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."

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