Sebastian Pokutta's Blog

Mathematics and related topics

Is poker a game of skill?

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I followed an interesting discussion on the Wall Street Journal website whether poker is a game of luck or rather skill. The discussion in this particular case was started after a study (sponsored by a major poker website) claims that success is merely determined by skill. The importance of the question in this case stems from the legal side: Games of chance are considered gambling under U.S. law.

Whether or not it is more a game of luck than skill is one question but in any case it fueled the development of a very important discipline in operations research, economics, and mathematics: game theory. John von Neumann, the father of game theory, was motivated by exactly the same question, i.e., is poker a game of skill or luck:

For Von Neumann, the inspiration for game theory was poker, a game he played occasionally and not terribly well. Von Neumann realized that poker was not guided by probability theory alone, as an unfortunate player who would use only probability theory would find out. Von Neumann wanted to formalize the idea of “bluffing,” a strategy that is meant to deceive the other players and hide information from them.

In his 1928 article, “Theory of Parlor Games,” Von Neumann first approached the discussion of game theory, and proved the famous Minimax theorem. From the outset, Von Neumann knew that game theory would prove invaluable to economists. He teamed up with Oskar Morgenstern, an Austrian economist at Princeton, to develop his theory. [more]

On the other hand, several poker experts question that claim suggesting a domination of luck. Probably this question is not going to be settled soon but what would be interesting to know is if there is a high correlation between unsuccessful poker players and the belief that it is a game of luck and successful poker players and the belief that it is a game of skill – some kind of a survivor bias. 😉


Written by Sebastian

May 8, 2009 at 4:05 pm

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