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.

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