its kind, a judge in New York in 2012 legally declared that poker is a game of skill. Therefore, it is not gambling under federal law. The decision was based on research from an expert witness, a statistician, and a competitive poker player. They provided studies of poker games to prove that skill is the overall deciding factor to success in poker. The court declared that poker requires an “array of talents”—at least in New York!

In 2011, the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago ran a study to determine whether poker should be classified as a game of luck or skill. Using data from the 2010 WSOP, they found that players who were classified as “highly skilled” received an over 30% average return on investment. In addition, a pairwise match-up of both a high-skilled and low-skilled player resulted in the high-skilled player winning 54.9% of the time. These are numbers comparable to Major League Baseball. Baseball is unquestionably a game of skill—so shouldn’t poker be as well?

More research is needed to definitively and legally declare poker as luck or skill-based. Maybe in the future we’ll finally get our answer.

What do you think, poker pals? How much of poker is luck and how much is skill?