Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Musings on PA jury finding poker is a game of chance

A Pennsylvania jury of seven men and five women decided last week, after just two hours of deliberation, that poker is a game of chance and not skill. In making this finding of fact, the jury found defendant Lawrence R. Burns, 65, guilty of running an illegal gambling enterprise.

Burns had admitted that he advertised and ran poker tournaments, for profit, in Westmoreland County, but his defense to illegal gambling charges was that Texas hold'em should be exempt from the definition of illegal gambling as it is a game of skill and not chance.

His defense attorney presented testimony from University of Denver Professor Robert Hannum who conducted studies that established what is obvious to those who play poker, but apparently unknown to the twelve who sat on the jury. Poker is not about the cards, but the skill of the player.

Too bad the jury didn't have the chance to watch last night's broadcast of the first day of the 2009 WSOP Main Event. They would have seen Dutch pro Lex Veldhuis put on a clinic on how to play poker skillfully, leaving nothing to chance.

In hand after hand, he bluffed his opponents off better hands. There was no show down, no chance for a miracle card on the river to change things. He read his opponents (correctly) as weak and made his move. How does chance figure into that? The outcome of every hand was his correct interpretation of the facts in front of him.

Playing the player, not your hand, is the cornerstone of the most skilled poker player. It's what separates them from the casual player who waits for good cards and then prays they hold up. For most people, especially those who don't want to feel responsible for their own lack of skill, it's easier to attribute poker losses to "bad luck." But when someone's cagey bet gets you to lay down the best hand, that's not bad luck. That's being outplayed.

I wonder if the jury's take is part of a larger problem with most people. The tendency of people to blame others for their problems. It's also what makes us so dependent on the government. We can't take care of ourselves. We have bad luck. Forces are out to interfere with our success. So we ask the government to fix everything, instead of looking inward.

That jury in Pennsylvania apparently didn't want to accept that some people are better than others at poker. They would have no trouble agreeing that practice makes you better at golf or pool (other games where wagers are often made), but since cards are involved, they assume the outcome of a poker game is all luck. If they lose, it's not their fault, it's the cards.

But, as Shakespeare wrote, "the fault...lies not in our stars, but in ourselves."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Poker -- Luck or Chance? Pittsburgh jury to decide

If poker wants to raise its profile, towards the ultimate goal of having it taken out of the sleazy "gambling" realm and elevated to a cerebral battle of wits played with cards, it's going to have to be careful how it is portrayed on TV.

For most casual players, and non-players, their only exposure to the game is what they see on TV. Similarly, all I know about golf is what I see broadcast. If I saw amateur golfers beating Tiger Woods, I might think that this golf thing is pretty easy. If a lucky swing gave you a hole in one, I'd be hard pressed to see the skill involved in the game.

On TV we have the new show Face the Ace, in which an amateur poker player takes on some of the greats in heads up matches. On the first episode, in the very first match, we see one amateur be dealt some premium hands and quickly dispense with one of poker's finest players. What is the message? It's all about the cards you're dealt -- exactly what those who oppose poker believe and what those who play seriously know is not the case.

Realizing how lucky he was to win, to beat the expert with such ease, the amateur walked away with his first round winnings and did not try to test his luck any further.

Poker has always had a tough time being accurately reflected in the media. ESPN, which broadcasts the World Series of Poker, distills twelve or more hours of play into at most 40 minutes worth of hands (less after the human interest stories concerning the oldest or most physically challenged player that year). With so few hands shown, it is not surprising that the ones that do make the cut have the biggest visual and visceral impact -- often the big suck outs.

Sadly, it is not riveting TV for most viewers if the player makes the right read, gets it all in with the best hand, and it holds up. But ESPN could show last year's November Niner Scott Montgomery suck out with a brutal one-outer late in the tournament, defeating a player who made a brilliant read, over-and-over. And when they do, it gives support to those who claim, "It's all luck@"

In a courtroom in Pittsburgh today the two sides are once again at it -- is poker illegal gambling or a game of skill exempt from anti-gambling laws. One of the prosecution witnesses says of course poker is gambling -- she testified that "the outcome of the game is determined by your cards." Not surprising, she said she always loses.

Any pro will tell you that if you are only playing your cards, you're missing a least half of the game. And any pro would love nothing more than to play against a player who believes that it's all about the cards.

But when poker winning is shown so often to be a result of a miracle card or a great run of hands, it shouldn't be surprising that there are people out there who believe it. The defense attorneys in Pittsburgh will be bringing in experts (as has been done in other courtrooms around the country) who will enlighten the jury as to the true nature of poker. And it is likely that they will come to the same determination as other juries have recently -- that poker is a lot more about who is playing than what they are dealt.