Poker is a billion dollar industry. It has been estimated that the annual turnaround for online poker worldwide is a staggering three billion dollar business. And with the continued increase in technology and WiFi availability, this market is only expected to grow even further.

One question continues to surround poker: Is it a game of chance or is it a game of skill?

According to Merriam-Webster, “poker” is about chance: “A game (such as a dice game) in which chance rather than skill determines the outcome”.

Of course, knowing the full house poker hand rankings will certainly give you an advantage over lesser experienced players. Being able to read cards should make a difference in how you play each hand.

The critical defining characteristic for the game of poker is which outweighs the other, chance or skill? This definition applies to the average player. It is indisputable that, in contrast to pure games of chance, such as roulette, skill does play a role in poker.

Therefore, poker is a mixture of both skill and luck. The difficulty lies in measuring which
predominates. Several studies have already been carried out on this, but they all have
methodological shortcomings. The ratio of skill to chance could not be determined exactly in any of the previous publications.

Poker continues to lie in between games of chance and skill and its classification as games of chance or skill remains a political question. An answer potentially has major legal implications. Playing at online casinos in America for example, is only legal in some states. Florida is an example where you cannot play at an online casino based within the state but you can if it is based overseas. The game’s claim to being based on skill have shaped legislation for years. Players in the United Kingdom currently pay no tax on their winnings, allowing professionals a better chance to make a living from it.

This is not the case in all countries, however. There are much tougher jurisdictions in most US states for example. Online poker has essentially been classified as illegal since the passing of the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.

All of this could be subject to change should policymakers find evidence that show the opposite. Regardless, the American legal system has already tried arguing the case numerous times, with judgments upheld time and time again.

The question of whether poker is a game of skill or chance has predominantly been coming up ever since its growth in popularity around 2004, coinciding with tournament poker filling vacant television space in the United States and abroad due to the NHL season cancellation as a result of a player’s strike.

In a 2013 quasi-experimental study by Gerhard Meyer, Marc von Meduna, Tim Brosowski and Tobias Hayer, 300 participants were split into ‘expert’ and ‘non-expert’ groups, based on whether each person had an interest in poker or not.

The players then played 60 hands of Texas Hold’em where the deals were fixed so players were consistently getting good, bad and neutral hands. Ultimately, the researchers found there wasn’t much difference in the final split of chips that the experts accrued compared to their less experienced opponents. In other words, they had a strong argument for saying poker is a game of luck.

However, even this experiment wasn’t conclusive. Poker experts use a variety of strategies to get an advantage over their opponents across the table or across the internet, and the strategies will vary for both mediums.

An expert poker player (online or offline) can ‘read’ their ‘opponents’ body language, play loose or tight at the start of the game depending on their own playing style and what they see the rest of the table do, and rely on experience and pattern-recognition to call a bluff or bully the pot when the moment calls for it.

Experience plays a major role, so does the ability to mask your intentions and change up your playing style if the situation calls for it. And then there’s the all-important factor – what’s at stake? When you’re playing tournaments with low stakes or in a situation where the stakes don’t matter (like many casual home games), players tend not to care about the theory and will play hard more frequently. The higher (and more real) the stakes, the more conservative the player will usually go.

Therefore, the answer to the original question, although not conclusive, weighs heavily in the favor of ability. Poker is much more than a game of luck, even if luck will always play a major role in winning or losing.


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