The other day we were playing poker and the topic of whether poker was gambling or not came up. I actually find this to be an interesting debate. Well, truthfully, I should say topic, because I don’t think there is much of a debate. I think a lot of people really want to express that poker is a skill game and they confuse that with gambling. But we will come back to that shortly.
First, poker is most definitely gambling.
According to dictionary.com:
verb (used without object), gam·bled, gam·bling.
1. to play at any game of chance for money or other stakes.
2. to stake or risk money, or anything of value, on the outcome of something involving chance:to gamble on a toss of the dice.
verb (used with object), gam·bled, gam·bling.
3. to lose or squander by betting (usually followed by away ):He gambled all his hard-earned money away in one night.
4. to wager or risk (money or something else of value):to gamble one’s freedom.
5. to take a chance on; venture; risk:I’m gambling that our new store will be a success.
6. any matter or thing involving risk or hazardous uncertainty.
7. a venture in a game of chance for stakes, especially for high stakes.
Acccording to Merrriam Webster:
gam·ble | \ˈgam-bəl \
gambled; gambling\ ˈgam-b(ə-)liŋ \
Definition of gamble
(Entry 1 of 2)
1a: to play a game for money or property
b: to bet on an uncertain outcome
2: to stake something on a contingency (see CONTINGENCY SENSE 1) : take a chance
1: to risk by gambling : WAGER
2: VENTURE, HAZARD
The two primary drivers of gambling are risking something and having an uncertain outcome.
Poker definitely has these two things. Poker is gambling.
I think the more appropriate question should be: Is poker a game of skill?
And I think the answer to this question is definitely yes.
Let’s compare poker to things like craps or roulette, or even slots.
Craps involves rolling two dice. We can use math to determine all the outcomes, whether they are a singular event or a series of events. For example, math tells us that rolling a 7 is more statistically likely than rolling an 8. We can use this same math to determine what the appropriate relationship is between bets. Let’s take the hard 8 as an example. You win if the dice are 4-4 and lose on all other 8s and 7s. We know there are ten combinations that lose and 1 that wins. We also know that the casino offers the price of 9-1 on this bet. While you may win sometimes, or several times, we know in the long run that you aren’t going to. The problem is that you are putting up 10% of the money for a bet that is 9.09% to happen. You lose roughly 9% of the amount you bet.
Roulette involves a ball spinning around and falling into a slot with a number on it. The wheels are fair and every slot is as likely to pay as the next. The problem with this game is that there are 38 slots and you are offered 35-1 that your slot comes up. Not quite enough. 37-1 would be fair. In the short run, you can win, but in the long run, you are in trouble again.
Slots use computers to ensure that they pay out a predetermined amount of money in the long run. Predetermined. Some one sits there and says, I think we should keep 3%? 5%? Maybe 7% of the money wagered. Then they create a payout frequency table that makes that true.
Poker uses a predetermined set of cards. The chances of making a flush are the same for everyone. The same is true of a full house. These are all games where the outcomes are deterministic, or follow some rule of order or probability (either man made or natural).
The way poker differs from these other games is in how the gambling is done. Craps, roulette and slots all have predetermined payout tables that favor the casino in the long run.
Then there is poker. You don’t play against the casino in poker. They haven’t stacked the odds against you. You play against other players. Your skills against theirs. You all have the same chances of being dealt two aces. You all have the same abilities to bet or raise or fold a hand. When you have a flush draw, it comes, on average, at a predictable rate.
But you can make choices about whether to call certain bets, make certain raises or even fold certain hands. This means you can choose to call when you are getting a favorable price and choose not to participate when you are getting a bad price. Each time you get to make a decision, you can try and make the most profitable decision in this spot. This means that you can choose to take risk, or gamble, only when you think you have positive expectancy. In essence you can try to create a situation similar to the casino. You know the right price and offer your opponents a slightly worse price if they want to bet.
Imagine if craps changed the odds randomly and you could bet or not bet after you saw the odds? Suddenly the Hard 8 is getting 15-1. You want to bet. Or it is down to 5-1. You run for the hills. But the casinos don’t do this. They have these games set up with parameters and rules that make it all but impossible for you to win in the long run. Sure, it is true that you can win or lose in the short run. You can win or lose in the short run in poker too. This is what makes all these games gambling.
The differences come in the long term. In casino games, you are a guaranteed loser if you play long enough. No decision you can make will allow you to have the right side of the odds. In poker, your decisions dictate what your long term looks like. If you consistently make better decisions with hand selection, bet sizing, persistence etc. you will out perform your opponents and be a long-term winner.