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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2007, 15:59 GMT
Does luck or skill make poker ace?
By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News

A hall filled with poker players
Surely these people can't all be feeling lucky?
Poker has been found by a court to be a game of luck as much as skill. Why?

There are plenty of amateur poker players who have entered tournaments on a whim, making it to a high-stakes final and eventually scooping the top prize, beating seemingly huge odds.

A chef and amateur poker player from the Blackpool area, for example, won almost $1m (567,419) in an online competition in 2005, when his previous top winnings were just 28. And there are many others with similar tales to tell.

But was it pure luck that dealt these card sharps the winning hand, or sheer hands of skill?

The questions over whether winning at poker is down to a cool and calculating mind, or just through being presented a fortunate set of cards by the dealer, has arisen following the trial of Derek Kelly, owner of the Gutshot Club in Clerkenwell in central London.

Poker is a game of skill but I can't think of a game, including poker, where luck doesn't come into it
Roy "The Boy" Brindley
Professional player

Mr Kelly was found guilty of two counts of contravening the Gaming Act, because of the poker games he organised and made money from. The law requires that a licence is needed to host games of chance but not games of skill, like chess.

During his trial Mr Kelly protested that poker is indeed a game that requires skill and does not rely on luck, but jurors disagreed.

Certainly when one examines the rules of poker, with its varying types of games such as draw, stud and community card, and all the different variants, the game can simply seem confusing and highly complex.

It hardly seems a game that could simply be down to luck. But then, when the chips are down, what control is there over getting a strong hand, unintentionally, from the dealer?

A poker player
Luck run out?

Roy "The Boy" Brindley is a professional poker player who has won 20 titles over the past four years and who also commentates and writes about the game.

He believes that although skill is a major factor, the element of chance also plays a role in deciding who wins a game of poker.

"Poker is a game of skill but I can't think of a game, including poker, where luck doesn't come into it. We've all had luck in a game before," he said.

"If every game could be attributed purely to skill the same people would win every week. What game is totally skill?

"Poker is a very skilful game and the same skilful players will win a lot, but not all of the time.

"In motor racing, for example, Michael Schumacher was the most skilful driver, but didn't win all of the time.

"But then people say poker is all luck, and it's not like that at all. It's difficult to quantify it, but there is some blending between luck and skill."

With the advent of the internet, playing poker online has become increasingly popular with people from vastly different backgrounds, a development that is welcomed by Mr Brindley.

"Online gaming is good because it allows people to play poker who wouldn't normally get to play, like women, who may not feel comfortable about going into a poker club and sitting down with a table of men.

"But there's a different strategy with the online version because, for example, with a live game you can read your opponent, observe their body language, which is important. A live game does involve more skill."

'Skill element'

Scientist and "very" amateur poker player Simon Singh believes there are several factors in poker which mean that winning is down to more than just luck.

"When you look at any game there's a spectrum. A game of roulette is clearly a game of chance, whereas chess is particularly a game of skill," he said.

"In the middle you have everything else. Cricket, for example, is a game of chance to some extent.

In poker it is possible for someone to be better than someone else, because the game has got an element of skill.
Simon Singh
Amateur player

"It's influenced by who wins the toss and if the weather changes, and you can alter your strategy for that but there are certain factors you can't account for.

"If you're getting fantastic hands at poker all night because of the way the cards are being dealt then that's lucky.

"But in the long run you're all going to get pretty much similar hands. The test is - are some people better at poker than others?

"I can't be consistently better than other people at roulette because there's no way of influencing the outcome of where the ball falls on the roulette wheel.

"But in poker it is possible for someone to be better than someone else, because the game has got an element of skill."

Risks

Mr Singh says there are certain factors that elevate poker above being a mere game of good fortune and is even a useful tool for examining one's character.

"Poker is a very good way of testing how you are as a human being, because it involves a whole range of skills.

"It tests how good you are at taking risks. You have to be aggressive sometimes and back down at others, you have to work out what's in your own head, use psychology to read your opponents through their behaviour.

"It involves so many aspects and that's what says poker is not just a game of luck."




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