Vice Squad
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
"Poker is a Skill"

That's the title of an article by Michael A. Dedonno and Douglas K. Detterman in the current issue of Gaming Law Review (which appears, unusually, I believe, to be freely available on the web). The title is also the conclusion of the article -- a conclusion derived from two experiments involving computer-based Texas Hold-em. Two groups of (college student) subjects played hundreds (200 in the first and 720 in the second experiment) of poker hands. One of the groups, after many hands, was provided some instruction about good poker strategy. (In the second experiment, there were two rounds of instruction.) The subjects who received the instruction outperformed those who continued to play untutored. (It seems that the key to improving your play, at least if you are among the uninitiated, is to fold immediately most of the time, generally playing only when your starting cards are strong: "Most poker professionals recommend playing 15% of hands dealt [p. 36]." Sounds a bit dull to me.)

This result is not surprising (although I am not sure that students who receive my economic instruction outperform controls). The potential import of the study comes from the fact that the legality of poker in many jurisdictions rests upon a determination of whether poker is primarily a game of chance or a game of skill. The authors note that in a casino, about 25 hands of poker are dealt in an hour. Their second experiment, with 720 hands, is "equivalent to about 30 hours of casino play [p. 36]." The point is that it takes a rather large number of hands to firmly establish the superior performance of more skilled play. [Here's a paper (10 page pdf) by academic economists providing evidence that skill matters even among highly skilled poker players.]

Vice Squad took an unanticipated and hence unannounced one week blogging break, which coincided with some of finals' week and spring break. Apologies to the loyal Vice Squad reader.

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